a conversation with James D. Watson      


Well, I should probably start by saying that this interview will not be as scientifically oriented as it could be.

No, no, I don't want it to be. Genes, Girls, and Gamow was an attempt, even more than The Double Helix, to mix science with one's personal life. With The Double Helix, no one had done it before, but I thought I'd try.

That's what I actually really liked about both books—it broke down that barrier between scientists and regular people.

You know, there are always two audiences: people my age—people who know the scene—and people your age who aren't necessarily thinking about going into science and who just want to know how people lived. I was always very curious about what a scientist's life was like when I was young. Of course, when I was young, you didn't have very many opportunities to find out with no web, TV. I was very lucky: I was born in the city of Chicago and went to the University of Chicago where I actually saw things. If I'd been born somewhere else, maybe I wouldn't have done things that I did.

I enjoyed Genes, Girls, but I actually want to start by talking about your first book The Double Helix, which is actually one of my favorite books. Why did you decide to write about the race for the double helix?

Because it was a good story.

It's almost like an adventure.

Right. I got a prize and Francis Crick wasn't there and it gave me the opportunity to say, "well, this is actually how it happened." And people liked the talk; you know, it wasn't what they expected. There was always the question of should we have thought about the data from King's? And I guess there were two answers. The first and probably the most important: if you hear something which is really the guts of what you're interested in, it's impossible not to think about it, not to use it. And the second is: we didn't think they were using it. And if they weren't using it, Linus Pauling was going to get the structure, which would be bad for England. So there was the combination of the two. And certainly the justification for letting us build the models a second time was that Pauling was in the race. If it was only the London people versus the Cambridge, it would have been thought bad form. It created ambiguity.

And the other thing about the double helix—we didn't expect to get total credit. We thought we'd propose a model, it wouldn't be clear that it was right, the data from London would be necessary to show whether it was right. But it wasn't that way. The model was so pretty that people would have wanted to believe it even if data was against it because it offered a way to copy the genetic material. But, until that Saturday morning, we didn't expect to get a beautiful model. And it was much more beautiful than anyone expected.

And the book ended up being fairly contentious.

When I was writing it, I was originally going to call it Honest Jim. And that was because, in The Double Helix, there's a guy who always calls me Honest Jim. And it seemed in keeping with Lucky Jim and Lord Jim. So the title stayed until Harvard Press decided not to publish the book. And then Atheneum picked it up. Atheneum liked the name Double Helix, which was not controversial. Francis Crick, in a very na´ve way, wrote back saying that the title implies that it's the honest truth. I said you never call someone "honest" if he was honest.

Did you realize that it would become a classic?

As I wrote it, I thought, I'm writing a classic. By "classic," I meant that people will read it a hundred years from now. What I didn't realize was that it would be on top of lists.

#7 on Modern Library's most important nonfiction books of the twentieth century.

Right, and that I never expected. I just thought people would read it. I got a little editing at the end from a woman at Harvard Press, Joyce Lebowitz. I liked the way it just ended—"I was 25 and too old to be unusual"—but she was the one who told me to write the afterword.

Right, about Rosalind Franklin.

I think that was the only relevant thing that was changed. The handwritten manuscript exists, so people can see it. I put in the Harvard archive and that belongs to my children, but it's there.

When writing it, I expected trouble in publishing it. The trouble I got was not much more than I anticipated. But I never thought I was harming Francis Crick or anything. There were people I worried about, you know, but I didn't worry about Rosalind Franklin because she was dead. I had to write it that way of calling her Rosy because it was only after the story ended that I ever saw her in a normal way. There's a very good book coming out—a life of Rosalind Franklin. I learned a lot. Part of the reason it's so good is because the author had Rosalind's letters to her parents; she had the family's assistance in writing the book. Rosalind and I worked together later; there wasn't any antagonism between us then, which could have said two things: one, that she was just a wonderful person and, really, she was no more wonderful than I. She was quite a complex person.

Right; she had all those personal dichotomies.

But I think she realized that she goofed it. That's all. And the ending of the movie—the BBC made a movie—

"Life Story"—I actually saw it.

And the portrayal of Rosalind—she's the real hero of that movie. Jeff Goldblum [who plays the young Watson], almost by definition, can't be a hero. (Laughs.) I just saw him in a funny made-for-TV thing with Kristin Scott Thomas called "Framed."

