Big Think Interview With James Watson
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).
James Watson: I’m James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helical structure of DNA in 1953.
Question: What was the key breakthrough that led to the discovery of DNA?
James Watson: Well, there were two. A methodological one, where we borrowed from Linus Pauling, that the most direct route to the structure was building molecular models as opposed to trying to deduce the structure entirely from x-ray defraction data. There was a decision that Crick and I made in October, 1951.
The second was the realization that the data of Erwin Chargaff showing similar amounts of adenine and thymine and timing and of guanine and cytosine indicated that they must be paired to each other in the DNA structure. Once you had that, in fact the structure followed within several weeks.
Question: Did your inability to find a date at Cambridge contribute to your discovery of DNA?
James Watson: The best thing that ever happened to me was I didn’t find a date because that would have... you know, the right girl I would have found more interesting than the, you know. If I had a girl to play tennis or something, I would have preferred doing that than just, you know, thinking about DNA. Whereas my great advantage was, I was at the time the only person truly obsessive about DNA. And you know, so many people were just obsessive about some unrealized you know, emotional problem. So at Cambridge University, I mean, today Cambridge University is filled with, you know, well-dressed, attractive, intelligent girls. The two Cambridge colleges when I was there, the girls were out of town, we virtually never saw them and you know. It was just lucky it was for a later time in my life.
Question: Have you been happy with the progress in molecular biology since you discovered DNA?
James Watson: Well, initially I wanted to you know, move on from the structure of DNA to RNA and that didn’t seem to fall out, so that was a disappointment. But on the whole, it was that everything occurred faster than we thought it would. That you know, we had the genetic code, the first details in '61, and its completion by '66. That was only 13 years. And I never thought it would go so fast.
And then, I never even dreamed, you know, that we would be able to sequence long stretches of DNA. You would actually see the structure of specific genes. Then we were likely thinking in terms of small viruses because we knew they contained only several genes. And so maybe the ultimate would be to some day work out the structure of a sequence of a virus containing several thousand letters. But once it started it just has moved, you know, with always... You know, we had the method before we almost had the questions to ask about what we were seeing.
Question: You were the second person, after Craig Venter, to have your genome sequenced; what did you learn?
James Watson: Not much. I learned that I had a polymorphism, which meant that I metabolized some important drugs more slowly and therefore they would pose greater risk to me if I took too much of them. So that was a very useful fact. And so, if I was you know, suddenly to go psychotic and they gave me an anti-psychotic, unless they were careful they could kill me with it. And you know, you’d just think it was an overdose, but no, it was my genes.
Then I sort of confirmed my hunch that I digested milk poorly, that... if I had a large consumption of ice cream. And I had noticed something was strange when I was working out the DNA structure, I was having constant stomach pains which other people were saying, “Well you’re just nervous about racing or with Linus Pauling.” But it was in fact, I’m still trying to be like an American and drinking a quart a day. And by that time I had lost the... was losing the ability to digest lactose.
Question: What did you choose not to learn about your genome?
James Watson: I chose not to find out whether I had a serious risk for Alzheimer’s. And at the time, you know, it was a little murky. It’s getting much clearer now. So Craig Venter, who put his entire sequence on, it came out that he’s at risk. But he could probably define the risk better by looking at the sequence today as opposed to a few years ago.
Question: How much does it cost to sequence a genome today?
James Watson: Well, I think it’s still, to be honest, about $20,000. There’s always a question about how you do the accounting and so on, but the cost of the reagents that you put into the machine and how often do you use the machine. So, but there’s a lot who believe it’s going to fall by another factor of 10, certainly within 10 years and maybe a soon as three or four. At which point then, the cost of you know, sequence scanning will be essentially trivial and the whole cost will then go toward interpreting it.
Question: Is Craig Venter a great biologist or a great marketer?
James Watson: Well, he’s certainly a great marketer. He’s highly intelligent and he certainly pushed us toward completing the human genome project sooner than we would have otherwise, and it was a very good thing he existed. Though, at the time, I feared his winning because then the human genome project would belong to... the data belong to his company. And I thought that was just going to slow things down.
So normally I’d like, you know, data to be obtained as fast as possible, but not if it went into private hands. You know, some DNA sequences have been patented and monopoly situations which have basically slowed down research and have made medical testing more expensive.
Question: Is Venter’s creation of synthetic life as game-changing as he has painted it to be?
