The Great Man: a chat with James Dewey Watson

Yesterday I had the privilege and pleasure of spending 45 minutes in conversation with J. D. Watson, who, as you all know, is the co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA.  The working out of that structure, which immediately gave clues to not only how the genetic material replicated, but how it coded for the structure of organisms, is—unarguably—the greatest biological discovery of the 20th century. (See Matthew’s post below on the second of the two 1953 Watson & Crick papers.)

It’s been 60 years since that pair of papers, and Jim is now 85 (it’s hard to believe how young these guys were when they did their Nobel-prize winning work), but he shows no signs of slowing down. His mind and memory are as sharp as ever—and his opinions as strong—and we had a lovely conversation.  By “conversation,” I mean, of course, that Jim talked and I listened, for this was a rare opportunity for me and I wanted to get his take on a number of things. I can’t report them all here—there were, for instance, salacious tidbits on the carnality of famous scientists—but we covered many topics. A sampling is below. But first, the obligatory vanity photo (does that shirt make me look fat?):

Watson

Do I need to say that Watson is on the right? We’re seated in the “Lillie Room” directly below my lab. Watson took classes in this building as an undergraduate. On the walls are photos of faculty in our department who are no longer here; it’s a veritable panoply of greats, which will someday include a picture of yours truly as a lesser fish.

The idea for the DNA sequence as a “code” for building bodies.  Matthew, who is writing a book on the history of the genetic code, asked me to ask Jim this question (it’s relevant to Matthew’s post from this morning):

In the second 1953 paper with Crick they wrote this amazing sentence: “the precise sequence of the bases is the code which carries the genetical information”

This was the first time this idea had been stated explicitly, and it changed the way we think about life.

Does Watson recall any discussion about this? Did either of them read, or discuss, Shannon’s book on Information Theory, or Wiener’s Cybernetics, or was it just something in the air?

I asked most of this question, though I didn’t get to the Shannon/Wiener stuff (I doubt that either Watson or Crick had read it). Jim told me that W&C had this idea very early.  As he said, “Francis and I both knew this the very first time we had lunch together in Cambridge.” They didn’t know exactly how the code worked (that was to come in a few years with the discovery of messenger and transfer RNAs and the finding and deciphering of the triplet code, as will be described in Matthew’s next book), but both W&C realized that it was the sequence of nucleotide bases itself that would somehow be transformed into the sequence of proteins. And that, combined with the on-and-off control of DNA translation, was indeed the “key to life.”

When I asked Jim who wrote that bit about the code, he said that both he and Crick had written both 1953 papers, but Crick had probably contributed more prose because “he was older and a better writer.”

Why didn’t Watson pursue the logical next step in this research program: working out exactly how DNA coded for proteins?  After the great successes of 1953, Crick continued to pursue the problem of how DNA made proteins, eventually formulating what is known as the “Central Dogma” that is expressed thus DNA → RNA → Protein.  That is, DNA produced (messenger) RNA, which is then translated into the amino acid sequence of proteins, which are truly the molecules of life. While there are exceptions—some viruses containing RNA as their genetic material and there is also “reverse transcription,” in which DNA is synthesized from an RNA template—the Dogma is by and large an accurate description of how DNA yields bodies through a largely unidirectional flow of information.

Watson, however, became interested in less obvious issues, like the physical structure of messenger RNA and viruses. When I asked him why Crick took the more obvious path, Jim replied that he felt the need to separate himself intellectually from Crick, and because he also felt, wrongly it turned out, that the physical structure of messenger RNA would provide vital clues to how DNA coded for protein.

Why “Watson and Crick” rather than “Crick and Watson”?  If you’ve read The Double Helix (1968), Watson’s terrific first-person account of how he, Crick, and others worked out the structure of DNA, you’ll know that his work with Crick was a true intellectual partnership, with each complementing the other’s expertise.  Watson brought up himself, while musing over old times, the topic of why his name appeared first on both of the 1953 papers.  While he said “Well, I got the bases, you know” (that is, he realized that the G-C pairing was about the same size as the A-T pairing, a realization that led immediately to the molecule’s structure), he also said that he thought that he and Crick had simply flipped a coin for authorship order on the two 1953 papers. (By the way, The Double Helix was originally, and unwisely, called Honest Jim, a reference to Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim.)

What happened to the Nobel Prize medals? Jim brought this up himself.  You gets two medals when you win the Big Prize: a gold one and a bronze one. You’re supposed to display the bronze one and, as did both Watson and Crick, put the gold one in a safe-deposit box.  Crick’s medal went for $3 million to a Japanese buyer (I don’t know whether this was after Crick’s death), and Jim said he was going to sell his gold medal as well, using the proceeds to finance either scientific or humanitarian work.

Our Darwin statue. I also learned during this conversation that Jim had given money to the University of Chicago to have a statue of Darwin erected by Botany Pond (the lovely pond outside our building). Apparently the University had suggested erecting a statue of Watson, but he rejected that idea in favor of putting up Darwin, something that I think Jim did at Cold Spring Harbor as well.

The University of Chicago and Watson’s switch to molecular biology. As I noted yesterday, Watson was here as an undergraduate, and was first interested in ornithology.  He said his interests changed when he read Erwin Schrödinger’s 1944 book What is Life?, which inspired many biologists to work on the molecular basis of inheritance.  I asked if he read the book in an undergraduate course, and Watson said no, he read it because it was reviewed in the Chicago Sun-Times, a local paper. If you’ve read Horace Freeland Judson’s fantastic book The Eighth Day of Creation, you’ll know how influential Schrödinger’s book was; it could be seen as the book that inaugurated the revolution in molecular genetics beginning in the 1940s.