Oh, I've seen that movie.

It was very funny. (Laughs.) So when I saw ["Life Story"], I didn't like it because I thought he was objectionable. And then Celia Gilbert said, "You were objectionable." (Laughs.) I used to tell people that I should be played by John McEnroe.

That's an interesting choice.

You know, someone who pisses people off.

And he's a left hander.

And the tennis scenes would have been better. In the American version, there's no tennis, I don't think. But, in the British one, you see Jeff playing tennis. They cut a little out because they had a few minutes less in the American version. But then finally I thought it's a good movie because I really was brought up without the inhibitions of religion or good manners. (Laughs.) I had a different set of priorities. I wasn't constrained by Christian thoughts toward Linus Pauling or anything.

Crick was not done well. When they were going to make the movie, I said, "Make Francis the major character." Then, for a two hour program, they concluded that they only had time to develop two characters: Rosalind and me. So I thought there should be a movie where the major character is Francis—in a sort of Edwardian Shaw-like piece. You know, Peter O'Toole could have played Francis. He would have got the right feeling.

But, anyway, it's a movie about Rosalind. She was what the British call upper-middle class, which means rich. Rich and educated. The Rothschilds—she wasn't at that level, but Lord Samuels was her uncle. She found the people at King's lower-class.

Interesting. That would explain a lot.

In England, she was brought up to be refined. Then when she went to Paris, she didn't really know the class distinctions so she felt free. She also liked America —the openness. In England, there were these sorts of distinctions, which of course Linus Pauling never would have held to as an American. I didn't, either. I could go down to London and talk to Wilkins about the double helix; Francis wouldn't have gone down unless he was invited.

That's very British.

Yes. Anyways, in The Double Helix, I'm just telling it really from Wilkins's side; Rosalind was just terrible to Maurice.

Is it partly because he was from New Zealand?

Well, he was Anglo-Irish. His people went to New Zealand, but he came back. Wilkins, as played in the movie, was pretty much withdrawn. If he had been more assertive, he would have told Rosalind "you can't own it" and there would have been a big fight. But he didn't. There'll always be people who'll think my behavior was bad. And you know I can't argue with them.

Because that's their opinion.

Yeah. But they probably would have included Rosalind, too. Her letters, I read them, and I could have written them. We had a certain very analytic way of trying to observe the world. It was a very interesting story. If she had not wanted it to be a helix, she would have still died of ovarian cancer—certainly in those days. She would have been the most famous woman scientist who ever existed. And Francis would have told her how to solve the structure. So in this book which is going to come out, I have rules. One says that you've got to talk to your enemies, you can't just—

Ignore them.

Right. Because you're going to tell them what you know and they will probably tell you what they know, but you never know who's going to win. But it's a loss not to talk to them.

Like Chargaff.

Yeah. You know, I didn't want to use his data. So I almost lost because of my disliking the guy and I mentioned that in the second book. But in The Double Helix, I didn't try to judge my actions. I just tried to report, that's what I thought that day. And in Genes, Girls, I do the same thing.

It's incredibly detailed, I thought.

The reason I can do that is that Christa Mayr kept all my letters—sixty letters—so it's much more accurate than people will think, insofar as if I wrote that I did this on a day and that I enjoyed going to dinner with someone, then I'm right. I don't make up much. What's lacking in the book is making Christa more than a name because I burnt her letters when she married someone else. So I couldn't say, well, that she was doing this at Swarthmore that day. And you know I could've made up stuff, but it's hard to write something which isn't true. A writer of fiction has this advantage. Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim could.

Great book.

Oh, I remember reading that book and being impressed by it—just laughing. It was so funny.

Genes, Girls sort of reminded me of Lucky Jim: the young men, the tricks, academia, boredom.

Yeah, I was clearly influenced.

What other writers have influenced you?

The writers that influenced me were Fitzgerald—

—good choice—

Gatsby, you know, was the one that did it. Evelyn Waugh—a lot.

Oh, another great choice.

And Isherwood, Graham Greene—you know, the writers that you would have read in 1950.

Why did you decide to follow The Double Helix up?