James Watson: I don’t think about it at all. To me it’s not. But I’m not a chemist, and I’ve been so focused on getting enough knowledge so we can cure cancer that I’ll just stay focused on that and let other people... I don’t think we’re going to, you know, this idea of creating a new form of life, we’re just making a very close mimic to what already exists. So I wouldn’t say it’s a new form of life at all. It’s just a very... but always a question is, could there be a life form, you know, basically in some inaccessible place. You know, like deep in the oceans where a form of life which is totally dependent on RNA exits. That would be, you know, a bombshell of unbelievable proportions.
And so if someone said they found that, I would just say: "Wonderful." But I don’t expect them to find it. And so, and then you’d know if you could be in another solar system there might be other forms of life, but again, I only like to think about things which I know we’ll have a chance of knowing whether we’re right or wrong. I never could read science fiction. I was just uninterested in it. And you know, I don’t like to read novels where the hero just goes beyond what I think could exist. And it doesn’t interest me because I’m not learning anything about something I’ll actually have to deal with. So, where you would put Frankenstein, I don’t know, but he never intrigued me, I must confess. You know, in a movie you can make up those sort of things, but... well a lot Steven Spielberg just turns me... and the whole Harry Potter thing, I just don’t want to watch it because to me it’s not reality.
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.
Question: What was Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of DNA?
James Watson: She provided the... some crucial pieces of information. Her great handicap, which I would now say we would use the term Asperger’s, she didn’t know how to deal with other people; didn’t know how to ask for help. And, if anything, probably paranoid about people stealing her data. And if she’d come out to Cambridge and shown her data to Crick, she... Crick would have told her how to solve her problem. She had a clue, but she didn’t know how to interpret it, and Francis would have immediately have told her what it was because his own work in Cambridge, just by accident, had let him deal with that problem. So he could have told her, and she had gone back to London and he would have said, "You know, there are two chains and she said the phosphoruses were on the outside then they would have to be held together by the bases. And once you say that, you are very close to the structure.
So... I don’t think her name deserved to be on the paper, I mean, she really fought bitterly saying it was the helix, and didn’t collaborate. And because of her... her failure to interact effectively, it was hard to know how bright she was, and why she was so strongly against it being a helix. I don’t know. You know, afterwards, I would never ask her those questions, we were not... afterwards we weren’t at all unpleasant to each other, we liked to talk to each other. I mean we could you know, talk to each other. But I never asked her if she wanted to spontaneously say something, but she never did.
Question: How successful is cancer treatment now?
James Watson: Oh, we are now highly successful with about 20% of cancer. In fact, initially, you know, we can do something. The problem is, that cancers tend to get more dangerous and resistant to chemotherapy. And today we postpone a lot of deaths from cancer, but we don’t finally prevent enough of them. So that if there was no cancer research, 700,000 Americans would die of cancer every year, today 600,000. A lot of them live longer now, and that’s good. I’d like to move to a situation where you know we only lose 100,000 each year—that is, we've prolonged it enough. And I think there’s a real chance we can move to such a situation over the next decade.
Question: What are the most exciting avenues of cancer research?
James Watson: Well, now we’ve been focusing on sort of the organized cell, what we call the epithelial cell. Most human cancers are of tissues lining glands and they’re likely touching each other so liquids don’t pass through the membranes, et cetera. But then there are other cells in our body which are not tightly organized and mobile. We call them mesenchymal. And most cancers progress toward a mesenchymal form, which up to now we’ve not very successfully treated.
But I think we... I think there’s the hope, or it’s my hope, that whereas we know there are many different forms of cancer to start with, they all progress toward something similar, in a sense, similar to a stem cell, a differentiated stem cell. So that if you’re killed by prostate cancer, it may be not that different than being, you know, dying from lung cancer or a melanoma. That is, the bad cells have roughly the same biochemistry, underlying biochemistry. And so if we can kill one of the sort of terminal-stage cancer, we might be able to do all of it. At least, that’s my hope. I know there are few other people who think my way, but the slogan you get now is: "They’re all going to be genetically different. And we’ll have to use personalized therapy.”
Well, before I was treated I would like my DNA to be looked at. But the best way to finally cure me would be not to focus on the unique features, but the features common to all cancer cells.
Question: What is the state of mental illness research?
James Watson: In the case of the brain, you know, you have disorganized thinking. But we don’t know what thinking is. So, you can’t look at... and say it’s not thinking right. So we didn’t come to, you know, a real chance to fight back against cancer until we do the basic, say laws in which DNA operated. And then finding how chromosomes divide, et cetera, and all those details.
Once we had that, then we could ask what... I guess why does the cancer cell behave differently? The case of the brain is clearly so complicated that in reality, about the only people that think about the brain are outsiders who are not capable of understanding it. That is the people who are sort of bright enough, or you know, trained enough know how inherently complex it is. And Francis Crick spent 20 years trying to think about it. In the end, nothing came out of it.
