James Watson is an American molecular biologist best known for his discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick in 1953. He was born in Chicago in 1928 and attended the University of Chicago for his undergraduate degree in zoology. While pursuing his Ph.D at Indiana University, Watson became interested in molecular biology, which led him to the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory for postdoctoral research. There he met Crick, the two recognized a common interest in discovering the structure of DNA. Watson, Crick, and another researcher Maurice Wilkins would later share the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in this field.
In 1956, Watson became a junior member of Harvard University's Biological Laboratories, where he quickly advanced to the position of full professor. Then in 1968 he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island, New York, where he shifted his research emphasis to the study of cancer. Between 1988 and 1992, Watson was also associated with the National Institutes of Health, spearheading the Human Genome Project. In 2007 he became the second person, after molecular biologist Craig Venter, to have his entire genome sequenced. Watson remained involved with CSHL, as president and later as chancellor, until 2007, when he retired following a controversy over comments he made claiming blacks are less intelligent than whites.
Watson has written many books, including the seminal textbook "The Molecular Biology of the Gene" (1965), his bestseller "The Double Helix" (1968) about his discovery of the DNA structure, and his memoir "Avoid Boring People" (2007).
Question: Do you spend much time reading scientific journals?
James Watson: Well I think I have to... if I want to... I’d like to say three hours per day, but that you know, probably in a day when I’m on my desk and not in New York City or something. But I think I would read more than most people, even those younger than me who are so busy doing things. So I have the leisure time actually to read. And I think that’s what we’ve lost now in sort of science today is leisure.
Now Crick and I had plenty of leisure because nothing was happening when we were trying to find the DNA structure. There was, you know, there weren’t hundreds of new facts appearing almost every week that we might learn about. And now people lead, defensively, want to be sure that they’re... you know, people will think they are experts, so they’ve become more and more narrow experts and not very broad. And I still can’t get over when I was at a pharmaceutical company, they half-jokingly but I’m sure the reality was true. They had 1000 PhD technicians. As you got your PhD, you were just a technician. No one was... you were hiring you for a very narrow thing and not to show any big thoughts at all. So, with so many facts, what I miss now are thinkers. The [...] were smart.
Now when I was a boy, you know, smart people were respected, now it’s, you know, people do things, who do it. And also you find that there hasn’t been one person doing it; there are 50 names on the paper. And our famous paper for instance, mine, could have included Morris Wilkins’ name on it because he was really part of it. He didn’t make the discovery, but he was you know, part of the stuff just before it. So we asked him to put his name on the paper, and he said, no. That would have been a three-person paper.
But, the... I worry about people really thinking big. I don’t find many people who do so now. When I was a student at the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchens in his speech, said “The function of the College of the University of the Chicago was to prepare you for greatness.” He used those words because our education was largely reading the great books. And you were reading the great books, not to be a teacher, but to let you go beyond the great books and produce another great book. So, that was how he saw it. Of course, he would know that that would happen very often, but it was still there that... And it’s certainly in dreams of people, you know, that they do something big. Most of the time they keep it secret because you know, it’s more realistic and often then you get braggarts who tell you, you know, they’re doing something great and you don’t believe them. But nonetheless, you know, in some sort of quiet way, you should have big dreams.
Question: How can we encourage this in our education system?
James Watson: I think stop having 50 names on a paper. Just you know, accept the fact that the rest really didn’t think at all about it. And you should really, you know, were just technicians, you know, in a real sense—and reserve authorship for people who put together the sentences. I mean, now, you know, put together the answer. Whereas, I feel it very unsatisfactory to be the mother of a scientist now. And after son handed in a paper where there were 20 other people on the paper. And she’d wonder, "Is he going anywhere?"
So, and another problem may be, though it is against everything we now say, we may be training too many scientists. That is, we’re training people who really don’t want to think, they just want to have jobs. And they consume money. And so you’d lose some, you know, if you cut out people who didn’t have real dreams. But if you go into science, I think you better go in with a dream that maybe you too will get a Nobel Prize. It’s not that I went in and I thought I was very bright and I was going to get one, but I’ll confess, you know, I knew what it was. And Crick’s thinking was otherwise, but the moment I saw that structure I thought: “We’re gonna get a Nobel Prize.” I knew it in five minutes, it was so obvious.
Recorded on September 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
James Watson: Up until now, machines have made our lives a lot better. I don’t thing they’ve depersonalized us so far.