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Aiming for a bestseller


Writing The Molecular Biology of the Gene
James Watson Scientist
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That grew out of teaching ten lectures in Biology Two, and, when I gave lectures, I essentially outlined them and had some instead of a word like PH I would, you know, have a sentence. And then, I had long come to the conclusion that you cannot think and write at the same time, and so you can't understand a lecture if you're taking down notes. And so students shouldn't take notes, and so I passed out lecture notes. The students still took notes even though I passed out the lecture notes, but the lecture notes would be, you know, what you should know to pass the exam.

There was at that stage no textbook on DNA and so the molecular biology, or some of the middle chapters, came out of the lecture notes, and then I thought, you should write a couple of chapters of introduction so a physicist or chemist might be able to read the book. So you should give a 15-page summary of the great moments in Mendelian genetics or give, you know, 15-20 pages which summarize the basic facts of metabolism of how cells get and use energy. And then I realized you probably should have a chapter on how molecules fold up in three dimensions. So I ended up I think with five introductory chapters which were not in my lecture notes but were trying to broaden the readership, so if you were a physicist and wanted to read it you get the basic principles and you didn't need to know any more detail. So that proved to be... and then that was that.

So I started it... you know, the book started out with DNA, I mean my courses started out with, but then I realized, no, that's not the way to start the book. The book should start with Darwin and put DNA in perspective to what Darwin and Mendelian where we were, say, in 1945, and it wasn't, I was writing The Molecular Biology of the Gene and The Double Helix at the same time, so I remember writing the first pages of The Molecular Biology of the Gene in October. It was an awful October. All right, it was October 1963 when Kennedy was killed so that's when I started it and no, I wrote the first chapter at the end of August. I was going out to Australia and they wanted some material and I thought, oh, I can it would be a way to go into a book. And so I tried to write a one page you know, first paragraph on Darwin and then go on, and I wanted to write... I wanted to write literature so I wanted it to not sound like the average biology text but write it as if it's the Bible or something like that.

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 Molecular Biology of the Gene, The Double Helix, 1963, Charles Darwin

Duration: 4 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010