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Going to Caltech and working on RNA


The Double Helix and Cambridge
James Watson Scientist
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I wrote it wanting it to be a classic. I like words, you know, I was... and for a while I would sort of kid myself I could be a presidential speech writer, you know, sort of trying to actually say something while not being too heavy. So with Double Helix I really did try and say important things, such as, most scientists are dull. Now, that sounds a catty remark, but it's true. You know, it's not as if you're... you go into a room where there's scientists and exciting. You know, they're very cautious people and so, you know, calling them dull is just putting... it's sort of trying to catch the mood of trying to do science at the frontier where you don't quite know what to do next, and so you're bound to make mistakes and maybe even offend people and have a self-confidence that you shouldn't convey, but it was the only way you could survive. You know, you can't be filled with doubts when you might be eaten by a crocodile the next day. You've got to believe you know where you're going.

And, so I wanted to write a classic. I never thought, you know, it would be listed among the great books of the 20th century, but then, when I see the others, I think it belongs there, you know, but because, unlike many stories which essentially get dated, this story was... 300 years from now people will want to know the story. And so I tried to... Cambridge was just the... it was an extraordinary place in the '50s. You know, Francis was the only one like Francis but, in their own way, there were just some extraordinary talented people there going about doing very important science. And there's no place in the world as beautiful as Cambridge. And the colleges are remarkable, and the set of manners within the college is so... yeah, I'd say they're much more gracious than stuffy.

[Q] Did they come to like the book, Cambridge folks, in the end?

I think so. The only Cambridge has always had a big objection to me which was that I was famous before I was dead. And...

[Q] Before you were 30.

The English don't know really how to... you know, at the 40th anniversary of the DNA structure, Prince Philip came and they put a plaque up on the wall and that was... there was a lot of sort of solemn-faced Cambridge people there saying it shouldn't be done, that you never honored the living. You might make a mistake and just... much safer to honor Newton or Darwin, and putting Crick and Watson up there was just, I think it made some of them mad. And so I don't like to go back to Cambridge any more because the only way they can think of me is dead. You know, they've put a plaque outside the Eagle and Cambridge, in its own way, everyone is strictly equal and, you know, double helix isn't like any other discovery. They know it, I know it and I understand them and so I'm much more at ease in Oxford which doesn't identify me, doesn't have to honor me and, trouble is, Oxford's not quite as beautiful.

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: The Double Helix, Cambridge, Oxford, Francis Crick, Charles Darwin, James Newton

Duration: 4 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010