Saturday, 30 January 2010

James D Watson

In 2007 Professor James D Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, was due to give a talk in Bristol as part of the city's annual Festival of Ideas. Then the dear old thing said something slightly stupid: in an interview with The Sunday Times he was quoted as saying that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really". The resulting brouhaha caused his tour to be cancelled, but I was lucky enough to talk to him shortly before this happened, and found him engaging and refreshingly direct. Here is the complete transcript of that interview which, due to space constraints, was edited down to less than half its length for the final print version (Venue Magazine, October 2007).

Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his part in the discovery of the structure of DNA, James D. Watson is one of the world’s greatest living scientists. Watson discovered the DNA molecule with Francis Crick in 1953 – a discovery which shook the world of science and revolutionised the study of biology and genetics.

In his new book, Avoid Boring People, James Watson looks back on his extraordinary career and considers the lessons he has learnt along the way. The result is an engaging, original memoir and an insightful compendium of lessons in life for aspiring scientists.

Visiting Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas, this is rare opportunity to meet one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century.

Q: By the age of 12 you were appearing on Quiz Kids - a popular radio show – and you enrolled in University at just 15. How did your family cope with having such a precocious talent in their midst?

A: I wasn’t considered a genius. The person who did the radio show lived next door: I was just fodder for the other kids, but I really liked learning and I just made it into University. I was never the sort of person who was pushed by his parents, but I learn fast.

Q: You initial interests at University were ornithology and zoology. Why the switch to genetics?

A: I saw myself as a naturalist. I was interested in the management of wildlife, that’s where I saw my career going, then I read Erwin Schrödinger's book - What Is Life - when I was 18 and that intrigued me. At the time physicists dominated the public impression of what scientists were, with the atom bomb and so on.

Q: In 1951 you relocated to the physics department of the University of Cambridge, where you met Francis Crick, a partnership that resulted in your discovery of the structure of DNA, the double helix, and being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. That must have been an exciting time. Do you still get excited by scientific discoveries?

A: Yes I do. Right now there’s the possibility that we could stop most cancers, or answer the argument between nature and nurture - why do the Greeks talk more than the Swedes, for example? Our opinion about these things is based on prejudice, we have no facts. I doubt that it will happen in my lifetime, but new discoveries are being made all of the time. I’m still as excited by science as I was when I went to Cambridge. Francis was an exciting person to be around, a larger than life character.

Q: You left the Human Genome Project (a project to understand genetic make-up by identifying all the genes in the human genome) because you disagreed with attempts to acquire patents on gene sequences. How do you feel about that now?

A: Technically I was fired. It taught me a lesson, and that’s to resign before you get fired if you’re incompatible with your boss! I’m uncomfortable with patents that slow down research; if you have a medicine that will cure me then that’s worthwhile, but the pace of cancer research has been slowed down by people owning patents. Using this for personal benefit is not a good thing; it belongs to the people of the world.

Q: You’re a strong proponent of genetically modified crops. Do you still believe that the arguments against genetically modified crops are unscientific or irrational?

A: My belief is that, unless something can harm you go ahead. I don’t think that anyone has gotten sick from genetically-modified crops, and just because something is natural doesn’t make it safe. The opposition comes from leftists who want to blame everything on capitalism. Monsanto made an enormous mistake by patenting crops; the argument should be against corporate ownership. Sometimes people just get a bad throw of the genetic dice: I have a son who suffers from schizophrenia; my family has been touched by genetic injustice.

Q: You’ve been variously described as a humanist and an atheist. Has your opinion on the existence of God or a higher being changed as you’ve got older?

A: No, not at all. I believe in reason, and there’s no reason for believing. I like church music, I like church interiors; I was brought up a Christian but I see no reason to think that there is a God. There are a lot of times when the Catholic Church totally irritates me, although my Mother was Irish Catholic.

Q: You’re not afraid of being controversial and provocative. In a 2003 documentary you said that low intelligence is an inherited disorder and that molecular biologists have a duty to devise screening tests to tackle stupidity. You were quoted by New Scientist as suggesting that the genes influencing beauty could also be engineered, saying “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty: I think it would be great”, and your new book has been described as quirky, infuriating and engagingly eccentric. What can people attending your talk in Bristol expect?

A: Well, the book title has a double meaning, of course, and I think that I’m trying not to bore people, and anyway I’m so old now that I’ll soon stop! I like to write, but this will probably be my last book.

A rival in Cambridge changed my attitude to the world, and I always anticipated returning one day. I really look forward to being back in the UK and returning to places that I’ve visited before. I’ll be in constant motion, but I’ve not been to Bristol or Bath before and I’m looking forward to that.

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