So, you know, in a perverse way, I think the only people that really know should think about how the brain operates are those people who deal with schizophrenia or bipolar disease where you know the brain just doesn’t work. So because for the most part the people who study it, who only got into the field because they have a child or they have a sister or a brother or, you know, you’re in it because you want to cure someone.
So we can take away delusions from people with schizophrenia, but they’re very cognitively impaired and we don’t know how to repair the cognition defects. And that’s why the become homeless if there’s no one taking care of them; they just really can’t look after themselves. So the thought that you can teach the homeless to take care of themselves. No, we have to take care of them.
Question: You have a personal interest in this?
James Watson: Yes. I have a son, who is a... not an ordinary form of schizophrenia, but clearly, cannot take care of himself. And the great fear of then, of all parents is, when the parents die, who takes care of your child? And the answer is: they become homeless. You know, unless there is sufficient money in the family or something, but, given the structure of society today... The mentally ill are treated very cruelly. We sort of deny their existence. Congress has virtually no interest in them. A great interest in cancer, but no interest... no one wants to hold a hearing on it.
Question: Do you think mental disorders like schizophrenia are strongly genetic?
James Watson: I would say, predisposition 100%. Whether it progresses to full-blown schizophrenia, probably some environmental influences, such as... It’s clear that if you’re pre-disposed to schizophrenia, smoking marijuana will tip you over. But marijuana won’t tip over someone into schizophrenia that is probably not predisposed to it. So, you know, most people smoke it and, you know, do not end up in mental hospitals. But some do.
Question: How will science pinpoint the genetic components of mental disorders?
James Watson: We’ve sort or proposed, you know, sequencing 100,000 in mental ill people because it’s not going to be just one gene that’s... you know, you can stop a car from functioning by, you know, destroying a large number of different parts. And the same way you can sort of put the brain and make it dysfunctional by just destroying one small part of a whole operating system. So, we’re pretty sure there’s at least hundreds of genes. But we think they will be put together where there will be some pathway to this schizophrenia, by which we can intervene in some cases.
And it’s too complicated now for me to say, but it may be even though many genes are involved, the way the brain works may nonetheless enable us to cure some. Some cases of autism, which look as hopeless as anything is that when people have abnormally high temperature and fever their symptoms diminish.
Now, so you think, well just raise their temperature a couple of degrees and they won’t be so sick. We’re in fact going to have a meeting about this. So, I’m dominated you know, I want to... we have to get the genetic information, but as a parent, I want something good to happen, you know, over the next five to 10 years.
Question: How much do we know about the genetic components of behavior?
James Watson: We know in animals there’s sort of forms that are called instinctive. And I think you know, I tell everyone, I think this century which you know, has another 90 years to run, will be the century you know, when psychology becomes a science. You know, that when our chief focus will move—hopefully after we’ve got on top of most cancer—toward understanding healthy aspects. You know, why we behave differently and, you know, very practical things; trying to get better ways to stop depression and so on.
Most psychology departments, when we get near them, are not science departments. And so, you know, people say well you have to have something called cognitive science. I’d like to believe, you know, that people would actually like to know the truth about themselves. But certainly some people would not want you to study whether in anyway men and women are any different. You know, seeing if you discover differences, it would just perpetuate wrong behavior. Likewise, they really don’t want to really measure intelligence because they don’t want intelligence to be something you are born with as opposed to having it been largely determined by how you grow up.
So psychology departments now are just not as bad as anthropology, but almost as bad. Just totally dominated by political correctness. Which to me, you know... in the past, political correctness has never been a way to more toward the truth. It’s like, you know, saying something is religiously correct. You start from that.
Question: So there are genetic differences in intelligence?
James Watson: Yes. You know. How much they are we know very little. But because we don’t want to pinpoint some people as unable to learn—unless it’s so bad that you have to. We’re sort of avoiding maybe learning some how and some day to make our brains work better. I worry now that human life in day-by-day life has got more difficult because it’s just so complex and that more and more people aren’t really equal to the complexities of current life. And I think that may underlie this, you know, awful phenomena of the rich people getting so rich because they’re just using their, you know, innate intelligence to think faster and to seize opportunities faster. And you know, there could be other reasons. You know, there are other reasons. Last night my wife and I saw "Wall Street," you know, far from a perfect movie, but, to say the least, thought-provoking.
Question: Are men genetically smarter than women?
