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If you like James Watson's story, you might also like:
Stephen Jay Gould,
Edward O. Wilson
and Shinya Yamanaka
Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring James Watson in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine
James Watson Interview (page: 2 / 9)
Discoverer of the DNA Molecule
When did you first start to get interested in broader scientific areas?
James Watson: I had science courses in the first two years of high school, so would be exposed to things like the Periodic Table, and at some stage, of course, I became conscious of evolution. That is, probably in a real sense it wasn't until I went to the University of Chicago. But there they had an unusual program, they took some people after two years of high school. So I would go to the university by street car every day, starting at the age of 15. That was a very great university, particularly for science. And so I knew I was in an environment of great scientists. So it was, I guess, the inspiration I might become one myself.
Was there an event that inspired you most as a young person?
James Watson: No, I think it was just a way of life. My father had a brother who was a physicist on the faculty at Yale, so in a sense I had met a scientist. My father had no real interest in science, per se. He was interested in ethics, philosophy. He liked to find rare birds, but that was sort of a chance, not a scientific interest.
You've become interested in chance.
James Watson: You like to do things at the limit of your capacity. I try to promote science at the limit of what you might get done. Doing well what someone else has done before, I'll never be able to do it as well as they do it anyway. You get more self respect by trying to do something that someone else hasn't done.
Was there one person who inspired you the most?
James Watson: In those days we were dominated by the radio, and hearing the voice of Franklin Roosevelt, who was probably the dominant figure in American life. He was hated by some of my father's relatives, I remember. I used to argue with them even as a small boy, because they were so blatantly bigoted. Roosevelt was the enemy. They didn't really have any money themselves it always sort of amazed me that they could just hate Roosevelt. For my family, Roosevelt was the hope. Then later, when the war came on, Churchill became a very dominant figure. Also, the President of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins. He had an extraordinary presence. He looked and acted like a great man, and he was.
What was it about Dr. Hutchins?
James Watson: He was an extraordinary orator. Also, he seemed to believe in the truth, that you should strive for the best in this world, the best in ideas, and an emphasis on thinking, using your brain, reality as distinct from illusion.
You said that one has to have the time to think.
James Watson: I think so. I'm very uncreative now, because someone wants me to do something all the time. I receive letters I don't have the time to answer, so I'm in a pretty uncreative mood.
Were you a gifted child?
Did you think life would be hard for you?
James Watson: It was always hard for everyone. Even today. There's so much uncertainty. So many things really beyond your control. As you grow up, you can't be sure that a girl will return your love. You just can't predict that things will turn out the way you want them.
Does science offer more satisfaction, that you can find what appears to be the truth?
James Watson: There's a distinction between doing it and learning it. When you do it, you don't know the answers, you may not get the answers. So of course, in being a good scientist you try and choose problems where you have a chance at getting the answer.
You can focus in on the area where the answer may lie.
James Watson: People keep saying, you know, that you have some special way of perceiving the future. But I think really you have a good command of the facts. I think to do science you have to know the past pretty well. And sort of know the facts that you might have to know to get where you want to go. So sometimes you can just come to the conclusion, you just don't stand a chance, and stay away from it. So you don't even jump into something that seems just an impossible obstacle. Of course, you've got to get one where you have two or three obstacle, and maybe you can jump over all of them, but not too many. And so with time I realized that I've never wanted to do anything if I didn't think I had about a 30 percent chance of getting it done in a year. I'm not a one percent person. You know, I'm not going to Las Vegas trying to get a jackpot. I want to go where, if you've got to sort of out-guess other people who think really, you know, it's impossibly hard to -- you know, it's not impossibly hard, so you jump in. But I don't jump in something just because it's there. I jump in because I think there's a reasonable chance ordinary intelligence will get you through to the answer.
You're also very competitive, you like the chase.
James Watson: I guess it's what you finally get your self respect from. I'm not a very good athlete; I have to do something well. So, what I do, I like to at least know that I can do it. And I guess that means winning. I play tennis, but I'm not competitive. All I want to do is hit good shots. I'm not out there necessarily to win. I think if you do something, you might as well do it to the best of your capacity. If you try and promote science, you should promote the science which is going to have an impact, rather than just science, per se.
Were there other things in schools that inspired you?
