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If you like James Watson's story, you might also like:
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Norman Borlaug,
Linda Buck,
Francis Collins,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Susan Hockfield,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Linus Pauling,
George Rathmann,
John Sulston,
James Thomson,
Bert Vogelstein,
Ian Wilmut,
Edward O. Wilson
and Shinya Yamanaka

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring James Watson in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine

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CSHL
Nobel Prize
TIME

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James Watson
 
James Watson
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James Watson Interview (page: 3 / 9)

Discoverer of the DNA Molecule

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  James Watson

How much of a role has luck played in your success? Does it play a role?

James Watson Interview Photo
James Watson: Of course it does. When I went to Cambridge, England, I could have arrived there and Francis Crick wouldn't have been there. And if Francis Crick hadn't been there I wouldn't be here right now. Now you could say it wasn't luck, in the sense that Francis and I were both drawn to that particular lab in Cambridge, because it had an intellectual objective. It was the place in the world to go, there was no doubt. But it was partially luck that I got there. My teacher at Indiana University, Salvatore Luria, had gone to the University of Michigan by accident and met someone from that lab in Cambridge, and said I was dissatisfied in Copenhagen and wanted to go to England. And he said, "I'll take him." So, that was luck. Would I have discovered Cambridge and gone there if Luria hadn't gone to give a talk? You can't say. I think you've got to be prepared for your luck by being part of cultural traditions which make you aware of what you should be seeking. You know, I think I've always wanted to go to places at the scientific frontier, and Cambridge was such a place.

James Watson Interview Photo
You could say it was luck that I was born in 1928 and not four years later, because that discovery was going to be made in that period. Probably couldn't have been made before '51, but it was bound to come out. It might have gone two more years with people not focusing on it. But it was a discovery which was going to come at that time. Darwin had the idea of evolution, and he didn't publish it. Then he heard that Voss had the same idea, and so he published it. When I said life is hard, I mean it's not predictable. I could have gone to Copenhagen and fallen in love with a Danish girl and wanted to stay there even though science would have told me to get out of the place. That didn't happen. So you could say bad luck in Copenhagen had led me to the right place.

How did you first become interested in DNA?


James Watson: There was this marvelous English book, Chariots of Fire, with the two runners, one of them running for God, and the other to prove that a Jew could run as fast as a Gentile. And it was a great movie. Francis and I were running against God, in the sense that we wanted to know what made us human. Both of us had been subjected to religious truths which came by revelation, and we didn't have much acceptance of truths by revelation. We wanted to know really what we were. We both were very curious what life was. What is life? And that thinking led you to "What is a gene?"

[ Key to Success ] Passion


There didn't seem to be any problem that was important as that. When we found the gene, we realized that people weren't going to give up accepting truth from revelation, but at least we knew where it came from. Because someone could always say, "There's something else. There's more than molecules." But we couldn't figure it out. What are there besides molecules? Nothing.

Did you feel as if you were in a race, to some extent?

James Watson Interview Photo
James Watson: Well, Linus Pauling had this sort of God-like reputation, that anything he wanted to do, he could do. You had to be worried that he'd have that clever idea and you'd be left with nothing. In that sense, if I didn't worry about the competition I'd have been stupid. People who go around saying they don't think about the competition, on the whole, are being very dishonest. I think that in The Double Helix I tried to tell it as it was. I probably was a little more polite than I would have been if I had written the book ten years before. The book was written in my mid-30s, so it was a little more polite.

Even then you ruffled some feathers.

James Watson: Yeah, but there's a lot of pompous people in this world who have an illusion that they're better than they are. I never could figure out some of these people who were so upset by the book, whether they actually thought that life was different from the way I portrayed it.


There was one person at Cal Tech who wrote a review which said my book should virtually be banned from children, because it will keep them from going into science. Maybe this person went into science for different reasons but, certainly, that hasn't been the effect. Most people who read the book say it was fun, and people say it inspired them to go into the field. So I don't think that touch of reality really -- but some people thought "this is evil," and I didn't.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


Does it amaze you that you were able to make that discovery as quickly as you did?

James Watson: No. There wasn't that much to discover. For life to get started, the essence of it couldn't be so complicated, so finding out the essence shouldn't be that complicated. If you said life was created by some forces, in a mystical way that you see in films, then it could all be just unbelievably blurry. We just didn't think it should be a blur. It turned out to be a very simple truth.


There are a lot of complexities when you say, "How did the first DNA molecules come about?" Now we realize it must have started with RNA. You can ask, "Did it start with RNA as we know it today?" Can you really guess what the chemical events were three or four billion years ago? The answer is no, we can't right now. So we can't really prove we know how life came about. But when you saw DNA, you at least knew how life as it exists now is made possible.


James Watson Interview Photo
Of course, since finding the double helix, we've discovered an enormous amount of things which make the picture more and more complete. But it was the breakthrough we needed to get on the right track.

You said it would be 50 years before there was a breakthrough in the cure for cancer.

James Watson: I'm not sure I ever said that. I think I said we need five to ten years more. Really solid cancer research, where you begin to think in terms of the genetic events, has been going on for almost 30 years, starting with the first molecular work on tumor viruses. I think in another 20 years we may know most of the basic things. We may really know what goes wrong when a particular four genes go wrong, and the biochemical consequences of these damaged genes, say in leukemia. One hopes that in some cases we'll be able to use this knowledge to cure the disease. I think the possibility of this knowledge leading to cures over the next 25 years is not a far out idea. If I were running a drug company, I'd spend quite a bit of the company's money to see if you couldn't use this knowledge that the scientific world is producing to cure some cancers. I give it a 30 percent chance. I don't think it's a one in a thousand chance.

We're learning enough of the basic science?

James Watson: We're trying to learn the faces of the enemies. If you don't know their faces, you don't know where to shoot.That's what we're trying to do. I take enormous satisfaction in the extraordinary amount of good science that has been accomplished, that is still going on at an ever-increasing rate.

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This page last revised on Nov 29, 2013 14:30 EST
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