Genes, Girls, and Gamow

Genes, Girls, and Gamow


When I awoke, Friday morning was half over, and the half-empty physiology labs revealed that I was far from alone in missing breakfast. Those there were working only half-heartedly, and I sensed that the past evening had been an unqualified success by mixing groups that before never saw reason to come together. Over coffee Eve reassured me that it was the best party she had been to since her student life of Hungary, and she saw no reason why I had to be blackballed by George Wald from a subsequent appointment to Harvard.

The thought that I could use my talents as an impresario, if my career as a scientist began to falter, filled my head as I drove away from Woods Hole towards New Hampshire. After stopping for a late lunch at Harvard with Paul and Helga Doty, I was back on the road to the Mayrs' farm. There I found Ernst and Gretel tickled pink with their good fortune in having a country place for weekend escapes and the summer solitude that would facilitate Ernst's future writings on evolution. First, however, the farm had to be brought to the clean simplicity expected from their Bavarian origins. Painting the farmhouse red fell into Ernst's domain. Soon after my arrival, I offered my assistance. Smiling firmly, he refused, letting me know that I would have a full-time painting job the next day. I was thus free for Christa and her sister Susie to lead me around their largely forested acres that included a small pond for which I had been forewarned to bring a swimming suit.

Over dinner we bantered whether Ernst had enough clout to get me a Harvard offer. I slept well that night, sensing that Christa seemed as keen as her parents to have me part of their social scene. The next day I was a house painter until early afternoon, when, using the excuse of bird-searching, Christa and I hiked in the direction of a small mountain that loomed over the horizon. Only the next day did we go swimming in the pond, which was small enough for us to touch naturally when treading water in front of Ernst and Gretel, who soon came down to gossip.

Then we were all off to Cambridge from which I reached Woods Hole two hours later. Geo Gamow was to be there for several more days but already his moment had passed. All attention was on Franz Moewus, the German geneticist, then in Woods Hole. At last he had been definitively caught faking experimental results. Serious allegations against Moewus had first emerged 15 years before, when Av Mitchison's uncle, J.B.S. Haldane, published a brief note saying that Moewus's experimental results did not show the random variations expected from Mendelian-type genetic crosses. In reply, Moewus countered that he must have subconsciously selected for publication the crosses that best approximate to the statistically expected Mendelian values. There was also the question that the volume of experiences reported seemed far in excess of what one scientist and his wife, given their relatively modest academic appointment, could have carried out. On the other hand, if correct, Moewus's work on the genetics of the molecules underlying sexuality in the green alga Chlamydomonas had to be judged among the most significant genetic feats ever carried out.

The most straightforward way to rule out potential fraud is for an independent investigator to repeat the claim. This was why Moewus had been asked to help teach the Marine Biological Lab's botany course. In that capacity, others could be given his strains of algae and several crucial experiments repeated. But when hitches invariably developed Moewus put the blame on his fellow scientists now knowing how to culture his algal cells correctly. Then Moewus personally did a crucial experiment in front of several MBL observers, who later concluded that he likely used cyanide to make key cells immobile. In spite of all this, Moewus had just given a prestigious Friday Night Lecture repeating claims that could not be reproduced.

Most keen to find Moewus honest was Tracy Sonneborn, who had championed his work since the mid-1940s. The week before Tracy had come from Indiana and was in low spirits over lunch with me, Ruth Sager, and Boris and Harriet Ephrussi. In our eyes Moewus had irretrievably blown his last opportunity to prove his innocence. Tracy could only wonder how he had been hoodwinked for so long, even years after Moewus's immediate German colleagues had lost faith in him and seen that his academic position at Heidelberg ceased. They still felt so strongly that a German scientist got up after Moewus's Friday lecture and bluntly stated that the results Moewus reported were not believed by those German scientists who knew him best.

I also had reason to be depressed by the outcome because five years before I had written a long-term paper for Tracy on the importance of Moewus's claims. Instead, I was now basking in the notoriety accompanying my appearance in the August issue of Vogue. On the same page with Richard Burton, I was described as having "the bemused look of an English poet." Francis Crick pointed out my previous publicity-adverse posture but did not seem too upset. After all, none of his friends in England would ever see the issue. It was quickly spotted in Bar Harbor, however, by my girlfriend of my last Indiana University year. She used the occasion to write me that she was marrying a banker and moving to a small town in New Hampshire. The warm tone of her letter made me feel good because I felt badly about the awkward way I had backed out of her life.