James Watson: On the intelligence tests, men do worse in verbal things and they’re able to do spatial things better. And this has been related, whether correctly or wrongly, to our past evolutionary role as hunter/gatherers where we really had to strike out and be able to find home again. So we had to really look at visual clues and think constantly about where we are. Whereas women were, you know, staying in a fixed place. Whether that’s right or wrong, but the truth is that we only have IQ tests which makes the sexes essentially the same because we adjust the tests so that they contain some questions which girls would do better on and some which would be a boy. And you can bias the tests and then one sex or the other would be called the brightest.
There is a fact that at the ends of these curves of intelligence, there are more boys. Many more mentally retarded boys than girls, and at the extreme highest level, but not really very important. There seem to be more boy, you know... true math geniuses... but true math genius is so often accompanied by you know, strange behavior or anti-social behavior. It’s not clear that people really want to give birth to boys at those ends of the curves, either end.
Recorded on September 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
A conversation with the molecular biologist who co-discovered DNA.
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What was the universe like one-trillionth of a second after the Big Bang? Science has an answer.
- Following Steven Weinberg's lead, we plunge further back into cosmic history, beyond the formation of atomic nuclei.
- Today, we discuss the origin of the quark-gluon plasma and the properties of the famous Higgs boson, the "God Particle."
- Is there a limit? How far can we go back in time?
Last week, we celebrated the great physicist Steven Weinberg, bringing back his masterful book The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, where he tells the story of how, in the first moments after the Big Bang, matter started to organize into the first atomic nuclei and atoms. This week we continue to follow Weinberg's lead, plunging further back in time, as close to the beginning as we reliably can.
But first, a quick refresher. The first light atomic nuclei — aggregates of protons and neutrons — emerged during the very short time window between one-hundredth of a second and 3 minutes after the bang. This explains Weinberg's book title. Recall that atoms are identified by the number of protons in their nuclei (the atomic number) — from hydrogen (with a single proton) to carbon (with six) and all the way to uranium (with 92). The early cosmic furnace forged only chemical elements 1, 2, and 3 — hydrogen, helium, and lithium (as well as their isotopes, which contain the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons). All heavier elements are forged in dying stars.
The hypothesis that the universe was the alchemist responsible for the lightest elements has been beautifully confirmed by numerous observations during the past decades, including improving a lingering discrepancy with lithium-7. (The "7" represents three protons and four neutrons for this lithium isotope, its most abundant in nature.) This primordial nucleosynthesis is one of the three key observational pillars of the Big Bang model of cosmology. The other two are the expansion of the universe — measured as galaxies recede form one another — and the microwave background radiation — the radiation leftover after the birth of hydrogen atoms, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The primordial soup of particle physics
At about one minute after the bang, the matter in the universe included light atomic nuclei, electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, and neutrinos: the primordial soup. What about earlier? Going back in cosmic time means a smaller universe, that is, matter squeezed into smaller volumes. Smaller volumes mean higher pressures and temperatures. The recipe for the soup changes. In physics, temperature is akin to motion and agitation. Hot things move fast and, when they cannot because they are stuck together, they vibrate more. Eventually, as the temperature increases, the bonds that keep things together break. As we go back in time, matter is dissociated into its simplest components. First, molecules become atoms. Then, atoms become nuclei and free electrons. Then, nuclei become free protons and neutrons. Then what?
Since the 1960s, we have known that protons and neutrons are not elementary particles. They are made of other particles — called quarks — bound together by the strong nuclear force, which is about 100 times stronger than electric attraction (that is, electromagnetism). But for high enough temperatures, not even the strong force can hold protons and neutrons together. When the universe was a mere one-hundred-thousandth of a second (10-5 second) old, it was hot enough to dissociate protons and neutrons into a hot plasma of quarks and gluons. Gluons, as the name implies, are the particles that stitch quarks into protons and neutrons (as well as hundreds of other particles held together by the strong force commonly seen in particle accelerators). Amazingly, such strange quark-gluon plasma has been created in high-energy particle collisions that generate energies one million degrees hotter than the heart of the sun. (Here is a video about it.) For a fleeting moment, the early universe re-emerges in a human-made machine, an awesome scientific and technological feat.
Remember the Higgs boson?
Is that it? Or can we go further back? Now we are contemplating a universe that is younger than one-millionth of a second old. For us, that's a ridiculously small amount of time. But not for elementary particles, zooming about close to the speed of light. As we keep going back toward t = 0, something remarkable happens. At about one-trillionth of a second (10-12 second or 0.000000000001 second) after the bang, a new particle commands the show, the famous Higgs boson. If you remember, this particle became both famous and infamous when it was discovered in 2012 at the European Center for Particle Physics, and the media decided to call it the "God Particle."
