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James Watson recruits us to write Molecular Biology of the Cell

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Why James Watson is so special
Martin Raff Scientist
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Jim is an amazing character because… and even be unique. I mean, here is somebody in his 20s, early 20s made a discovery that became apparent to him immediately that this was one of the great discoveries of all time. So imagine you’re 23 or four years old and you’ve made a discovery that you know will live forever – well, as long as there are people. I mean, you would think this guy would be pretty weird and actually he isn’t. He’s remarkably normal and yet he will tell you that he knew immediately that he’s going to be like Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton, you know. You know that in your 20s? I mean, that’s a pretty amazing thing.

So he also, like Av, of course having made a discovery like this you don’t have to do anything else, it doesn’t matter. So he, like Av, didn’t put his name on his students’ and postdocs’ papers and so it’s very hard to link his students to Watson. So I would say having come to know him reasonably well, because we have been co-authors of this book that has taken a lot of our time, the thing that distinguishes Jim… I mean he, like many others, is brilliant, but what he has that even brilliant people don’t often have is the ability to see ahead. I… it’s amazing to me. He’s not always right, but he’s been spectacularly right on some issues.

One is, for example, the human genome project. I mean, Jim was there very early on and saying, you know, this is absolutely critical, this is going to change the world. I mean, while most scientists were dumping shit on him from on high and on anybody else who supported the idea because it would divert money away from real curiosity-based science and so on and so forth, Jim just said, ‘Nonsense, without this everything’s going to go very much more slowly, this is…’ so, yeah, I thought that was real genius to see that so early.

You know, he was a kid when he saw how important solving the molecular basis of genetics was and said, you know, there’s no other problem that’s really important, this is the only one and I’m going to work on that, and damned if he didn’t solve it. It’s pretty amazing. And then with the book I think the same thing; he saw the need for this book at a time none of us could see it. He could see the way science was moving and this was going to fill a niche, I mean, years before anybody else.

And his own book, his first textbook, Molecular Biology of the Gene, was just a milestone in science publishing… textbook publishing. It was just way ahead of its time, so I think that’s the thing that distinguishes Jim from all the other brilliant people I know. It’s as if he’s standing on some higher place and can see further.

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. Recently retired from his professorship at University College, London, these stories were recorded in 2000.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Human Genome Project, Molecular Biology of the Cell, Molecular Biology of the Gene, James Watson, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Avrion Mitchison

Duration: 3 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: 2000

Date story went live: 13 July 2010