11 May 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 656
Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science
By Professor James Watson
Published by Oxford University Press
ISBN-10: 0199548188, ISBN-13: 978-0199548187
Buy this book from Amazon UK
'Don't use autobiography to justify past actions or motivations'.
So begins one of James Watson's many aphorisms in this illuminating account of his long and distinguished career at the pinnacle of molecular science. Co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Nobel-prize winner, and sometime controversialist, Watson reflects on a remarkable journey that took him from his bird-watching school days in Chicago to the heights of Harvard and the White House.
Structured as a set of remembered lessons, each chapter outlines the 'manners needed' at different points in Watson's life. They then end with a set of 'career tips' for scientists at all stages of their academic professions. The result is an often amusing glance into the structure and tempo of academic life, told through the eyes of one of its most famous exponents.
The book first explores Watsons' formative years as an academic in Chicago and the identification of his central research objective – the gene – at an early stage in his career. We then follow him through graduate school at Indiana University and his first interactions with the wider academic world he was to inhabit for the rest of his life.
The early chapters paint a picture of a driven, committed and competitive spirit, well suited to the fast-paced and sometimes cut-throat world of professional academia. Along the way we are reminded of the highly social nature of science, the importance of gossip and of staying in the loop, and are advised to 'work on Sundays' to keep ahead of the competition.
Watson's post-doctoral career leads him (and us) to University of Cambridge and to Francis Crick, with whom he received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. This is a case of art imitating life, as the book really takes off once Crick arrives on the scene. In fact, the book, just like Watson's life could easily be split into the two halves: the one before he met Crick, and the one after.
The chapters describing Watson's interactions with Crick and other colleagues; the discovery of the structure of DNA; and the later chapters on the Nobel Prize and writing his book, 'The Double Helix', are by far the most interesting and detailed. In them we are given an insight into the often complicated, and sometimes murky waters of scientific competition and discovery.
Finally, we are guided through Watson's tenure at Harvard, his short-lived career as a government adviser on bio-chemical weaponry ('the military is interested in what scientists know, not what they think'), and his search for love - which he finally found at the age of 40.
His account of how to pioneer cutting-edge science and his directorship of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory are peppered with recommendations to 'run a benevolent dictatorship', and to 'manage your scientists like a baseball team'. The final chapter covers his reluctant resignation from the Harvard faculty.
The book is generally aimed at readers familiar with the basic ebb and flow of high-level career-science. Readers hoping for a glimpse into the emotional or personal life of this controversial scientist will be left wanting: there is not much soul-searching, and Watson gives little emotional ground.
Moreover, those familiar with Watson's history may find his account rather one-sided. This is perhaps inevitable in such a book, which partly functions, as Watson himself states, 'to prevent later biographers getting the basic facts of your life wrong'. While hints of conflict and discord with other scholars are present, Watson does not speculate on how others may have interpreted the same events. Instead he prefers 'to tell it straight without vainglory or shame and let others praise or damn you, as they will inevitably do anyway'.
This he does, apart from a final epilogue where he allows himself to engage in more wide-ranging criticisms and speculations about the future of genetic research – in particular the controversial topic of IQ (intelligence quotient).
In all, the book achieves what Watson appears to have set out to do: to give as dispassionate an account of the events in his life as possible, from his point of view. He leaves the analysis to the reader.
Buy Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science from Amazon UK.