For this, we can blame Nobel Prize Laureate Leon Lederman, who was my boss when I was a postdoc at Fermilab, the biggest particle accelerator in the U.S. Leon told me that he was writing a book about the elusive Higgs, which he tried to but could not find at Fermilab. He wanted to call the book The God-Damn Particle, but his editor suggested taking out the "damn" from the title to increase sales. It worked.
The Higgs goes through a strange transition as the universe heats up. It loses its mass, becoming what we call a massless particle, like the photon. Why is this important? Because the Higgs plays a key role in the drama of particle physics. It is the mass-giver to all particles: if you hug the Higgs or (more scientifically) if a particle interacts with the Higgs boson, it gets a mass. The stronger the interaction, the larger the mass. So, the electron, being light, interacts less strongly with the Higgs than, say, the tau lepton or the charm quark. But if the Higgs loses its mass as it gets hotter, what happens to all the particles it interacts with? They also lose their mass!
Approaching t = 0
Think about the implication. Before one-trillionth of a second after the bang, all known particles were massless. As the universe expands and cools, the Higgs gets a mass and gives mass to all other particles it interacts with. This explains why the "God Particle" nickname stuck. The Higgs explains the origin of masses.
Kind of. We do not know what determines the strengths of all these different hugs (interactions), for instance, why the electron mass is different from the quarks' masses. These are parameters of the model, known as the Standard Model, a compilation of all that we know about the world of the very, very small. These all-important parameters determine the world as we know it. But we do not know what, if anything, determines them.
Okay, so we are at one-trillionth of a second after the bang. Can we keep going back? We can, but we must dive into the realm of speculation. We can talk of other particles, other dimensions of space and superstrings, the unification of all forces of nature, and the multiverse. Or we can invoke a pearl the great physicist Freeman Dyson once told me: most speculations are wrong. Readers are best served if we stick to what we know first. Then, with care, we dive into the unknown.
So, we stop here for now, knowing that there is much new territory of the "Here Be Dragons" type to cover in this fleeting one-trillionth of a second. We will go there soon enough.
Though gloomy and dense, Russian literature is hauntingly beautiful, offering a relentlessly persistent inquiry into the human experience.
- Russian literature has a knack for precisely capturing and describing the human condition.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are among the greatest writers who ever lived.
- If you want to be a wiser person, spend time with the great Russian novelists.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1864 novella Notes from Underground, an unnamed narrator asks the following question: "What can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities?" The answer: "Even if man were nothing but a piano-key and this were proved to him by science, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposefully do something perverse out of simple ingratitude. He would contrive destruction and chaos only to gain his point!"
After reading another handful of equally puzzling paragraphs, chances are you will find yourself seriously considering whether or not to put down this 100-page riddle. Chances are, plenty of readers will have beaten you to it already. Keep on reading, however, and you might just find that the second half of the story is not only much, much easier to understand, but can also make you look back at the first half from a radically different perspective.
A small person with big power
This narrator, it turns out, is a proud but spiteful bureaucrat. Dissatisfied with his career, he uses the trivial bit of power his position bestows upon him to make life hell for those he interacts with. Eclipsed by former classmates who successfully climbed the ladders of the military and high society, he spends his days alone — lost inside his own head — thinking of reasons for why the world has yet to notice the extraordinary talents he believes he possesses.
After the narrator finishes his incoherent diatribe about society's discontents, we get a glimpse at his everyday existence and the events that have made him so embittered. In one scene, he invites himself to a party for a recently promoted colleague he despises, only to spend the rest of the night complaining about the fact that everyone but him is having a fun time. "I should fling this bottle at their heads," he thinks, reaching for some champagne and defeatedly pouring himself another round.
Angsty college students will recognize this kind of crippling social anxiety in an instance, leaving them amazed at the accuracy with which this long-dead writer managed to put their most private thoughts to paper. Dostoevsky's unparalleled ability to capture our murky stream of consciousness has not gone unnoticed; a century ago, Sigmund Freud developed the study of psychoanalysis with Notes in the back of his mind. Friedrich Nietzsche listed Dostoevsky as one of his foremost teachers.
To an outsider, Russian literature can seem hopelessly dense, unnecessarily academic, and uncomfortably gloomy. But underneath this cold, rough, and at times ugly exterior, there hides something no thinking, feeling human could resist: a well-intentioned, deeply insightful, and relentlessly persistent inquiry into the human experience. Nearly two hundred years later, this hauntingly beautiful literary canon continues to offer useful tips for how to be a better person.
Dancing with death
Credit: Jez Timms via Unsplash
Some critics argue that the best way to analyze a piece of writing is through its composition, ignoring external factors like the author's life and place of origin. While books from the Russian Golden Age are meticulously structured, they simply cannot be studied in a vacuum. For these writers, art did not exist for art's sake alone; stories were manuals to help us understand ourselves and solve social issues. They were, to borrow a phrase popularized by Vladimir Lenin, mirrors to the outside world.
