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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,
Elizabeth Holmes,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Robert Lefkowitz,
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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Nobel Prize

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James Watson
James Watson
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James Watson Interview (page: 4 / 9)

Discoverer of the DNA Molecule

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  James Watson

Tell us about the moment you realized you had DNA?

James Watson Interview Photo
James Watson: I thought maybe I'd get a girlfriend or something. Someone will think I'm worthwhile.

Did you fully appreciate it at the moment?

James Watson: Sure. But it was both Francis and I. After you did it, for a while your chief concern was to make the next step forward. Where would you go from there? I don't think we spent much time congratulating ourselves. You had to go on to the next thing, that was really the dominant thing. I don't think we were perceived as someone who tried to rest on our laurels. That's not much fun.

Was there a sense of exhilaration at having finished that chapter?

James Watson: No. It so clearly solved a past dilemma, but opened up so many more that we were almost dominated. Where does it lead? It wasn't any moment of mystic revelation that you might see in a Steven Spielberg movie. There wasn't any of that. It was just, maybe my college will give me a fellowship, and I can stay in this world that I really like very much and thought was so extraordinary.

You walked through one door and there were 20 more before you?

James Watson: I'm a worrier you know. If you get one thing, you worry about something else.

You didn't get the respect one might have thought from this.

James Watson Interview Photo
James Watson: Oh, sure we did. What more could you do? Despite my personality, they gave me a job at Harvard. They sort of had to offer it to me. But I think many didn't, because I was known for being so candid about things that it was thought that I would just upset things. I did, you know. I didn't go there and stay quiet.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

James Watson: Not in any major way. Up at Harvard, I had extraordinarily good students, and I had met Walter Gilbert, who I worked with. Wally went on and discovered the DNA sequencing, so I've had very, very intelligent friends, and people that keep me honest.

Did you experience any kind of setbacks in your life, and what did you make of them?

James Watson: After I found the DNA, I thought I found the girl I wanted to marry and then, after ups and downs, she said she didn't want to marry me. It took a while to find someone else I could like equally well. So, you know, my life has not been that straightforward.

You haven't had setbacks that caused you momentary doubts about your work or life?

James Watson: No, never that. In the sense of thinking I was in the wrong profession, or in deep mental gloom or anything like that, no. You could say I've had so much luck that I could always look forward to something. I think it's when you can't look forward to anything, then it's probably easy to get depressed.

Have there been any tragedies that affected your outlook on life?

James Watson: Not very much. Things that affect me are things which affect the health of people I love.

Could you describe the Genome Project?

James Watson Interview Photo
James Watson: The immediate objective, over the next 15 to 20 years, is to identify all the human genes. And to begin to home in on the functioning of what they do. To describe the information which makes us human. Now, we're not going to really understand all the subtleties of this information, which would take thousands of years to unravel. But we'll at least be able to say, " This is the instruction book." I think when we get the human instruction book this will, again, be one of these great moments in human history. That man has evolved to the point where he can work out his own set of instructions. This will have lots of consequences because, with this, you'll be able to do many forms of science faster than we're now doing them. Also, for people who have a particular rare genetic disease, this will make it so much easier for them to find out which gene is behind it and, hopefully, the actual function of this gene. What protein does it go for? In some of these cases, you always hope, of course, that if you know what's wrong, you can fix it.

You've referred to it as biology's moon shot.

James Watson: Other people have. I don't think I invented that. I think it was just that it's a big effort. Actually costing much less than the moon shot, if we put it in terms of the dollars. One-tenth as much, or something. I think its chief similarity is that to get to the moon required the collaboration of lots of people. Getting to the moon, when I was a child, was an impossible dream. And this is another impossible dream. The great breakthrough of knowing how to work out the letters in an individual genetic message, that actual structure of it, only occurred in 1976. That was through the work at Harvard by Gilbert and Maxson and at Cambridge by Fred Sanger, and Colson. They got the Nobel Prize a few years ago. That opened up the possibility of man eventually working out the genetic message of himself.

The cost of the project has been criticized, and some people think the funds should be spread around more.

James Watson: Actually we're spreading it around a lot; it's not being done in one place. Because it's going to take 15 years, it's going to be less than two percent of the budget of the National Institutes of Health. So, it's not as if it's there's enough wastage in the system that if you really cut out the stuff that shouldn't be done, you could easily pay for it. Something which is quite common in science is that, when you really want to do something different, you're ahead of your time, most people think you shouldn't do it, you should continue doing what you're doing. Most people really get threatened by the thought that the way they do science would be changed. You know, they might become out of date.

I'm sure a picture of many people on the outside is that science is filled with leftist radicals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most scientists are really conservative to the point of being very boring, and not that innovative. Maybe when they were young they hoped for change but, as their life gets going, they haven't changed things that much, and they get settled into a pattern. Someone who really wants to shake things up is thought a threat.

When Crick and I wanted to do DNA, people thought, "You're ahead of your time, you really shouldn't do something like that." I would feel uncomfortable if I was leading something where, at least in the beginning, people thought it should be done. Because you're only making a contribution if you're doing something that, at least to start with, people haven't gotten used to the idea that it should be done.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

If it's accepted by conventional wisdom, you're not reaching far enough?

James Watson: In many cases, yes. Conventional wisdom is, more or less, "Continue doing what you're doing now." I think that's why, if you look at large corporations, it's so hard for them to change. At least in the culture of the United States...

Innovation so often comes from something not part of a big organization, where by being small, and just being separate from the ordinary wisdom, you get something done. So that's what's been the real health of the American academic system. By passing money out to so many different people, to be free to do what they want, rather than having this sort of grand plan in which the people like myself make the plans. That tends to stifle innovation.

It forces people to bow to some orthodoxy defined by something other than scientific pursuit.

James Watson: Yes. In some cultures it's really very hard to disagree with your elders.

Everyone is saying the Japanese are so good. In science they haven't been very innovative, and I think it's partly because it's so hard for their younger people to actually disagree with the people on top. If you're 30, it's almost political suicide to disagree with someone who is 50. So they're very good at doing things once it's clear it can be done, but totally striking out on their own carries so many recipes for social disaster. That's been the strength of America.

In science, at least, there isn't much respect for age -- which is very good -- anymore than there should be respect for age in baseball. There's only one Nolan Ryan, and there's no one else. And eventually he'll have to stop.

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