I guess the justification for The Double Helix was that it was just a good story about a big event. The second book—someone said I should have called it The Morning After. (Laughs.) What's the morning after the biggest discovery of the century? The morning after there was drunk Gamow. He was the justification of the second book. In some ways he was almost a pathetic person—lonely, most of the physicists didn't want to go into a room with him because they'd heard his jokes. By the time I met him, he was still a good friend of Teller and was on the politics of the thing.

He was the big bang physicist. He really should have gotten the Nobel Prize. I guess he almost could have gotten it for tunneling, for his work when he was young—'26, '27, so he was 21, 22. He gave Rutherford the idea that you could build a machine to split the atom. So Gamow was always ahead of people; he worried about the origin of the elements and the stars and then published his black body paper—The Alpha Beta Gamow. That was very important science, but he couldn't resist having a paper called Alpha Beta Gamow. The title Genes, Girls, and Gamow is just three G's; it's just a Gamow treat. Afterwards, I thought it was a lousy title, but Geo would have liked it.

I'm sure he would have.

His son liked the book. Some people say I make him out as a buffoon, but I don't think I did. He died of cirrhosis of the liver when he was 64. You can't drink a half bottle of whiskey and have your liver. He was restless. And, Gamow, he was a very good writer. He had a sense of fun. Not very interested in people. He was fun with ideas.

I was particularly interested in how he started the RNA Tie Club.

Yes, you know, it was boredom. As a theoretical physicist, you weren't doing experiments. What were you doing? People who are in Genes, Girls—the collection of 80 names or something—they were, with a few exceptions, all very interesting people. Some were good and not personally exciting, but others were fun. But, you know, it was a period when science moved slower. You might see an interesting paper once every three months. So what did you do to avoid boredom? Gamow was about practical jokes. He was also a kind person, wasn't filled with hatred of other people, whereas a lot of other people had strong feelings against their competitors. He, I think, wanted to have fun. As I mentioned in my preface, he wanted to have the fun on the way. Instead of just toiling, toiling, no fun until you do it, he was wise enough to realize that you might not get there. So he was very, in that sense, intelligent. He was socially awkward. But his card tricks were good. (Laughs.) The card tricks and limericks. And he sort of wanted to play slightly the buffoon.

So I thought it should be written up, even though I don't get the girl and I don't get RNA. People thought, well, why waste the time writing it? And I guess my answer is, well, if I didn't write it, it would be lost. You know, I'm very pleased that a very good publisher published it.

Have your colleagues pretty much all liked it?

Yes. The interesting thing... I always remember telling Tess Rothschild that I wanted to marry their daughter, who was seven. Emma became sort a rich leftist. She writes for The New York Review of Books a lot. She's now married to Amartya Sen, the Indian who won a Nobel Prize for Economics and he's now a Master at Trinity College. He was at Oxford and was sort of every place. Emma, at seven, was more interesting than most people at 20! (Laughs.) She was acutely bright. I have a picture of Emma with my wife and me at the Master's lodge. And she liked the book. She said it was the world she grew up in. She's one of those you could say I was writing the book for, because she knows what I'm writing about. But I'm glad I didn't marry her. (Laughs.)

But I knew there would be a lot of people who would dislike it because it doesn't have any sympathy for dullness, you know, that I'm trying to escape from. The awfulness and dullness of Caltech. (Laughs.) The interesting thing was that Linus Pauling's wife, Ava Helen, was bored to death at Caltech. And that led to their flirtation with the left and Communism and the leftists in Hollywood. The Caltech social life was dreary! What I liked about England was that conversation was important. And conversation to be fun, has to be slightly wicked. You know, perceptive: you can't just say everything is good, you really try to get some insight. You know, not with the cleverness of Oscar Wilde, but you're searching for verbal fun. And when I came back home and got to Pasadena, there was no verbal fun at all.

Anyone can take a given sentence and say that I'm a bad writer or a dull writer or why give us the immature thoughts of a callow youth. But I was 25. (Laughs.) And wanting to certainly not rest on my laurels—well, I couldn't have anyways. But I was 25 and, you know, most girls probably their thoughts are of boys and most boys are of girls—that's life! (Laughs.) So you might as well admit it; you know, you're inconsistent in your likes.