As the summer visitors to MBL increasingly returned to their academic homes, I began to look forward to the phage meeting that was to be held during the last days of August at Cold Spring Harbor. Francis accompanied me there because the occasion would expose him to ways in which phages might be used to explore how DNA functions as the gene. The meeting's high point was Sydney Brenner--a substitute for Seymour Benzer, who was in Amsterdam--explaining the elegant genetic trick Seymour had used to map phage mutations at very high resolution. Afterwards, Francis went north to the annual Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids and Proteins. I wasn't invited but did not mind because I was keen to return to the Mayrs' farm now that Christa's summer job had ended, and she would be there for the week before Labor Day.

Sydney came with me to New Hampshire. On our way, we stopped in New Haven where my Aunt Betty saw that we were well-breakfasted before going on to Cambridge. There we used a key, given by the Ephrussis, to get into a flat on Trowhridge Street that was being renovated for Boris's arrival at Harvard. We found the flat in shambles, but we managed to sleep well before workmen burst in early the following morning. A torrential rain was coming down and howling winds told us that we were being hit by the big hurricane Carol that my aunt had forewarned us about. Never having been in one before, we carefully ventured into the warm, windy rain searching out a coffee shop for breakfast. Afterwards, I snaked the car around fallen branches and the occasional uprooted tree to find that Paul Doty's lab had lost its electricity. With no experiments possible, we talked science waiting for the storm to move on. By early afternoon the winds were no longer ferocious, and we drove over virtually traffic-free roads to the Mayrs' farm.

The next day, to let Christa meet Francis again, we drove some 60 miles north to the New Hampton School site of the Gordon Conference. On the way, in the tiny town of New Boston, we stumbled upon the Gravity Research Foundation--the bizarre brainchild of a wealthy investment adviser, Roger Babson, whose fame came from predicting the stock-market crash of 1929. In the foundation's nineteenth-century offices, we learned about Babson's obsession with the force of gravity that he held responsible for the childhood death of his eldest sister while swimming. Now he wanted to use his fortune to find ways to insulate humans from the harmful effects of gravity and towards that end sponsored an annual $1000 prize for the best 1500-word essay on ways to find new alloys that would reduce the strength of gravity. That this hope went against every serious physicist's idea of the nature of gravity did not faze Babson. He had even chosen New Boston as the site of his institute to avoid it being destroyed if an atomic bomb hit the Boston area site of his Babson Business Institute.

We had to chuckle when reading its various pamphlets that had kooky titles such as Varicose Veins and Gravity and Trucking Costs and Gravity. Our arrival in New Hampton found us still in high spirits as we spotted Francis talking to a group of largely chemists displeased that the double helix had been discovered without their participation. In fact, behind his back several scoffed openly about using physical force to keep Francis in check. In contrast, Christa was charmed by Francis's conversational onslaught and so reported to her family when we arrived back for supper.

After dinner back at the farm, I found Christa not anxious to sleep and after a long walk down and back the country road beside their house, we started kissing in the darkened hall outside her room. When she finally went through the door, I was intensely relieved and fell asleep quickly. The next day we were quietly a couple and she accepted my invitation to come down to Woods Hole the next weekend for a chamber-music festival in nearby Coonenessett.

The Cape Cod she saw on her arrival was much changed from that she had seen in mid-summer. All the grass had turned brown, killed by the salt spray of Hurricane Carol. Large overturned yachts littered the inner shore of Penzance Point, and all the MBL ultracentrifuges had been put out of action by the several feet of salt water that had poured into its basements from the eel pond. Moreover, MBL was now in double jeopardy from a new hurricane coming up the coast that might hit Woods Hole the next day. The thought of it dominated the early pre-concert supper at Andrew and Eve's cottage where Christa spent two nights of her visit. The cottage had just been brought back into order after the onslaught of Carol, and they did not anticipate another round of soaked belongings. That evening I also found Christa in slight retreat from the open affection of our last night at her parents' farm. The next day brought strong winds but not the mighty flooding waters of Carol, and Saturday night's opera by Gluck came off untouched. By Sunday afternoon Christa was again unrestrainedly sociable and highly enthusiastic about the Dvorak piano quintet that culminated the music festival.

Back in Cambridge the following day, Sydney Brenner joined us from New Haven where he had spent the week with friends he had made on his ocean crossing. All the Mayrs were on hand to see us start our journey across to the West Coast, which Sydney would visit for a month before going back to England and then to his family, who were by then in South Africa. At our parting it wasn't possible for me to kiss Christa goodbye, and there was a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach as I had my last glance of her through the car window.

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Excerpted from Genes, Girls, and Gamow by James D. Watson. Copyright © 2002 by James D. Watson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.