Just look at Dostoevsky, who at one point in his life was sentenced to death for reading and discussing socialist literature. As a firing squad prepared to shoot, the czar changed his mind and exiled him to the icy outskirts of Siberia. Starting life anew inside a labor camp, Dostoevsky developed a newfound appreciation for religious teachings he grew up with, such as the value of turning the other cheek no matter how unfair things may seem.
Dostoevsky's brush with death, which he often incorporated into his fiction, was as traumatizing as it was eye-opening. In The Idiot, about a Christ-like figure trying to live a decent life among St. Petersburg's corrupt and frivolous nobles, the protagonist recalls an execution he witnessed in Paris. The actual experience of standing on the scaffold — how it puts your brain into overdrive and makes you wish to live, no matter its terms and conditions — is described from the viewpoint of the criminal, something Dostoevsky could do given his personal experience.
Faith always played an important role in Dostoevsky's writing, but it took center stage when the author returned to St. Petersburg. His final (and most famous) novel, The Brothers Karamazov, asks a question which philosophers and theologians have pondered for centuries: if the omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God described in the Bible truly exists, why did He create a universe in which suffering is the norm and happiness the exception?
To an outsider, Russian literature can seem hopelessly dense, unnecessarily academic, and uncomfortably gloomy. But underneath this cold, rough, and at times ugly exterior, there hides something no thinking, feeling human could resist: a well-intentioned, deeply insightful, and relentlessly persistent inquiry into the human experience. Nearly two hundred years later, this hauntingly beautiful literary canon continues to offer useful tips for how to be a better person.
It is a difficult question to answer, especially when the counterargument (that is, there is no God) is so compelling. "I don't want the mother to embrace the man who fed her son to dogs," Ivan, a scholar and the novel's main skeptic, cries. "The sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not, even if the child himself were to forgive! I don't want harmony. From love for humanity, I don't want it. I would rather be left with unavenged suffering."
Yet it was precisely in such a fiery sentiment that Dostoevsky saw his way out. For the author, faith was a never-ending battle between good and evil fought inside the human heart. Hell, he believed, was not some bottomless pit that swallows up sinners in the afterlife; it describes the life of someone who is unwilling to forgive. Likewise, happiness did not lie in the pursuit of fame or fortune but in the ability to empathize with every person you cross paths with.
No discussion of Russian literature is complete without talking about Leo Tolstoy, who thought stories were never meant to be thrilling or entertaining. They were, as he wrote in his 1897 essay What is Art?, "a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings." Consequently, the only purpose of a novel was to communicate a specific feeling or idea between writer and reader, to put into words something that the reader always felt but never quite knew how to express.
Tolstoy grew up in a world where everything was either black or white and did not start perceiving shades of grey until he took up a rifle in his late teens. Serving as an artillery officer during the Crimean War, he found the good in soldiers regardless of which side of the conflict they were on. His Sevastopol Sketches, short stories based on his time in the army, are neither a celebration of Russia nor a condemnation of the Ottomans. The only hero in this tale, Tolstoy wrote, was truth itself.
It was an idea he would develop to its fullest potential in his magnum opus, War and Peace. Set during Napoleon's invasion of Russia, the novel frames the dictator, who Georg Hegel labeled "the World Spirit on horseback," as an overconfident fool whose eventual downfall was all but imminent. It is a lengthy but remarkably effective attack aimed at contemporary thinkers who thought history could be reduced to the actions of powerful men.
Semantics aside, Tolstoy could also be deeply personal. In his later years, the writer — already celebrated across the world for his achievements — fell into a depression that robbed him of his ability to write. When he finally picked up a pen again, he did not turn out a novel but a self-help book. The book, titled A Confession, is an attempt to understand his increasingly unbearable melancholy, itself born from the grim realization that he — like everyone else — will one day die.
In one memorable paragraph, Tolstoy explains his situation through an Eastern fable about a traveler climbing into a well to escape from a vicious beast, only to find another waiting for him at the bottom. "The man, not daring to climb out and not daring to leap to the bottom, seizes a twig growing in a crack in the wall and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on."
Confession is by no means an easy read, yet it is highly recommended for anyone feeling down on their luck. Tolstoy not only helps you understand your own emotions better but also offers inspiring advice on how to deal with them. What makes us humans unique from all other animals, he believes, is the ability to grasp our own impending and inevitable death. While this knowledge can be a terrible burden, it can also inspire us to focus on what is truly important: treating others with kindness.
