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Complementarity and my place in history


Consequences and fear
James Watson Scientist
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The consequence of, you know, winning is you get a better job. If I hadn't found the DNA structure I wouldn't have got a job at Harvard. And if I hadn't got to Harvard I wouldn't have had all those good graduate students. So the chance that I would really have had a... more than successful career has depended at each stage on winning.

[Q] Could I ask what I have, to me the central question? When you and Francis found the structure, how quickly did you see all the consequences?

You know, what that meant for you personally, what it meant for biology, for science. Oh, 60 seconds, instant. Because it was the answer we had, without having it we talked about complementarity, it was complementarity. So it was replication. Yeah, I mean it was... you don't have to be bright at all to know that you'll have an answer so much better. But you know we would say, what if it was a dull as collagen? You know, three-stranded was pretty, you know, unless you had base-pairing rules between the three strands or something like, which could have lead to something.

[Q] But what about for you personally? Seeing...

Oh, sure. But I would get a girlfriend and, you know, get a Nobel Prize. Maybe I should get the Nobel Prize first, but eventually... No, that was just instantaneous. But... so, the first... in fact, the second emotion was fear. What if it's not right? Because suddenly there was everything out there to get, and what if I... even though it was the perfect structure, it wasn't right? And I think I would sometimes needlessly tell Francis, 'Maybe it's not right'. Because, you know, I didn't want to jinx myself in a sense. Whereas Francis just saw it, of course, as perfect and he should... You know, and while we... what didn't matter if it was right or wrong, it was so perfect. You know, it should be right. So... it would take you a half hour probably you were dumb.

[Q] How long did the fear last?

A month. Yeah, we wrote it up and it was out, you know. We weren't really... certainly the first one was after, you know, we saw Rosalind's beautiful manuscript with the Bessel functions and her data agreed so well with it. That was... that was, I think, the first. There was a fear, you know, for the first week the base-pairing work which you couldn't get the... all the atoms to fit together with good contacts. But I... I don't think we ever, you know, gave that more than a couple per cent chance. It just looked like you could do it.

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: Martin Raff Walter Gratzer

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



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

Tags: Rosalind Franklin

Duration: 4 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010