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Irrationalism and fundamentalism


Leó Szilárd and thinking ahead
James Watson Scientist
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[Q] I would say this is... what you’re admiring in him, is one of your unique qualities.

Well, that’s maybe why I like him, because he was one of the few who thinks this way. But, I think if you’re concerned with, you know, preventing disasters, or you know, saving civilization, you’ve got to think in terms of probabilities and not certainties. He was just, you know, he could be, was often wrong, but he was, he almost... see, our brain is organized so what whatever we do, we associate it with where we are. Almost everything has a hippocampal location, as well as something else. So, the... it’s so important to know where you are. So... now, everything we learn should be, at the same time, given a probability. And, most people don’t think that way. Just, what is the probability? They wait until it’s a fact, whereas sometimes, most things ahead of you are probabilities.

[Q] So, that’s an important point, because people are very bad at assessing probabilities. But, do you think that...

So, you know, I guess now they wouldn’t say probability, they would just say basing on analysis, the new way of, but, it’s the same thing.

[Q] But, that enables you to see ahead, because you’re assessing probabilities as you would in a chess match?

Yes. Yeah, you’re trying to yeah, predict six moves ahead. And, so and, that’s what a lot of people are afraid to do because they don’t want to be wrong. If they never try to go from B to C, from A, then they never make a mistake. Whereas, the other is admitting that you’ve made mistakes all along the line. Whereas, I think the human temperament is... doesn’t like uncertainty.

[Q] But, when you predict ahead in picking an area to invest in, say the Cold Spring Harbor, do you consciously go through, and, A, B, C, D, assessing what would happen if, what would happen if, what if I?

No, no, no. I don’t, you know, I’ve never put this But, I, I think that way, yes. You know...

[Q] Do you play chess?

No. It’s too much work. You know, I life is a chess game, for me, so I don’t need... you know I’ve played... yeah, I’ve played life as a chess game. So, yeah. So, to me, that is the greatest feeling of most of the people I know, is they’re... it’s too restrictive of what they think about. And so, I like to think ahead, and then I realize that you can’t succeed unless you make the odds bigger than they probably are. You know, the chance that this will happen, because, unless there’s a reasonable chance, you don’t get worried. You know, you’ve got a... so you’re both most optimistic, you know, I don’t like to do anything, unless it’s to have a 20% chance of succeeding. You know, I wouldn’t want to hit a tennis ball with a 1% chance. Now, I aim for the line, but I actually think I have no chance of hitting the line, after many years of trying to practice toward hitting the line. But...

So, I see life, you know, and, that probably helps, you know, I’m so miserably helped by not having religion, and anything else that might cause something to happen.

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

Duration: 5 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010