James Watson: I had some very good teachers at the University of Chicago. There was an Irish class. David Green taught humanities, and he was a marvelous teacher. Later on, you became inspired by scientists who were doing things that you would want to do. Certainly, Linus Pauling loomed large in my life, by the time I left the university. And there was a geneticist at the University of Chicago, Sewell Wright, who not only could do experimental genetics, but did evolutionary genetics. He was a powerful mathematician. He was certainly inspired, and I listened to his lectures at the university. It's not necessary, but I think it's very helpful to go to a university where people can inspire you. They can be heroes. Role models, if you want to call them that
You've said you like to be around people smarter than you.
James Watson: Yes, because it keeps you awake. I get bored very fast if I'm listening to somebody and I think, I know what the answer is going to be. I'd rather read a newspaper than listen to a dull lecture. So I've always been very conscious of people's style and speaking. I mean people who can use words to convey information. That was the extraordinary thing about Robert Hutchins. He had a way of getting his point across through a certain amount of irony.
I like people describing things as they are, rather than as the way people want them to be. There's a lot of evil in this world, and you've got to be aware of it. You shouldn't just have illusions. It's not only other people that are evil; there's evil in your friends, in yourself, and you've got to put it in perspective. So, I expect the worse, and then I go under that assumption.
[ Key to Success ] Preparation
Then I'm never knocked off my perch, because I discover there are fallen heroes, or something. I go in pretty suspicious. I'm not the sort to say, "Oh, human beings are wonderful."
In which case you'd be constantly disappointed.
James Watson: People say I'm very snobbish and, in one sense, I am. I just want to hear something interesting. Ordinary people are ordinary. When I was young I was always trying to get near extraordinary people. They were more like the extraordinary film stars. You get alive when you're stimulated, so I guess I want to be stimulated. That's really the sadness of this, there's hardly a politician out there now who says anything in a way that I can respond to. Because they seem to be not talking about the world as it exists. That was the thing that made so many of us so fond of Adlai Stevenson. He had a certain style. It didn't make him president, and he was often wrong. I can't say that he was the good guy and Eisenhower was the bad guy. But when Eisenhower spoke, I found it hard to listen. You know, just another Republican. But Stevenson made you think that there could be something wonderful about human beings. I think that was the point.
Now is not the occasion to mention people who are in power, but I'd long for someone to give speeches like Roosevelt did. Roosevelt had marvelous speech writers. He had Robert Sherwood, he had Sam Rosenman, he had Archibald MacLeish. And he must have also liked the English language. He must have had a good English master at Groton, or something, someone who got across the fact that words say something. Sometimes, when things are bad you really need someone who gives you hope because they say things are bad. Because you know they're bad, and people don't say they're bad and that's, of course, why Hoover killed the Republican Party for over 40 years, because he kept saying, things were good and they weren't good. Churchill saw evil and said it.
You want someone who states the truth and captures the imagination. You're going to slay the evil dragons and not just say they don't exist. On my mother's side, my grandmother was from an impoverished Irish background, and they always kept saying things were good. That was such hypocrisy. Maybe things in Ireland were so bad that you could never say what it was like. They called it blarney, I called it crap.
You always want to tell the truth?
James Watson: I guess I'm best known for just saying things the way I think they are under circumstances where you're not supposed to say it. You've got a fairly short life span and, particularly when you have students, you've got to let them know what you think. They shouldn't have a guessing game as to what you think, because you're really out there to try and educate them as to what reality is. So, if you have a bad seminar, you might as well tell the guy to his face. You shouldn't get up and say, "Wonderful talk," when it isn't.
[ Key to Success ] Integrity
Would you say science is no place for diplomacy.
James Watson: Sometimes it is, but not to the point of hypocrisy. I've certainly got into trouble a lot by saying what I think, but probably in less trouble than if I hadn't said what I thought. You're always getting into trouble, but that's true of everyone. You've got to sort of calculate what gets something accomplished. You can't go around having your language obscene. I remember when you're in adolescence, everyone wants to speak as obscenely as possible. I remember that in Chicago. As you get to be adults, it occasionally was well to have words by which people know you're upset.
I think the great thing about the University of Chicago was it didn't place a great premium on good manners. I never saw them as bad manners, but the student body wasn't forced to keep deferring to people for some reason or other. You'd just say it as it was. So it was a very stimulating place where you argued all the time, and you didn't listen to something which you thought was wrong and just say, "Well, I don't want to upset anyone."
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This page last revised on Nov 29, 2013 14:30 EDT
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