Read Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science Online

Authors: James D. Watson

Tags: #General, #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Self-Help, #Life Sciences, #Science, #Scientists, #Molecular biologists, #Biology, #Molecular Biology, #Science & Technology

Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science (28 page)

BOOK: Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science
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In the right-hand corner of my office, the Sepie River wood carving I bought shortly after winning the Nobel Prize supervises my labors.

Equally important to the final readability of
MBG
was the artwork done by the young Keith Roberts, about to begin his university studies. Early in 1964, Keith had come from England to work as a temporary lab technician prior to reading botany at Cambridge. When I happened to ask his opinion of my first draft chapters, he revealed that he had almost chosen to study art over science, and volunteered to do the necessary illustrations. As my manuscript steadily grew in length, Keith's preoccupation with drawing became full-time, and he continued to draw for me after commencing his freshman year.

At that time, Benjamin was using two-color printing and professional artists. Here I was lucky to have the New York painter Bill Prokus help me transfer Keith's artistic ideas into fixed artwork. Bill then had a studio on Twenty-third Street in Chelsea, where in addition to his own work he did commercial artwork for Benjamin. To speed Bill along, I began coming down regularly to New York City and staying at the Plaza, where the inside rooms never cost more than $20. Even so, Bob Worth, the steel heir who was Benjamin's financial officer, called on me to stop such visits, having read an unfavorable opinion of my then almost finished manuscript. Neil Patterson had sent it to the cell biologist Bob Allen at Dartmouth, who found it unsuitable for his students. Fortunately, Neil prevailed over Bob, and I did not have to stay at the dingy Chelsea Hotel, sited across from Bill Prokus's studio.

All my chapter drafts were greatly improved in editing done by the Radcliffe senior Dolly Garter. She had taken George Wald's first-year general-education biology course and so was exposed to the DNA way of thinking. That she was an English major interested in writing was a big plus, and she was able to change many a turgid phrase into freer-flowing language. My challenge became getting the chapters to the point that Dolly could understand them without recourse to Keith's illustrations, often not yet done. If Dolly could follow the words alone, I figured less bright students would not have difficulty with my arguments suitably illustrated. Dolly worked right through the fall of 1964 revising chapters as I wrote them. By then I had expanded MBG's scope, adding the chapters “The Importance of Weak Chemical Interactions” and “Coupled Reactions and Group Transfers” for students coming from biology with weaker backgrounds in chemistry. Together with many later chapters, they needed constant rewriting to keep pace with the latest scientific advances. The countless revisions of the initial galley proofs led to most of
MBG
being completely reset. Even in page proofs I made many more changes than my publishers wanted, and they threatened to dock me with the charges involved. In the end, they never did so, realizing the value on balance of an up-to-the-minute book.

A wisp of pale, fragile flesh, the Brooklyn-born Dolly belonged to the circle of Harvard's literary magazine
The Advocate.
So I had her read the first chapters of my memoir about finding the double helix. The book's original title was
Honest Jim,
since Alfred Tissières earlier had reminded me that Maurice Wilkins's collaborator, Willy Seeds, had cynically addressed me as “Honest Jim” when in August 1955 he met Alfred and me by chance on a path in the Alps. Now,
Honest Jim
was my way to face head-on the controversial question prompting Seeds's cynicism, over whether Francis and I had improperly used confidential King's College data in working out the structure of DNA. I had in mind the way Joseph Conrad used
Lord Jim
to pose the basic question as to its hero's character.

Dolly's enthusiasm for
Honest Jim's
first chapters encouraged me to get back to writing once the essential features of
MBG
were in place. By the time she and her boyfriend, a math major and fellow Brooklynite called Danny, graduated in June, Dolly had read half of
Honest Jim.
From her new publishing job with Van Nostrand in Princeton, she later wrote telling me that the Harvard
Advocate
would like to publish its opening chapters. Though the life of a scientist, in her opinion, was of necessity dull, the
Advocate's
readership would benefit from reading about my exhilarating experiences.

At the time I had hopes that Houghton Mifflin would publish
Honest Jim.
The year before on a May evening I'd driven out to Beverly, to the elegant large square wooden house of Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, whose husband Giorgio's expertise was the history of science. We had met earlier through Dorothy's younger relative the Radcliffe graduate Ella Clark. Over dinner I enjoyed talking to the novelist Alberto Moravia's much younger wife, Dacia Maraini, who had just published a sexually charged novel of her own. In leaving, I gave several early chapters of
Honest Jim
to Dorothy. Soon she wrote me a flattering note saying that when my manuscript was more complete, I should show it to Houghton Mifflin.

