Thursday, April 6, 2017

Birthday: "One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid."


James Dewey Watson (1928-  )
Scientist, author

James Watson is 89 years old today. The son of Scots-Irish parents in Chicago, he wanted to be an ornithologist. He entered the University of Chicago at fifteen; at eighteen he read a book on the origins of life by Erwin Schrodinger and switched his studies to genetics.

At 22 he had his Ph.D; at 25 he and a Cambridge University colleague, Francis Crick, published a paper detailing the structure of the DNA molecule- the “building block” of life on earth.

When he was 34, Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize for their discovery.

That was in 1962. In the ensuing fifty-plus years, Watson has pursued two interwoven goals: a cure for cancer, and to become the most loathsome individual ever to win a Nobel.

There are strong competitors to be sure: Kary Mullin (Chemistry, 1993) is an AIDS denialist who seeks his insights through LSD tabs and has written of his encounters with aliens who appear before him in the form of glowing, talking raccoons. William Shockley (Physics, 1956) parlayed a career in semiconductor research into an attempt to breed humans like purebred animals, championing a revived form of eugenics and establishing a sperm bank for geniuses.

Watson, however, seems to be the most catholic in the holding, and championing, of retrograde views. As Mark Strauss wrote in National Geographic in 2015,

James Watson is a category unto himself. The co-discoverer of the structure of DNA doesn't miss an opportunity to offend.

Among his more frequently-expressed ideas are these:

During a lecture at Berkeley, he suggested there are biochemical links between sexual libido and skin color (“That’s why you have Latin lovers.”) and between body weight and ambition. He declared in an interview that “some anti-Semitism is justified.” He never gave credit to Rosalind Franklin, whose work with X-ray crystallography made his discovery possible—though he made it a point to criticize her appearance and taste in clothing.

He has been quoted in The Sunday Telegraph, 1997, as stating: "If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn't want a homosexual child, well, let her.”The biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a letter to The Independent claiming that Watson's position was misrepresented by The Sunday Telegraph article, and that Watson would equally consider the possibility of having a heterosexual child to be just as valid as any other reason for abortion, to emphasise that Watson is in favor of allowing choice.
On the issue of obesity, Watson has also been quoted as saying, 2000: "Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them.

While speaking at a conference in 2000, Watson had suggested a link between skin color and sex drive, hypothesizing that dark-skinned people have stronger libidos. His lecture argued that extracts of melanin – which gives skin its color – had been found to boost subjects' sex drive. "That's why you have Latin lovers," he said, according to people who attended the lecture. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English Patient."

Watson has repeatedly supported genetic screening and genetic engineering in public lectures and interviews, arguing that stupidity is a disease and the "really stupid" bottom 10% of people should be cured. He has also suggested that beauty could be genetically engineered, saying in 2003, "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."

Watson spent twenty years on the faculty at Harvard, a period noteworthy less for anything he discovered than for his endless feuds with colleagues and the books he wrote. He reimagined the genre of science textbooks to great success; he also published a memoir of his DNA research, The Double Helix, in 1968.

A racy feast of spite and gossip, The Double Helix was a bestseller and remains in print. It changed the way the work of science is perceived: not as an empyrean realm of pure thought for noble goals, but as a Darwinian wilderness, red in tooth and claw. In his time only the dispute between Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier over discovery of the AIDS virus is its equal for ambition, bile and drama, but Crick holds the prize for the novelistic brio of his account. The author Tim Radford has written,

I can think of no comparable first person account that presents the excitement and compulsion of scientific pursuit, and at the same time all the attendant resentment, awkwardness and bile that rides along with a fear, not of failure, but simply of not being first.

The Double Helix was initially slated for publication by Harvard, but after Francis Crick, who shared the Nobel with Watson, and others on their team saw drafts, their protests were so strong the university passed the hot brick off to a commercial publisher. "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood,” it begins, this from the author whose working title was Honest Jim. One US reviewer called the book undeniably brilliant, but also unbelievably mean-spirited.

Watson’s treatment of Rosalind Franklin, whose work Watson and Crick appropriated was misogynist and condescending; she died in 1958, forfeiting a share of the Nobel and freeing Crick to vent a decade later. Forty years on, another review rued, “The passages about Rosalind Franklin remain as cruel as ever, and the initial offence is not much redeemed by Watson's rueful placatory epilogue.”

In 1968 Watson joined the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, moving there full time in 1976. He refocused its work on cancer research, attractive massive funding grants, and  built it into a world-leading research facility. He became its president in 1994 and chancellor in 2004.

From 1988 to 1992 Watson directed the Human Genome Project of the National Institutes of Health, resigning after clashes with its director over, among other things, his investments in companies with an interest in his research. He moved to Craig Ventner’s private DNA sequencing project and  clashed with him as well, calling him a “Hitler” on his way to the exit.

Radford reported,

In his later years he would consent to press briefings – usually on important anniversaries – and then, with long pauses and enigmatic mumbles, say almost nothing.

This was not because he was self-effacing or disliked controversy. He would say almost nothing, one sensed, because he couldn't be bothered with stupid questions from stupid people. He has made it clear more than once that this is his default attitude.

