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James D. Watson   Genes, Girls, and Gamow  
James D. Watson    
Read an Interview with James D. Watson

Read an Excerpt from Genes, Girls and Gamow

 

In 1953, two young scientists at Cambridge University discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid: two phosphate sugar chains twining elegantly about a fiber axis. Beautifully simple, the double helix nevertheless set off an explosion in the scientific world. Not only did it answer the question of "the secret of life," it dramatically unleashed the era of molecular biology that would give rise to modern genetic research. Considered the single most defining scientific moment of the last century, the double helix ensured the famously brash Anglo-American pair of James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick (once compared to another celebrated team of enfants terribles, the immortal Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers) a place in the history books and a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine just under a decade later.

Not content with conquering just biology, Watson set his sights on literature. Nicknamed "Honest Jim" for his trademark forthright manner, he proceeded to write an account of the thrilling race to discover the structure of DNA. The gossipy tell-all of the scientific world, the book proved sufficiently controversial among Watson's colleagues (including, for a time, Crick himself) to warrant Harvard University Press's rejection of the manuscript. Upon publication in 1968 by the independent Atheneum Press, The Double Helix became a bestseller and an instant classic. Not only did it make biology engaging for the average reader, it tore away the mystique of science, showing its researchers as real people rather than mad boffins.

It also helped cement the fame of its young author. With a groundbreaking biological discovery, a Harvard professorship, a Nobel Prize, a bestselling book, the Human Genome Project leadership, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory presidency all under his belt, he has seen his diverse accomplishments recognized in equally unique ways: an appearance in Vogue, a 1987 BBC docudrama starring Jeff Goldblum and Tim Piggot-Smith, the naming of The Double Helix as the seventh most significant nonfiction work of the twentieth century, and a place in Apple's "Think Different" ad campaign--the ultimate pop culture gong. From cab drivers and geneticists to schoolchildren and laymen, everyone knows James D. Watson, science's equivalent of a rock star.

A sprightly 73, Watson refuses to rest on his considerable laurels. Genes, Girls, and Gamow, his latest work, is the funny, highly personal "morning after" to The Double Helix. A chronicle of the years directly following the vanguard Watson-Crick discovery, the memoir details his work on RNA and his parallel search for love among the scientific intelligentsia. Peppered with witty and candid anecdotes, Genes, Girls, and Gamow features a surfeit of well-known names, some major players, others no more than cameos: partner and friend Francis Crick, scientist Linus Pauling, the intellectual Mitchison clan, director Tony Richardson, artist Salvador Dalí, and, of course, Russian physicist George Gamow.

In this interview conducted at his office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Nobel Prize-winning biologist James D. Watson discusses the double helix and its social circle, dismisses old people and the putative souls of blastocysts, and delights in Lucky Jim and his friend George Gamow. He also muses on a girlfriend and gravity in an entertaining excerpt from his memoir, Genes, Girls and Gamow.

-- Kelley Kawano

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  Photo credit: Bill Geddes

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