As the spring 1965 term ended, I flew off to Germany to deliver three lectures. The first was in Munich, where I shared my first suckling pig in a large beer hall with the biochemist Feodor Lynen. Then his country's most accomplished biochemist, he went to the States at least twice a year to keep up as an enzymologist. Later that year, he would be receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with my Harvard colleague Konrad Bloch, for discovering how cholesterol is made in cells. I next traveled north, first to Würzburg and then to Göttingen, where the chemist Manfred Eigen's fast-reaction chemistry would, in three years, also earn a Nobel. Just a year older than I, Manfred was boyishly enthusiastic about an amazing range of nonchemi-cal activities, especially the piano. At his home he assembled a small chamber orchestra to accompany him as he raced through a Mozart concerto with only occasional mistakes.

My main purpose in going to Europe was a June conference, “The Principles of Biomolecular Organization,” at the CIBA House in London. It was effectively a follow-up to the “Nature of Viruses” meeting there nine years before. Just before the meeting, J. D. Bernal, the head of the Birkbeck College lab where Rosalind Franklin had moved after leaving King's, suffered a mild stroke that made his delivery of the opening remarks painful for those who had long known him as “Sage.” No trace of a halting brain appeared in his later published piece stating that life is in no sense a metaphysical entity but a precisely patterned structure right down to the atomic level. Feodor Lynen was also in the audience and both of us were intrigued by the last talk, “The Minimum Size of Cells,” by Yale's Harold Morowitz. Here he focused on the smallest free-living cells, organisms such as PPLO and mycoplasma, whose genomes likely contained fewer than a million base pairs.

I left central London after the meeting to visit Av and Lorna Mitchi-son on the Ridgeway, near the grounds of the Mill Hill Laboratory of the Medical Research Council. A number of family friends were there, the youngest being the intelligent and statuesque Susie Reeder, about to receive her university degree at Sussex and soon to commence a postgraduate degree program in criminology at Cambridge. The next evening we had dinner at Rule's Restaurant, just below Covent Garden. It was just a few minutes’ walk away from the Aldwych Theatre, where we saw Harold Pinter's
The Homecoming,
with Ian Holm and Vivian Merchant, then Pinter's wife. Afterward, I walked Susie across Waterloo Bridge, where she caught a train to her mother's home in Putney.

A month later Susie was to be in the States on her way to a month-long holiday near Denver, where she planned to visit her British boyfriend. She seemed eager to stop off in Cold Spring Harbor, where in mid-July I would be staying at the home of the lab's director, John Cairns. In the end she came only for a day, letting me admire her swimsuited form on the raft off the lab's beach. Ensuring that the occasion's memory would not be one to cherish was the continuous presence of the Cairnses’ German police dog, who nearly bit me on the leg before being dispatched. Early in September, on her way back to England, Susie stopped off in Boston long enough to let me take her to supper at the Union Oyster House after I'd ruefully observed her lack of attention to the art on the walls of my Appian Way flat.

Two weeks before, W A. Benjamin had held a party at Woods Hole to mark the appearance of the first copies of
The Molecular Biology of the Gene.
Many from my Harvard lab came down for the event, as did my dad, whom Neil Patterson kindly spent much time talking to. Earlier in the day, I had driven down with a pretty Radcliffe senior with short blond hair called Joshie Pashler, who also had something to celebrate in the recent discovery of her first RNA phage R17 mutant. Over the summer, I let Joshie read newly completed
Honest Jim
chapters, hoping each would make her want to read the next one. Like my previous intelligent and pretty assistants, Joshie had a steady Harvard boyfriend, though I noted by way of small comfort that she was a good deal sharper than he was.

Also at the W A. Benjamin party was Keith Roberts, back for much of the summer. His first months up at Cambridge had not been what he anticipated. To start with, his longtime girlfriend from Norwich, Jenny, had taken up with “a more mature, better-looking man.” And his Cambridge digs, while cheap, were grim—one small room without the typical fireplace. Moreover, he found life at his college dull, with everything closing down at 11:30 P.M. and a gown required while dining in St. John's five nights a week. As modest distractions, he took out subscriptions to the Arts Society, the Humanists, and the Marxist Society. He also had the pleasure of hearing Francis lecture to the Humanists on the topic “Is Vitalism Dead?” with a fiery delivery that put off those not sharing the view that religion is a mistake. Lately things were looking up, however, as Jenny had come back to Keith before the academic year ended and was with him at the Woods Hole party. Without Keith's artwork, my text would not have sold almost twenty thousand copies the first year and even more the second, generating yearly royalty income soon equal to my Harvard salary.

