James D. Watson, the DNA-structure

Intervew 8-9. October 2001 in relation to the just released book 'girls, genes and gamow' by J.D. Watson (Oxford University Press)

Copyright © Rasmus Kragh Jakobsen

- Your book seems very frank and open describing the human relationships, What is your purpose?

Oh, I guess finding the double helix, increasingly is regarded as an important point in the history of science and I am regarded as a major figure because of this event, so I thought I might be the one to tell the story of you know what happened afterwards. So at one stage someone said I should call the book 'the morning after'.

-Right. You describe Linus Pauling as being an almost Godlike figure, is this your way of avoiding that? Saying I am human.

Oh, well I think all of us are human including Linus, I think in those days perhaps fifty years ago we regarded him with a god-like fashion.
I think once you get older, you loose your Gods.
I guess we were all happy and surpriced we did the discovery and not Linus.

-Do you think as a scientist you can be regarded as a vessel for an idea, that this discovery would have ocurred anyway within a short time?

Oh, I think it would have ocurred within two years at the latest. It was really a discovery that should have been solved the year before.
In retrospect you know if we had been chemists, we should have gotten it sooner.

-Actually in both this book and in 'The Double Helix', it seems as if you underplay your role, you say that Crick was extremely good as a chemist and mathematics...

No, he wasn't good as a chemist. He was extremely good as a physicist and as a chrystallographer which is distinct from being a chemist.

-What would you say your force is?

Working with bright people.

-Yeah? My impression was you escaped Denmark by focusing on the right idea.

Yes, I guess my feeling was that the answer lay in chemistry and in structural chemistry as it ocurred, and it might not have, but it did.

-Don't you think that is a little unusual most student would have done what their supervisors said they should?

Oh, well I was trained well.

-In your book 'girls, genes and gamow' you mention Cricks adaptor-theory and you rejected that as too complex...

Yes, too complex, but now of course it is right, and we go back and we have our RNA world which we didn't, we never used that phrase, and never thought life had to start with RNA... and for instance Crick didn't write about it. Not until 1968, so it was long after. We thought let's just find the structure.

-How did you feel when you found that this actually was the right idea?

Oh please, you know by then one accepts the truth. you know he found it and it was a very good idea. I mean one the reasons why I wrote the book was really you know the whole story of the RNATie club and Gamow wrote these letters. You know if Gamow hadn't existed this book wouldn't have been written.
I can't tell that story without telling the story of other people also, and I think the big incentive for the book was George Gamow.

-How do you think it will be received by your colleges?

I don't know. I am nervous.

-There was some controversy when The Double Helix came out

Yes, it was like 'you shouldn't write about the people without their permission'.
But times have changed. You write about your friends, you don't want to hurt them, but you know.
The public actually wants to know how science is done. And this second book will tell you how science isn't done, you know except for Francis' idea we weren't going anywhere. It was only after I went to Harvard.

-That is the last chapter of the book.

Yes that was to tell people that finally we got on course.

-Do you think that science has changed from then to now.

Certainly in molecular biology. There are so many more people working in that area now. There wasn't really anyone who weren't in my cast of characters, there weren't minor people who were thinking about it but not doing anything. That was it. This was the world.
So you would have to go to a different part of science, where you don't know how to find the answer. Because in those days we didn't know how to find the answer, and when you don't know how to find the answer there aren't many people.

-There is one thing that strikes me. You mentioned that Linus Pauling engaged himself a lot in the cold war and the disussion of the atomic bomb. But your discovery and molecular biology certainly also raised a lot of ethical questions, that do not seem to have been present in those days?

No, no-one discussed ethics. At that time we never thought our work was going to be practical. It was only in 1973 when you could do genetic manipulation, then suddenly the world changed.
But at that time we thought we were impractical and underpaid.

-How do you think science should be done?

I think you always have to have a system where you give many money to bright people even though you are not sure they are going to succeed.
And so you got to take a chance on people who you think are young and bright. I think now people are asking the young people 'what are you going to do with the money' and I think they should judge if you are a good student then give him a couple of years.
I am glad I was born then not now.
Now I would probably work in a field where there are fewer people.

-Like?

How the brain works. At some level you don't know how. And so it's a very hard field to work on. The really deep problems were not given answers to yet. In the brain, because it's too dificult.

-Like free will?

Well yes, and where is the telephone number in the brain? You know it is written somehow, but how is it written?
Now I think in those days the question was 'how is information stored in molecules?' now we are sort of asking 'how is information stored in nerve cells?'
And we don't know.

-Are you yourself involved.

No, at my laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor some people are, you know I am no longer the director. We are beginning to attract people, and those people, can take sundays off, because they are not afraid that somebody else are going to get the answer.

-do you think it is important to have time to take the sunday off?

Yes, if you are working on a problem you don't know how to solve, yes. If you know how to solve it then of course you work on sundays.

-From a danish point of view, science is very Big at the moment, so what can a small country like Denmark contribute to?

In any lab, I guess, you can't do everything, so you got to focus on some field and say we will be very good on that.
Not try and be good at everything.
When I was in Denmark you were very good on proteins, you know you had the Carlsberg lab.
The way to succeed is to be very good at specialized areas.

