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Not trying to win a Nobel Prize


The film of the book
James Watson Scientist
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After I wrote The Double Helix, the question came up almost immediately: could you make a movie out of it? And it was finally only done by the BBC in sort of stealth. They never let me know, or Francis, that it was being made. They obtained the assistance of Aaron Klug from Cambridge so they could have a sort of DNA model, and they I forget who did the script. It wasn't very good, I didn't think. I was played by Jeff Goldblum, the American actor, who's played sort of someone who's always orthogonal to everyone else, sort of highly intelligent but sort of morose. And they were inspired for Rosalind Franklin, they chose Juliet Stevenson who did a good job, and for Francis they chose the actor Tim Pigott-Smith, who'd been in Jewel in the Crown as Sergeant Merrick. So when you saw Francis in the movie, you thought of Sergeant Merrick, and he doesn't have a great booming voice. You know, you needed a Peter O'Toole type to do Francis correctly, and so I heard Jeff Goldblum came across as the dominant person and Francis as rather a minor sidekick.

And so... and then they made this story that the, it was just a pursuit of the Nobel Prize, so which made me sort of uncomfortable watching it because they were putting words into our mouths which weren't correct. We were, you know, in pursuit of doing good science. If you did good science, you might get a Nobel Prize but, you know, people don't get Nobel Prizes by trying to get Nobel Prizes, they get them by doing good science. And in my book, you know, at the very end, I mention, oh well, we've seen Peter's father for a Noble Prize. But that's the way the Pauling family talk, so it was just between Peter and I. But we weren't thinking of the Nobel Prize, we were more or less thinking, you know, what can we do to prevent Linus Pauling from getting it first? And Linus really didn't enter into the film. There was a version shown in England, a shorter version in the United States.

I... afterwards I dreamed that the movie should have been made as a parody of Chariots of Fire in which we were instead of racing for God, we were racing against God, but as Francis and I are a major motivation was to show that you have life without a God to direct it, that is, if you got to the essence of genes which we thought was resided in the essence of the molecule DNA, you could begin to understand how life exists. And well, you know, the answer we got was much better and spectacular than we ever imagined. But when I first saw the movie I intensely disliked it, but now when I see it, I don't mind it at all because it's so far back, and I got used to Jeff Goldblum. I'd imagined myself played by John McEnroe. I'd have been much more... a sort of Irish hothead rather than a cerebral Jewish intellectual, and we regarded God right because I want to start the movie, Chariots of Fire starts in a movie and I wanted to start this movie in a church. So tha, is in Westminster Abbey, by telling Francis I was going to take him to show him where we were going to be buried, because Chariots of Fire starts with the... with the death of one of these Olympic runners and so I thought that we should do a church. And, of course, in one sense the only appropriate place for Francis and I, our ashes to reside, is in the floor of Westminster Abbey next to Darwin, because that's sort of we were the next step beyond Darwin.

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: Chariots of Fire, The Double Helix, Jewel in the Crown, Westminster Abbey, Aaron Klug, Jeff Goldblum, Rosalind Franklin, Juliet Stevenson, Tim Pigott-Smith, Linus Pauling, Charles Darwin

Duration: 5 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010