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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: 9 / 9)

Discoverer of the DNA Molecule

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  James Watson

Do you think there will ever be another evolution in molecular biology as big as the discovery of the structure of DNA by you and Francis Crick?

James Watson: I don't see how there could be.

Now we want to find the language of the brain, you know, how information is stored there, and I see that as a major challenging problem and I don't know where the answer will come. Somewhere in the brain is, you know, the telephone number of our house. How do you write a telephone number in the brain? So there are great problems, so I don't think young people should feel, you know, "The DNA revolution is big and I can't be a part of it in that sense." Just go on to something else.

What new projects are you taking on at the moment?

James Watson: Oh, I'm too old to start anything new. I'm trying to improve my tennis game.

And how is it?

James Watson: Getting better. When I was young, I thought people 50 were hopeless and now, at 73, I think people at 50 are still hopeless. I like to think. I love seeing biology advance. When I first came to Harvard so long ago I was bored most of the time. There weren't that many new facts appearing. There were so many things I couldn't understand, and I didn't know how to attack them. It has become so much easier to attack the problems which I once was interested in. When we don't know how to attack them, they seem up in the clouds somewhere, but it's all about pulling them down from the clouds so that you can actually have a whack at them.

Now that you're at this stage in your career, are there any problems that you would like to have tackled that you never had a chance to?

James Watson: No, I think I've been pretty lucky. I wanted to do the gene, and I wanted to work on cancer. At Cold Spring Harbor we've been working on cancer for 30 years, and with lots of nice insights as to things we couldn't have predicted.

I think scientifically I've had a very charmed life. My rule was, you know, just go to a place where there are a lot of bright people, and try and surround yourself with bright people and they'll keep you alive. And so at Cold Spring Harbor there are lots of bright people. At Harvard there was -- well. wonderfully bright students. Some faculty are bright. And then when I was educated I had super teachers. So, you know, the message I would give to young people is: "Don't be the best in your class. If you're the best in your class you're in the wrong class."

For a number of years we didn't really seem to be going anywhere, and then around 1960 it clicked. We had a wonderful period from, say 1960 to 1970. That's when I was here at Harvard. But I think you just always want to know what big problems are out there and what might be the way to climb the mountain.

Can you identify a characteristic style or mode of thought that has been particularly useful to you in your scientific work?

James Watson: I think it is just saying what I think instead of being afraid to be at variance with other people. Even bright people can seem effectively to be stupid. I think you've got to be at home in being out of place. Because for the most part people don't want you around.

Young people probably -- you know, if they're any good they're thought arrogant. And that means they think they know the truth and they don't believe those above them. So, you know, You're not supposed to be arrogant, but if you're not arrogant, if you don't believe you know how to do something better than someone else, you're probably not doing anything. So you know, it's not that I felt arrogant but I've thought -- well, probably people feel I'm arrogant -- but I'm just thinking that other people aren't doing what they should. Francis Crick used to upset so many people, and that was what I thought his great virtue was. But you know, when you're young and you upset people, you don't get the jobs, you know.

A really great university is willing just to go out and get people even though they upset other people. But if you see department politics, often it is not as simple as you think to get someone in who has upset some senior person by saying the senior person is going nowhere. So I think my job now is to criticize those who are 50, the people who are running things, the people who pass out the money.

If you could travel ahead in time, say 500 years, and look back, what sort of scientific problem that's unsolved today would you love to know the answer to?

James Watson: I don't think I can see that far ahead. I'll put it just this way: I want to see how you write memories in the brain. Just saying you strengthen a synapse, that's not the answer. Strengthening synapses certainly helps, but a key thing is, how do you write "four" and how do you retrieve it? Centuries ahead, it will still be fun to be a biologist.

On behalf of the Academy of Achievement I would like to thank you for a most fascinating interview.

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