James Watson, DNA Pioneer, visits Sydney

James Watson gave a free lecture “Discovering the Double Helix: Going for Gold!” at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre last Tuesday evening. Who is James Watson? From Wikipedia:

James Dewey Watson (born April 6, 1928) is an American molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist, best known as one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA in 1953 with Francis Crick. Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”.’

The lecture was delivered on short notice, barely advertised, so I was lucky to find out early before all seats were taken.


Just before the lecture

The lecture room was absolutely full. The speaker who introduced Watson to the audience remarked that it was by chance that this event was happening. The story is that he heard that Watson was in Sydney, didn’t let the opportunity go away so asked Watson to speak while he was here, which he agreed to do.


Speaker introduces Watson

Watson spoke in a manner that could be expected from a late octogenarian (he turned 88 this week), slowly winding his way through the talk, reflecting on the past, filling his script continuously with humour targeted at youth and going endlessly on tangents.


Promoting his books

He described his childhood and undergraduate studies in Illinois and PhD from Indiana University, going through little pearls of wisdom he acquired on the way. He said one shouldn’t do undergraduate studies from elite universities like Harvard or Cambridge since the professors there don’t want to teach, they just want to do research. But when he was at Harvard he wrote one of the first textbooks on molecular biology and paid attention to teaching, asking students to avoid writing lecture notes and follow the book instead (they still wrote them). He was rejected from Caltech for PhD but Indiana accepted him and it was great as it had ‘the best basketball team in the country’. But his PhD thesis was ‘awful’.


PhD Advice

He said he was inspired to research genetics after reading Erwin Schrödinger’s ‘What is Life?’, though he thought the last few chapters were not worth reading.


Schrödinger’s ‘What is Life?’ inspired Watson towards DNA research

Indeed at the time there was no genetics research as we know it, since the DNA structure had not been found before Watson and Crick! According to Watson, ideas about genetic information were lead by physicists and Schrödinger had the right intuition. Watson said he visited Niels Bohr’s group in Copenhagen after his PhD, the physicists he met incorrectly thought that natural laws had to be changed to explain genetic information (which resembles the view one sometimes finds that quantum physics is required to explain consciousness). He also met Leo Szilard, discoverer of the nuclear chain reaction, and biophysicist Max Delbruck, who initiated microbiology research in the USA.


“Avoid boring people”, “Science is highly social”

Eventually he went to Cambridge to work in Cavendish Lab, lead by Lawrence Bragg, where he met Francis Crick. Watson said Crick had a very loud voice which Bragg couldn’t stand so he was made to work in a closed room with Watson, and even banned Watson and Crick from studying DNA for a year. The lecture went into the intricate details of the path to discovery, the competition with Linus Pauling and input from Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins.


Rosalind Franklin, famous for her X-ray photos of DNA

Some solid statements Watson made in the lecture:

-Linus Pauling stole a discovery from Crick one evening, made Watson realise great men also cheat

-Pauling proposed a wrong model for DNA.. Watson can’t believe he contradicted basic chemistry. Bragg subsequently allowed Watson and Crick to research DNA again to discover the right model before Pauling (Intense competition existed between Pauling and Bragg’s Cambridge group. “Like Ted Cruz, Pauling was loved by the students but hated by the faculty” (sic))

-Even though Franklin got the X-ray photos of DNA she ‘didn’t understand crystallography’ and didn’t interact with other scientists about her work, so she made the wrong judgement that DNA isn’t a helix


Franklin’s postcard to Wilkins showing her initial rejection of DNA helix

Watson eventually got to his discovery, saying that on a Saturday morning Crick came into their office and in about an hour they got the correct structure of DNA. Their results were accepted into the journal Nature and it was good times after that. Watson basically concluded with: I went for gold, I got it, I beat Pauling and that’s what matters.

Only one question was allowed from the audience after the lecture, that question was ‘Did you aim to win the Nobel Prize?’ and Watson answered that he aimed to discover DNA structure, once he did that he knew it would get a Nobel Prize, so indirectly: yes.

I’ve ignored an important detail of the lecture. Throughout the talk Watson made comments like:

-Don’t say anything you’re not sure about. I’ve said things I didn’t want to get public but the media gets hold of it..Political correctness is a big problem in the US, you have no idea how easy you have it here…right now it’s not possible for white males to win

– Leave your girlfriend if you find someone prettier. I went for the prettiest girl. DNA!…..[insert uni] had really pretty girls. [insert uni] didn’t have pretty girls.

-I never kept a diary. Diaries are for girls.

-…I think my politically views are inherited. I don’t like Hillary Clinton. Her parents were Republican, maybe that explains why she takes a lot of money.

Such comments made way for awkward silences and laughter at his rambling speech. But more seriously, Watson has been reported to have linked race with intelligence, a move which has cost him his reputation and job. The media hype around this has led him to become a scientific outcast, he even sold his Nobel Prize medal since he felt he had lost respect. He was in good humour in the lecture though, probably feeling great that he can still bring a packed house.

In a striking coincidence, almost exactly 10 years ago on the 4th April 2006, Watson gave this talk to Google:

This talk was about a year before he made the comment that has ruined his reputation. It seems his viewpoint is: there is environmental influence on our behaviour (here he focuses on autism) but this is hard to measure so we should first exhaust all means to explore genetic influences. He feels this is good for humanity since parents, or a whole culture, might be unjustly blamed for lack of intellectual progress of children when actually genes may be the cause. But I believe that environmental influence on human mind is not so hard to track for individuals, and history shows that certain communities have been suppressed more than others due to clear external factors, both natural and social. Great progress derives principally from philosophy; I’m skeptical that philosophy is genetically inherited.

Watson’s contributions to mankind are comparable to few on our planet. Back in 2004, when I was 12, I was engrossed in learning biology and requested a free poster from the Human Genome Project (initially headed by Watson) website.. I recall my joy at receiving it in the mail, a letter coming all the way from USA with a bundle of priceless information about humanity’s genetic code.

I’ll end with this piece of advice he gave in the lecture:

“Always seek help when panicking..don’t do everything yourself, be friends with people who are smarter than you so they can do the work for for you…I didn’t learn math, I had Crick. I only learnt the Krebs Cycle last year”


The famous photo of Watson (left) & Crick, inspiration for Future scientists. Watson said the model in the picture was destroyed due to lack of space in the room.

Memory of a special event.

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6 Responses to James Watson, DNA Pioneer, visits Sydney

  1. Bojenn says:

    I really liked your post because I am mesmerized by DNA and RNA and I will reblog, if you don’t mind?

    Thanks so much.

  2. Bojenn says:

    Reblogged this on Boondoggling with Bojenn and commented:
    I really liked your post because I am mesmerized by DNA and RNA and I will reblog, if you don’t mind?

    Thanks so much.

  3. helloparth says:

    Feel free to reblog any of my posts, thanks!

  4. Batman says:

    good post!

    p.s. “I’m skeptical that philosophy is genetically inherited.”…true, but the capacity for it probably is.

    • helloparth says:

      Thanks, Batman. Yes, capacity is inherited (in the extreme case we can say animals or humans with brain damage don’t have the capacity). I mean it’s not so hard to find the link between progress and philosophy, and its external sources (like social values, exposure to more resources, in the individual case maybe an event in one’s life). Take Watson: he read Schroedinger’s ‘What is Life?’ and this directed him to study DNA. Now I think the most significant thing here is that he was lucky to get his hands on that book, and in read it in good circumstances (I mean say having free time in youth, not specifically genetic) to absorb its content thoroughly (except maybe the last few chapters hehe).

  5. Pingback: Future: Places | What's (in) the picture?

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