We should govern our actions by assuming that people are more good than bad. Whereas most of our social policies dictate that people are more bad than good. That you know if you do something it'll be seized by the rich to exploit the poor. Whereas the other viewpoint is that the rich actually want to help the poor, because it's no fun seeing poor people. We do want to educate, we do want people. We're a social species and people do like each other. We're programmed to get along with each other. And sometimes you have the initial hurdles. Rosalind Franklin thought Francis Crick was awful. She didn't quite have the right personality for success because you can't do everything by yourself. Unless people like you, you'll have a hard time in this world. I never wanted to be liked by the majority of people, but there were always some people that I desperately wanted to be liked by. And so you've got to behave in a way that... the way I put it, is that if you want to be a real intellectual, you've got to have someone to save you. Being a good intellectual is hard; unless you have someone else, you're going to fail. If your book is lousy, someone has to like you enough to make you a professor of English some place. You have to save bright people. There has to be... the whole thing after, you know, September 11, people did want to help each other—the fast outpouring of money.

So, as I get older, I want to concentrate on the inherent goodness of people, rather than what makes Sammy run or that sort of thing.

I was curious as to what happened to some of the people in the book.

One of them, the girl I describe, the one who would never look at me, the one at the Cambridge party, this beautiful English girl—Janet Stewart—bright and everything and she had this boyfriend—she's now the Baroness Whitaker.


She became a civil servant, married Ben Whitaker, had three children, and she retired and is now in the House of Lords. Almost everyone I write about in that book became successful afterwards—you know, the young people. Linda Pauling—her son discovered the breast cancer gene. So she can't say her life was a failure. Mariette married Peter Fay, who wrote on the Opium wars, and never wants to hear the name of Peter Pauling again, even now. The only one who failed was Peter. Because this girl he got pregnant was not a nice one. Also Peter said he was manic depressive. He became alcoholic, but still very likeable.

I noticed he wrote the foreword to your book.

We always liked each other. Two Americans in Cambridge, you know. Both of us just interested in girls and occasionally doing something else. And Peter, he just drank to—the manic depression... in the manic you go up and down and when you're down, you turn to alcohol. And that can kill you. You write about it and you don't, I don't judge anyone. "He was morally corrupt." Oh, Peter wasn't morally corrupt, he was just trying to do the best he can. You could say that he didn't have the right middle-class values. You know, I can't say that. He brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of women's lives. They liked him. Sort of like Bill Clinton. (Laughs.) That's about all you can say. Peter found a nice wife finally—an Australian woman. He's got lung cancer after 40 years of smoking. I just heard from him today; we stay in touch. Peter's charm was just overwhelming. The book that influenced me when I first went to England, more than any other, was Brideshead.

Oh, I love that book.

I saw Peter as Sebastian Flyte. Just this—

—charming, good-looking boy—

Yes, the charm. He wasn't out of the aristocracy, but the Paulings were the aristocracy of Caltech. It was not an easy thing to be.

I thought the series of Brideshead was just wonderful.

Yeah. It was. Incredibly faithful, too.

I originally thought they should have done The Double Helix as a Brideshead-type series. They could have developed Francis and they could have made it a real social history of Cambridge, 1950. Well, it got two good hours, it didn't get eight. But they did put Brideshead music in at the end—the credits.

Yeah. You know, you're right!

It ends with it.Afterwards, I thought I could write a whole series of books. One was going to be called Peter's Progress. The book about me and Christa was Jim's Jitters. The one about John Kendrew and Hugh Huxley was John's Justice; you know, it still left Hugh Huxley confused after 50 years. And then about Max Perutz was Max's Medicine because he always had this unknown problem. You needed a good comic writer to catch Max's Medicine.

Max Perutz is actually a marvelous writer. He was born in 1914, so he's 87. He has cancer and is going to die. [Perutz passed away on 6 February.] Even though he's dying, he wanted to invite everyone to a big dinner before he died. He wanted everyone to say congratulations—very much Max and a very good idea. But now he's too sick to do it. The New York Review of Books likes Max. He totally disapproved of my books because I shouldn't have written about certain things. That even though John Kendrew's dead, I should not have written about him. But I think if you're young, you want to find that people aren't perfect.

Yeah, definitely.