Urge for action
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Because 19th century Russia was an autocracy without a parliament, books were the only place people could discuss how they think their country should be run. While Tolstoy and Dostoevsky made conservative arguments that focused on personal growth, other writers went in a different direction. Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a progressive, treated his stories like thought experiments. His novel, What is to be Done?, explores what a society organized along socialist lines could look like.
What is to be Done?, which Chernyshevsky wrote while he was in prison, quickly became required reading for any aspiring Russian revolutionary. Imbued with the same kind of humanistic passion you may find in The Brothers Karamazov, these kinds of proto-Soviet blueprints painted such a convincing (and attractive) vision for the future that it seemed as though history could unfold itself no other way than how Karl Marx had predicted it would.
"I don't know about the others," Aleksandr Arosev, a Bolshevik who saw himself as the prophet of a new religion, once wrote about his childhood reading list, "but I was in awe of the tenacity of human thought, especially that thought within which there loomed something that made it impossible for men not to act in a certain way, not to experience the urge for action so powerful that even death, were it to stand in its way, would appear powerless."
Decades later, another Aleksandr — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — wrote an equally compelling book about the years he spent locked inside a Siberian prison camp. Like Arosev, Solzhenitsyn grew up a staunch Marxist-Leninist. He readily defended his country from Nazi invaders in East Prussia, only to be sentenced to eight years of hard labor once the government intercepted a private letter in which he questioned some of the military decisions made by Joseph Stalin.
In the camp, Solzhenitsyn took note of everything he saw and went through. Without access to pen and paper, he would lie awake at night memorizing the pages of prose he was composing in his mind. He tried his best remember each and every prisoner he met, just so he could tell their stories in case they did not make it out of there alive. In his masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago, he mourns the names and faces he forgot along the way.
Despite doing time for a crime he did not commit, Solzhenitsyn never lost faith in humanity. Nor did he give in to the same kind of absolutist thinking that led the Soviet Union to this dark place. "If only it were all so simple!" he wrote. "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
The mystery of man
"All mediocre novelists are alike," Andrew Kaufman, a professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Virginia, once told The Millions. "Every great novelist is great in its own way." This is, in case you didn't know, an insightful spin on the already quite insightful opening line from another of Tolstoy's novels, Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
While Russian writers may be united by a prosaic style and interest in universal experience, their canon is certainly diverse. Writing for The New York Times, Francine Prose and Benjamin Moser neatly sum up what makes each giant of literature distinct from the last: Gogol, for his ability to "make the most unlikely event seem not only plausible but convincing"; Turgenev, for his "meticulously rendered but ultimately mysterious characters"; Chekhov, for his "uncanny skill at revealing the deepest emotions" in his plays.
As distant as these individuals may seem to us today, the impact they made on society is nothing short of profound. In the cinemas, hundreds of thousands gather to watch Keira Knightly put on a brilliant ballgown and embody Tolstoy's tragic heroine. At home, new generations read through Dostoevsky's Notes of Underground in silence, recognizing parts of themselves in his despicable but painfully relatable Underground Man.
Just as Tolstoy needed at least 1,225 pages to tell the story of War and Peace, so too does one need more than one article to explain what makes Russian literature so valuable. It can be appreciated for its historical significance, starting a discussion that ended up transforming the political landscape of the Russian Empire and — ultimately — the world as a whole. It also can be appreciated for its educational value, inspiring readers to evaluate their lives and improve their relationships.
Most importantly, perhaps, Russian literature teaches you to take a critical look at yourself and your surroundings. "Man is a mystery," Dostoevsky once exclaimed outside his fiction, reiterating a teaching first formulated by the Greek philosopher Socrates. "It must be unraveled. And if you spend your whole life unraveling it, do not say you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man."
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
We spend much of our early years learning arithmetic and algebra. What's the use?
- For the average person, math seems to play little to no role in their day-to-day life.
- But, the fanciest gadgets and technologies are all heavily reliant on mathematics.
- Without advanced (and often obscure) mathematics, modern society would not be possible.
The following is an adapted excerpt from the book What's the Use? It is reprinted with permission of the author and Hachette Book Group.
What is mathematics for?
What is it doing for us, in our daily lives?
Not so long ago, there were easy answers to these questions. The typical citizen used basic arithmetic all the time, if only to check the bill when shopping. Carpenters needed to know elementary geometry. Surveyors and navigators needed trigonometry as well. Engineering required expertise in calculus.
Today, things are different. The supermarket checkout totals the bill, sorts out the special meal deal, adds the sales tax. We listen to the beeps as the laser scans the barcodes, and as long as the beeps match the goods, we assume the electronic gizmos know what they are doing. Many professions still rely on extensive mathematical knowledge, but even there, we have outsourced most of the mathematics to electronic devices with built-in algorithms.
