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Science  23 Nov 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5854, pp. 1245b-1246b
DOI: 10.1126/science.1151032

Avoid Boring People

Lessons from a Life in Science / And Other Lessons from a Life in Science by James D. Watson Knopf, New York, 2007. 365 pp. $26.95, C$34.95. ISBN 9780375412844. Oxford University Press, Oxford. £14.99. ISBN 9780192802736.

All of us have received those scoring guidelines from funding agencies that begin with outstanding; proceed through excellent, very good, and good; and terminate (at least in America) with average. Absent are poor, bad, awful, and disgusting. I have always felt that only two categories are required: interesting and boring. Boring and being bored figure large in Jim Watson's new book Avoid Boring People, and the double meaning of the title is make explicit by the insertion of a ghostly “other” on the dust jacket.

I must confess that I had been sent parts of the book sometime ago, when its title was going to be Manners. Thus, when the new title was announced, I thought a good title for a review would be “Avoid boring books.” But after reading the book, I quickly changed my mind. It is interesting because it fills out the parts of Jim's life missing from his previous books.

I learned many things about Jim that exploded several of my theories about him. For example, when Jim and I were stopped by the police in Kansas in 1954, Jim expressed great irritation at being addressed as Mr. Dewey, his middle name. I always thought that this name stemmed from John Dewey, the philosopher, whose books occupied the top shelf of the large bookcase I had seen a few days before in his father's study in their home in Chicago. In fact, Dewey is a family name of Jim's grandmother, brought to America in the 17th century. There are also many other interesting connections of his family, including that Jim and Orson Welles are related. From the information given in the book, they could share as much as 6% of their genomes—but we can definitely exclude that they have the same Y chromosome.

The early chapters of the book take us through Jim's undergraduate education at the University of Chicago, his graduate work in Bloomington, his encounter with the phage group, and the influences of Max Delbrück and Salva Luria on his intellectual development. After a somewhat hilarious first postdoc with Herman Kalckar in Copenhagen, he arrives in Cambridge in 1951, and we are soon back in the familiar country of The Double Helix (1), with a detailed history of the discovery.

That year he “got a Nobel Prize but no raise from Harvard.”


The remainder of the book deals with Jim's years at Harvard, which he joined as an untenured professor in 1956, 3 years after making the discovery of the century. He resigned in 1976, when he found that combining his Harvard duties with the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (which he had taken up in 1967) was proving difficult. At Harvard between writing The Molecular Biology of the Gene (2) and The Double Helix, Jim emerged as a leader in molecular biology, a great mentor of his students, and the force behind the appointments of many colleagues who collectively made Harvard a leading center for the new molecular biology. Unlike Delbrück, who was nearly always wrong, Jim was nearly always right in his scientific choices. And also unlike Delbrück (who could be ruthlessly dismissive in his criticism and wounded many young people), Jim was constructive, even though some of his ideas could be eccentric. Jim also knew what it was like to be a young person in a competitive field of science.

Jim gives an account of what he claims to be his prior discovery of messenger RNA. Although this is not the place for a discussion of this matter, I was interested to learn that Leo Szilard was not convinced by the experiment and that Jim then followed his advice to try to demonstrate messenger RNA in bacteria before publishing it. It was difficult at the time to change everybody's standard views, which is why François Jacob and I took enormous pains with the experiments we carried out. We withdrew our completed paper to wait for Jim's manuscript, which we assumed was ready but was delayed 4 months. Jim does not deny the delay but claims it irrelevant because he got there first. However, the delay had certain consequences of which I am sure he is aware.

If Jim's first autobiographical book (The Double Helix) is a story of success, his second, Genes, Girls and Gamow (3), is one about failure. In it, Jim fails to solve the structure of RNA and is only a spectator in the quest for the genetic code. He also fails to get his girl; indeed, he fails to get any girl at all. Whereas Avoid Boring People, I think, is about fulfillment. Jim does get his girl as well as the Nobel Prize. He emerges a leader of the field of molecular biology, a great defender of basic research, and the source of much welcome encouragement for young scientists working at the frontiers of knowledge. The Human Genome Project, which Jim led in its early years, has had one bad—one might say, boring—consequence in generating factory science that I have called “low input, high throughput, no output” biology. Such biology is a theme addressed in the Epilogue, which discusses the demise of Larry Summers, the previous president of Harvard University. Summers was forced to resign after making some ill-chosen remarks about genes and the academic skills of women. That, Jim asserts, was his personal fault, but he deserved to fail because of his contributions to the destruction of biological research in Harvard.

I almost forgot to mention that each of the book's chapters is followed by a set of lessons and manners learned. The 108 “remembered lessons” are then provided again at the end of the book. I am afraid that most of them are boring. They are in no way “an indispensable guide to anyone plotting [note: not planning, or entertaining] a career in science.” There are better lessons to be learned from reading Avoid Boring People.

Epilogue. While I wrote this review in a hospital bed, there flashed across the television screen the news of Jim's recent activities in London. It was an uncanny replay of what had happened to Larry Summers. Jim made some remarks about genes and black people (he's done the women one before), and those raised an uproar. Branded as a racist, he had to abandon his lecture, and Cold Spring Harbor had to censure him and relieve him of his administrative duties. Manners are social codes that enable us to operate in society in acceptable ways. There are good manners and bad manners. But this and the Summers episode go much more deeply than the display of bad manners, for which one can always apologize. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris, the self-confidence and arrogance that always leads to disastrous retribution. If Euripides were with us, he would have said “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first expose to the public press.”


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