Yeah. Reading about perfect individuals does not prepare you to go out in the world. But of course you can't do this when you have living people. Because you're constrained by--

—what you know—

Yes, and they're alive! And this group—I think in terms of the personalities—it was the Bloomsbury group. You know, around DNA, and it was around Francis Crick's house—a slight demimonde. Francis liked the demimonde. He didn't like people of power. He was trying to escape from the inhibitions of English middle-class life. Francis was solidly middle-middle class, but his family had leather goods factories in India, in Madras. He went to Mill Hill. The money was largely gone by that time, but just enough that an uncle supported Francis, who went back to Cambridge after the war. So you know there was a little family money that let Francis have wine and buy Vogue and, you know, try and rise above the dullness that Kingsley Amis recorded so well.

Do you find writing a lot like science?

Well, it's easier to write a good sentence to have a good scientific idea. Those are rare, whereas, you know, writing a good sentence gives you a lot of pleasure. I like to play with words. My next book is a rulebook, called Manners for Science.

So you're already working on your next book?

No, this is finished. Rules for different phases of my life—rules for being a bureaucrat, another was being an architect, or a patron of architects, so we could build all the buildings here. It would be about how to deal with great architects. The last was rules for staying alive after 65, which is my current challenge. Of course, I guess the challenge is try to act young and stay away from old people. (Laughs.) Yeah, stay away from them! Because if you compete with young people your brain has to—you know you feel as young as the person you're with, the person you look at. Whereas you're in Palm Beach or something... (Laughs.) So the chief rule above 65 is to avoid old people.

I'll keep that in mind. (Laughs.)

But, see, when you're young, you should also avoid young people because you won't learn from them. So, at your stage in life, you probably still want to meet older people. If you didn't, you'd probably just be thinking, I can survive just by being around people who are just 25, limited. You know, you've got to be accepted by people who are 40. They've got to find you interesting because they're the people who are going to give you a job. So when you're young, it's not it's whether your classmates like you, it's whether your teachers like you. It's the teachers who give you your grades and decide whether you go on to the next step. So you don't want to piss teachers off. A lot of kids do and it's just a recipe for disaster. But when you get to college, you've got to disagree with your teachers, but in grammar school, no. By the time you're in graduate school, your brain's got to dominate. You've finally got to learn enough that you've got to meet the people who are important, who are, say, 40 and 50. Then you've got to decide that some stages are no good. But you know, if you live in awe of these people... Tina Brown isn't that clever. I met her once. She said, "Do you want to be in Talk?" I said no.

Good call.

Yup. So it ended. The New Yorker is a now a very good magazine. Remnick has made it. The level of the articles is now just outstanding because he's not interested in celebrity. They've done better with showing the dilemmas of living with Muslims than anyone else. Very penetrating reporting.

Has September 11 really affected the work here at Cold Spring?

Well, it's made it harder to raise money and, on a personal level, two of our employees lost their sons: one in the grounds crew and one an electrician.

Do you think more money will be put towards things like biowarfare?

No, everyone's going to be poor. I was at a party with the medical examiner on Saturday night. They're spending money on doing DNA fingerprints of the bones and everything. $40 million. Well, that's 40 million that could go elsewhere. But everyone says you have to do it and I agree. It's a very traumatic moment in American history. We have to win. It's a war against religious stupidity. And dangerous religious stupidity because that's where modern science—airplanes and things—well, it's easier to be a big terrorist these days. Of course, what we really worry about is nuclear weapons.

What have you thought of the recent cloning experiments?

Well, from what we know, cloning should be prohibitive. The children who would be born would be, in most cases, quite sick. I'm not against it on deep moral grounds. I don't think you would want a clone; I wouldn't want 50 people to look like me. But, on the other hand, if you were adopting a child, if you didn't know anything else, wouldn't it be nice to have a healthy child? It wouldn't look like anything you know and it wouldn't be anything related, but it wouldn't be healthy. So if cloning is perfectly healthy, who is it offending?

What about in cases like stem cells?

Well, that of course, I don't. I don't think there's a soul, I don't think anyone's hurt by it. It's just a source of religious bigotry. Truth by revelation. The blastocyst has a soul.

(scoffs) Nope.

Nope. (Laughs.)

interview by Kelley Kawano

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