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Going to Indiana University


Deciding to be a scientist
James Watson Scientist
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I think, you had to have, you know, something which gave the instructions for life, so when you didn't have God, you know, if you had God you could just – you didn't have to be curious, it solved everything. If you didn't have God, you know, something had to make the pea plants different and Mendel had shown, you know, there was the gene. So it seemed to be the only causation. I don't remember, you know, having any discussions about religion once I got to the university. I think it was just taken for granted that He didn't exist, so it wasn't worth discussing. Or, you know, I wouldn't have had friends who were that way, and so, yes, you couldn't, you know, Darwin didn't replace God, so Darwin was just generally... it happened, but I don't remember, Darwin then being treated with the reverence he is today. Yes, evolution, you know, well, prefer a whole day in writing all the books, he was just a historical figure, and he got it right and no one questioned it. So, I was never, as a boy, very interested, you know, in the past very much – it was always the future, you know, what we mean to be, because you know, scientists were people who did new things. Just writing about the past wouldn't be as exciting as discovering the future.

[Q] But when did you decide you were going to be a scientist?

I think by the time I was 17; I think my chief uncertainty was my low IQ.

[Q] Because the number you saw?

Yeah, the number was too low to be equated with great success, and that you didn't have to be a mathematical whiz to be a naturalist, whereas in those days there was a real hierarchy of brains. Maybe mathematics at the top, then physics, but physics has become so important that mathematics was, sort of, put off to the side. The heroes in those days were the physicists, and then below them were the chemists, and the biologists were, you know, microbe hunters or something, and that seemed sufficiently exciting that was I was, you know... that Pasteur didn't use mathematics and made a success. So I... at Chicago I did take one, a physics course, and I actually got an A, and I was really surprised with that. Maybe, you know, if I had... had the right teachers and started in the right way, you know, I would have felt at ease, but I never really did.

[Q] Did you have as much curiosity about the physical world as you did about biology?

No. I mean, biology just seemed, well, it was... human behavior was more... it was easy to be curious about, and... but birds, when you know, initially it was just spotting rare birds, and as I say, but most guys, most bird watchers… not seeing the beauty of a bird, but seeing one that's unusual for the day. So, there was a beak... you know, just lists that, but then I, you know, really did enjoy, particularly since we didn't have enough money... to leave this outside. The vision of living, you know, of being in national parks or... and mountains or beautiful beaches, that was romantic for me, you know, whereas there was absolutely no beauty in the south side of Chicago – absolutely none, you could go down to the... see some of the initial Chicago skyscrapers, the Chicago Tribune building, or a regular tower, there's something about, I don't remember, my ever, you know, seeing, thinking of myself as ever dominated by aesthetics. I think it would've been very bad when you had no money to... people paid too much attention to how things looked.

[Q] So the lake was not a part of your life?

No, though the University of Chicago with its sort of imitation of Oxford buildings, you know, the collegiate gothic in the American campus, was something we all sort of aspired to, I don't really know the words, and you know, and never... can say, did I ever, in Chicago or looked at a church and said, 'Oh, it looks good', or something like that. You know, I saw them more as teaching the irrelevant, or appreciating the irrelevant, so I couldn't dissociate, you know, religion from what was happening. You know, my father very much saw religion as the enemy of progress and of superstition, and used by the rich people who give purpose to poor people's lives.

American molecular biologist James Dewey Watson is probably best known for discovering the structure of DNA for which he was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His long career has seen him teaching at Harvard and Caltech, and taking over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson was head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. His current research focuses on the study of cancer.

Listeners: Walter Gratzer Martin Raff

Walter Gratzer is Emeritus Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at King's College London, and was for most of his research career a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council. He is the author of several books on popular science. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard and has known Jim Watson since that time

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Tags: science, religion, evolution, biology, aesthetics, God

Duration: 7 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010