A second memoir, Genes, Girls and Gamow, reads like the plot summary of a season on “The Big Bang Theory”:

Here is Watson in the new book recalling an early visit to the California Institute of Technology: “In the evenings we would often go into central Pasadena to a restaurant where we had earlier spotted two striking blondes about my age. They, however, never reappeared.” Nor did a drive to the beach “prove more fruitful for girl-gazing. But at least by then I had accomplished my summer lab objective of showing that peroxide-treated phages had biological properties identical to those killed by X-ray-irradiated phage lysates.”

Soon after, we find the young scientist at dinner in Copenhagen pleased not to be seated near the great Niels Bohr, “who was likely to be expressing thoughts that no one around him, Danish or foreign, could understand.” In another scene, Watson, now 34, is off to Stockholm to receive a Nobel Prize. But wouldn’t you know it: At the royal banquet, other laureates, including Crick and John Steinbeck, get to sit with Swedish princesses. Watson is seated by two honorees’ wives. Later on, he manages to steer the youngest princess, Christina, to enroll at Radcliffe while he’s at Harvard. He waltzes with her one night, but she discovers he can’t dance.

Imagine more than 300 pages of this. Gossiping at the Piping Rock Club on Long Island with a Neiman Marcus heiress. Sleeping over at Abby Rockefeller’s and admiring Daddy’s Derain. Motoring to a book party at Woods Hole, Mass., “with a pretty Radcliffe senior with short blond hair called Joshie Pashler, who also had something to celebrate in the recent discovery of her first RNA phage R17 mutant.”

At 79, Watson produced a third memoir, Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science, and became the second person in the world to publish his entire DNA sequence online. HIs book tour was a self-congratulatory exercise in clueless jabber. As one British interviewer wrote,

'He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”'.

In a 2008 BBC documentary, Watson said: "I have never thought of myself as a racist. I don't see myself as a racist. I am mortified by it. It was the worst thing in my life." He later explained that he is  “not a racist in a conventional way”.

As the hosts of future stops on the tour began cancelling, Watson killed the tour and flew home, where the Cold Spring Lab’s board stripped him of his duties but left him his title. He retired two weeks later but couldn’t keep quiet for long.

In December 2014, Watson auctioned off his Nobel medal, claiming he could not get funding for his research because the science community shunned him for his honesty. A Russian oligarch bought it for $4.1 million and gave it back to Watson, expressing the desire that the money go to research. Watson was foxy, The Guardian wrote:

Before the auction, Watson said he was selling the medal to raise money for the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, from where he was suspended as chancellor after he claimed that black people were not as intelligent as whites.

Watson has been widely condemned for making sexist remarks too. He also raised the possibility of using the funds to buy a Hockney painting.

In a 1984 book, the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson summed up Watson’s conflicting legacy:

Without a trace of irony I can say I have been blessed with brilliant enemies.  They made me suffer (after all, they were enemies), but I owe them a great debt, because they redoubled my energies and drove me in new directions.  We need such people in our creative lives. As John Stuart Mill once put it, both teachers and learners fall asleep at their posts when there is no enemy in the field.

James Dewey Watson, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, served as one such adverse hero for me. When he was a young man, in the 1950s and 1960s, I found him the most unpleasant human being I had ever met.

At department meetings Watson radiated contempt in all directions. He shunned ordinary courtesy and polite conversation, evidently in the belief that they would only encourage the traditionalists to stay around. His bad manners were tolerated because of the greatness of the discovery he had made, and because of its gathering aftermath. In the 1950s and 1960s the molecular revolution had begun to run through biology like a flash flood. Watson, having risen to historic fame at an early age, became the Caligula of biology. He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously. And unfortunately, he did so, with a casual and brutal offhandedness. In his own mind apparently he was Honest Jim, as he later called himself in the manuscript title of his memoir of the discoveryóbefore changing it to The Double Helix. Few dared call him openly to account.

Actually, I cannot honestly say I knew Jim Watson at all.  The skirmish over Smithís appointment was only one of a half-dozen times he and I spoke directly to each other during his twelve years at Harvard and in the period immediately following. On one occasion, in October 1962, I offered him my hand and said, "Congratulations, Jim, on the Nobel Prize. It is a wonderful event for the whole department." He replied, "Thank you." End of conversation. On another occasion, in May 1969, he extended his hand and said, "Congratulations, Ed, on your election to the National Academy of Sciences." I replied, "Thank you very much, Jim." I was delighted by this act of courtesy.

At least there was no guile in the man. Watson evidently felt, at one level, that he was working for the good of science, and a blunt tool was needed. Have to crack eggs to make an omelet, and so forth. What he dreamed at a deeper level I never knew. I am only sure that had his discovery been of lesser magnitude he would have been treated at Harvard as just one more gifted eccentric, and much of his honesty would have been publicly dismissed as poor judgement.  But people listened carefully, and a few younger colleagues aped his manners, for the compelling reason that the deciphering of the DNA molecule with Francis Crick towered over all that the rest of us had achieved and could ever hope to achieve. It came like a lightning flash, like knowledge from the gods. The Prometheus of the drama were Jim Watson and Francis Crick, and not just by a stroke of good luck either. Watson-Crick possessed extraordinary brilliance and initiative. It is further a singular commentary on the conduct of science that (according to Watson in a later interview) no other qualified person was interested in devoting full time to the problem.

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