My subject is conspicuous by its absence. The elephant isn't even in the room.
It would be easy to conclude that mathematics has become outdated and obsolete, but that view is mistaken. Without mathematics, today's world would fall apart. As evidence, I am going to show you applications to politics, the law, kidney transplants, supermarket delivery schedules, Internet security, movie special effects, and making springs. We will see how mathematics plays an essential role in medical scanners, digital photography, ﬁber broadband, and satellite navigation. How it helps us predict the effects of climate change; how it can protect us against terrorists and Internet hackers.
Remarkably, many of these applications rely on mathematics that originated for totally different reasons, often just the sheer fascination of following your nose. While researching this book, I was repeatedly surprised when I came across uses of my subject that I had never dreamed existed. Often, they exploited topics that I would not have expected to have practical applications, like space-ﬁlling curves, quaternions, and topology.
Mathematics is a boundless, hugely creative system of ideas and methods. It lies just beneath the surface of the transformative technologies that are making the twenty-ﬁrst century totally different from any previous era — video games, international air travel, satellite communications, computers, the Internet, mobile phones. Scratch an iPhone, and you will see the bright glint of mathematics.
Please don't take that literally.
There is a tendency to assume that computers, with their almost miraculous abilities, are making mathematicians, indeed mathematics itself, obsolete. But computers no more displace mathematicians than the microscope displaced biologists. Computers change the way we go about doing mathematics, but mostly they relieve us of the tedious bits. They give us time to think, they help us search for patterns, and they add a powerful new weapon to help advance the subject more rapidly and more effectively.
In fact, a major reason why mathematics is becoming ever more essential is the ubiquity of cheap, powerful computers. Their rise has opened up new opportunities to apply mathematics to real-world issues. Methods that were hitherto impractical, because they needed too many calculations, have now become routine. The greatest mathematicians of the pencil-and-paper era would have ﬂung up their hands in despair at any method requiring a billion calculations. Today, we routinely use such methods, because we have technology that can do the sums in a split second. Mathematicians have long been at the forefront of the computer revolution — along with countless other professions, I hasten to add. Think of George Boole, who pioneered the symbolic logic that forms the basis of current computer architecture. Think of Alan Turing, and his universal Turing machine, a mathematical system that can compute anything that is computable. Think of Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, whose algebra text of 820 AD emphasized the role of systematic computational procedures, now named after him: algorithms.
Most of the algorithms that give computers their impressive abilities are ﬁrmly based on mathematics. Many of the techniques concerned have been taken "off the shelf" from the existing store of mathematical ideas, such as Google's PageRank algorithm, which quantiﬁes how important a website is and founded a multi-billion-dollar industry. Even the snazziest deep learning algorithm in artiﬁcial intelligence uses tried and tested mathematical concepts such as matrices and weighted graphs. A task as prosaic as searching a document for a particular string of letters involves, in one common method at least, a mathematical gadget called a ﬁnite-state automaton.
The involvement of mathematics in these exciting developments tends to get lost. So next time the media propel some miraculous new ability of computers to center stage, bear in mind that hiding in the wings there will be a lot of mathematics, and a lot of engineering, physics, chemistry, and psychology as well, and that without the support of this hidden cast of helpers, the digital superstar would be unable to strut its stuff in the spotlight.
The importance of mathematics in today's world is easily underestimated because nearly all of it goes on behind the scenes. Walk along a city street, and you are overwhelmed by signs proclaiming the daily importance of banks, greengrocers, supermarkets, fashion outlets, car repairs, lawyers, fast food, antiques, charities, and a thousand other activities and professions. You do not ﬁnd a brass plaque announcing the presence of a consulting mathematician. Supermarkets do not sell you mathematics in a can.
Dig a little deeper, however, and the importance of mathematics quickly becomes apparent. The mathematical equations of aerodynamics are vital to aircraft design. Navigation depends on trigonometry. The way we use it today is different from how Christopher Columbus used it, because we embody the mathematics in electronic devices instead of pen, ink, and navigation tables, but the underlying principles are much the same. The development of new medicines relies on statistics to make sure the drugs are safe and effective. Satellite communications depend on a deep understanding of orbital dynamics. Weather forecasting requires the solution of equations for how the atmosphere moves, how much moisture it contains, how warm or cold it is, and how all of those features interact. There are thousands of other examples. We do not notice they involve mathematics, because we do not need to know that to beneﬁt from the results.
Excerpted from WHAT'S THE USE?: How Mathematics Shapes Everyday Life by Ian Stewart. Copyright © 2021. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.