-Do you know if we are good at any particualr areas at the moment?

No, I am not really in molecular biology anymore. So the only field I really followed very closely is cancer research, and I don't think, in tumorviruses Denmark has never really been in that.
In Sweden a great deal more.
It's often an accident, you know, whether someone works on something.

-What do think drives science?

Curiosity. Some people would say money, money drives products, but science is driven by curiosity.
You want to know why something happens.

-How about personal ambition?

[pause] You are pretty stupid to grow up wanting to win a Nobel prize. Your ambition got to be to solve a problem. It is not a good way. You only do it because you are curious, because it is underpaid unless you are very succesful, and you have to live in academia for the most part. So you only do it if you are really interested.
Curiousity is the main driving force.

-What were your biggest moments?

Well obviously finding the double helix, but also other moments. When you understand a scientific problem you feel very happy.

-How often does that happen?

Oh, you are lucky if you have an idea once every ten years.

-Your worst moments

I think the World Trade center has been one of the worst moments of my life. What is happening in america right now.

-What do think that will do to the world and science?

Slow us down,

-hinder communication?

Yes, when you are from one of those countries. I was just with someone who said they had a lady who later became known as the death lady. She was studying genetic engineering at Norwich and she was from Iraq, and she went back and then she was bleeding them in the iraqis biological weapon program. She came here to England, to be Dr. Death.

-Book is about girls and you describe how Rosalind Franklin had a very diffcult time being a woman. Do you think that has changed now.

Oh yes, in those days, they didn't become university personel. Not until 1970. There were restricted carreer oportunities.

-And now it's equal?

Yes, I think it is harder to have children and compete with a man who doesn't, you know just timewise. So in a sense it's never going to be an equal playing ground, but compared to those days it is more equal than it was in those days.
See Rosalind Franklin in the second book became very succesful, and part of that was she had some very good collaborators. Herman Crook and John Finch they were bright guys.

-did you say that if she had been alive she would have been the one to receive the Nobel prize instead of WIlkins?

No, Rosalind was still living in my story. Her lab was very succesful.
She was really basically working by herself, and I was working with Crick and that helped.

-The Human genome has been resolved by now, what do you think of it?

It will let us understand life more completely. It is already making it easier to work on genetic disease like Alzheimer. I think we will cure many diseases once we know their cause, having the set actors in human life makes it easier.
The main consequence, it will speed up science and medicine.

-As a young scientist today what area would you go for?

I would go for the brain.

-The incentive for the book was Gamow, what was so special about him?

He was a very great physicist, and he had very broad interests, and he was a great popularizer of science, his Mr Tompkins books, I think he curious about many things, and did card tricks, he was just an unusual man who irritated many people, and erhmm drank far too much.
He and Lev Landau were the two great physicist of that generation.

-Gamow said you and Landau had similar personalities, did you ever find out what he meant?

No, Landau was awarded the Nobel Prize, but he was in a terrible carcrash, and after that was never able to come out of Russia.
Perhaps they would not have let him out at all, he had very strong opinions.

-The book is very much about girl, why did it take you so long to find a girlfriend and a wife?

Oh, maybe I was like Landau, I am not sure I was ready for it.

-The mayor character Christa Mayr?

I met her many years later, but by that time she looked more like her mother.

-You have two sons, are they in science?

No they are not.

-Would you have liked them to be?

I guess I would have liked that. It is always fun to talk science. But they are both bright and nice people and thats more important.

-Peter Pauling is the head of the victims in the book

Peter has remained a good a friend, he lives in Wales.

-Did he stay in science?

He stayed in science untill the mid-eighties

-There is one nasty story in the book. You are skiing and some people, one of whom calls you 'Honest Jim'.

Thats also in the double helix. We were walking up and meet this group coming down, and there was one of the co-workers from Wilkins lab, and Tessiers remembered it - I had forgotten it.
It raise the question of 'were we dishonest in using the Kings college data?'

-And obviously some people thought so.

Yes.

-It reflects some of science darker sides?

Yes, it was always... You know after we found the double helix the relation with Rosalind Franklin was very straightforward and Francis and she became really quite good friends. With Wilkins it was always more awkard... You know in a sence he should have found the double helix, you know the whole relation with Rosalind was more, which was shown very well in the BBC docu-drama called 'LifeStory' where I regarded Maurice as the tragic figure, you know that fate had been unkind to.

-What do you think of popular science books and theater?

It is important to show what science is about, show that curiosity drives the work. But we are also human beings, and men spend a lot of time thinking about women and vica versa. Possible more time than thinking about science. So the book wouldn't reflect your life if it only told about science, and not about what was really happening in my life.
It was a hard book to write, because some of the things I write about was something I was very acutely unhappy.

-Like Christa Mayr?

Yes.

-The concluding chapters were written in 1997, why did it take so long to publish?

I thought it was too long. The list of characters was too large, so no-one ever worked on the book. Editors gave me some minor revisions. I kept all the revisions so people can see I did write the book.

Copyright © Rasmus Kragh Jakobsen