During the coming academic year, I planned to be on sabbatical in Alfred Tissières's lab in Geneva, with half of my Harvard salary supplemented by a Guggenheim Fellowship. As the time to leave approached, though, I realized the first half of sabbatical time would be better spent finishing
Honest Jim
in Cambridge. There I could probe Francis's memory of key moments in our adventure. Before flying across the Atlantic, I sent my half-complete manuscript to Dorothy de Santillana to share with her Houghton Mifflin colleagues. Several weeks passed before I got a response from their chief editor, Paul Brooks, over a Friday lunch at his Boston club. In his opinion, the language was too strong and likely to lead to libel suits. But since he was not expert on such matters, he had arranged for me to visit Hale and Doer, the prestigious downtown Boston firm to which they had sent my chapters. Several days later, I again crossed the Charles River to go over several pages of comments by a Boston blueblood, improbably named Conrad Diesenhofer, on how my use of certain words would create trouble. I went back to Harvard suspecting that Houghton Mifflin's risk aversion could not allow them beyond the jeopardy that might attend issuing further editions of Roger Tory Peterson's bird guides.

In Cambridge, Sydney Brenner had arranged for me to have an absent fellow's digs at King's, overlooking the big green lawn that fronted Clare College. Once a chapter was finished, I took it to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) for typing by Francis's young secretary. That I was writing up the story as a solo effort, not a joint project, at times seemed to annoy Francis. But on other occasions, he easily recalled key events that had already vanished from my memory. Later I showed my resulting efforts to Susie Reeder, whose postgraduate criminology studies were centered in a nineteenth-century house on West Road, close to where Lawrence and Alice Bragg had lived when I first arrived in Cambridge. On several evenings Susie and I drove to restaurants outside Cambridge using a rented MG sedan that also took me to and from the LMB.

During my last ten days in Cambridge, my father stayed nearby at the Royal Cambridge Hotel on Scroope Terrace, coming from central France, where he had been on holiday. Just before Christmas he flew back across the Atlantic to be with my sister in Washington. Simultaneously, I went up to Scotland to be at Dick and Naomi Mitchison's large house at Carradale. By then I had almost finished
Honest Jim,
having only two chapters to go. In Naomi's study, under one of her Wyndham Lewis drawings, I wrote out the next-to-last chapter. Once the New Year had been celebrated, I flew back to Harvard, where I needed only a day to compose the last chapter. The final sentence, “I was twenty-five and too old to be unusual,” had been long in my mind.

The next day I spotted Ernst Mayr at the Faculty Club and told him that I had just finished my account of how the double helix was found. Then a syndic of Harvard University Press (HUP), Ernst quickly phoned Tom Wilson, the press's director, to inform him of my manuscript. The next morning, Tom came to my office and took away the manuscript for an overnight read, knowing I was returning soon to London. Excitedly he called the next morning to say he wanted the press to publish
Honest Jim.
With my permission, he would send copies to referees on the Harvard faculty, who helped decide which books the press should publish.

When I arrived in London, I immediately phoned my old friend Peter Pauling to suggest he bring along for a fun lunch the highly intelligent, suede-jacketed Louise Johnson. She, like Peter, was working on her Ph.D. at the Royal Institution, then presided over by Sir Lawrence Bragg. A month before, I had met Louise at a biophysics meeting at Queen Elizabeth College, learning that she worked on the structure of lysozyme with David Phillips. To my delight, Peter at the last moment got her and the equally young crystallographer Tony North to join us at Wheeler's Restaurant on Dover Street. Showing them my manuscript, I told them its novel-like construction necessarily led me in the opening chapters to portray Sir Lawrence in an unflattering way. I confessed now hesitating to show it to Sir Lawrence even though, more than a year before, he had suggested that I write my side of how the double helix was found. He had been worried at the time that Francis was getting too much of the credit for our big breakthrough. How to have him read my manuscript without infuriating him was a problem that stumped all of us until Tony's sudden brainstorm. Why not invite Sir Lawrence to write the book's foreword? By so doing, both he and I would come out on top.

BOOK: Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science
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