After graduating from the University of Chicago, Watson then went to Indiana University to get his Ph.D. in molecular genetics with Salvador Luria.

The best geneticist of the 20th century.  Most of the revelations in this post weren’t uncovered by my questions; rather, Jim just uttered them as asides when he was talking.  When I asked him if he ever met A. H. Sturtevant (a Drosophila hero of mine) when visiting CalTech, Watson said “yes,” but added that H. J. Muller (1890-1967), who was also part of T. H. Morgan’s Drosophila group, was actually a far greater geneticist.  Watson said, in fact, that Muller was probably the greatest geneticist of the last century. And indeed, I’d have trouble contesting that.

I once went to Indiana University (where Muller resided when Watson was getting his Ph.D.) to look at Muller’s papers. Actually, I was trying to find the note Muller wrote before he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt, because the reasons for that are unclear and the note, while apparently in his papers, has never been revealed. I wanted to learn, out of pure curiosity, whether the attempt reflected Muller’s feeling that he was unfairly denigrated by Morgan and his group. Indeed, Muller (once a vocal Marxist) never got a permanent job in academia until after he won the Nobel Prize! At any rate, the librarians wouldn’t let me see the suicide note, but I had a wonderful time poring through Muller’s “papers,” which often consisted of very complicated genetic crosses diagrammed on the back of postcards and bits of hotel-room stationery. The man lived, breathed, and ate genetics.

The status of scientists.  Watson said that science and scientists are respected far less now than ever before in his lifetime.  When I asked him why, he claimed it was because “there were no great scientists left” whom the public could look up to.  And to this he imputed public rejection of scientific findings like anthropogenic global warming.  Jim opined that scientists could now make a greater contribution to the public welfare by acting as moral leaders than purely as scientists. He also said that the quality of the clergy, both rabbis and priests, had declined over his lifetime, and I floated the idea that that’s because science had largely supplanted the intellectual advances that clergy and thelogians once purported to offer.

Religion.  I did want to ask Jim about religion, and got the chance when he said that his mother was religious, but had a heart condition that kept her away from church except for two visits per year.  I asked him if he was ever religious, and he immediately dismissed this idea as ridiculous, adding a few choice words about the perfidy of the Catholic church.  What I found most interesting was Watson’s claim that both he and Crick were partly driven to find the structure of DNA as a way to dispel the religious notion that life could not be explained through a materialist and reductionist paradigm. In fact, he said that Crick was explicit in hoping that discovering how DNA worked would “lessen religion’s appeal.” I don’t think this was so much a reflection of their desire to “prove” atheism as to show that materialism could explain what was once considered explainable only by God.

Crick, as you may know, was a “militant” atheist, and you can read about that at Wikipedia:

Crick once joked, “Christianity may be OK between consenting adults in private but should not be taught to young children.”

In his book Of Molecules and Men, Crick expressed his views on the relationship between science and religion.  After suggesting that it would become possible for people to wonder if a computer might be programmed so as to have a soul, he wondered: at what point during biological evolution did the first organism have a soul? At what moment does a baby get a soul? Crick stated his view that the idea of a non-material soul that could enter a body and then persist after death is just that, an imagined idea. For Crick, the mind is a product of physical brain activity and the brain had evolved by natural means over millions of years. Crick felt that it was important that evolution by natural selection be taught in schools and that it was regrettable that English schools had compulsory religious instruction. Crick felt that a new scientific world view was rapidly being established, and predicted that once the detailed workings of the brain were eventually revealed, erroneous Christian concepts about the nature of humans and the world would no longer be tenable; traditional conceptions of the “soul” would be replaced by a new understanding of the physical basis of mind. He was sceptical of organized religion, referring to himself as a skeptic and an agnostic with “a strong inclination towards atheism”.

In 1960, Crick accepted an honorary fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, one factor being that the new college did not have a chapel. Sometime later, a large donation was made to establish a chapel and the fellowship elected to accept it. Crick resigned his fellowship in protest. [JAC: Watson also told me that Crick had also sent a donation in protest to Winston Churchill, asking for it to be used to be used to found a brothel at his eponymous Cambridge college, since “sex was better than religion.” I have no way of verifying this story!] [UPDATE: In the comments below, reader Michael verifies the existence of Crick’s letter and links to it (here and here). Indeed, Crick did send Winston Churchill 10 pounds to finance a brothel at Churchill College! Watson said that Churchill returned the money.]

In October 1969, Crick participated in a celebration of the 100th year of the journal Nature. Crick attempted to make some predictions about what the next 30 years would hold for molecular biology. His speculations were later published in Nature Near the end of the article, Crick briefly mentioned the search for life on other planets, but he held little hope that extraterrestrial life would be found by the year 2000. He also discussed what he described as a possible new direction for research, what he called “biochemical theology”. Crick wrote, “So many people pray that one finds it hard to believe that they do not get some satisfaction from it”.

Crick suggested that it might be possible to find chemical changes in the brain that were molecular correlates of the act of prayer. He speculated that there might be a detectable change in the level of some neurotransmitter or neurohormone when people pray. Crick may have been imagining substances such as dopamine that are released by the brain under certain conditions and produce rewarding sensations. Crick’s suggestion that there might someday be a new science of “biochemical theology” seems to have been realized under an alternative name: there is now the new field of neurotheology. Crick’s view of the relationship between science and religion continued to play a role in his work as he made the transition from molecular biology research into theoretical neuroscience.

He asked in 1998, “And if some of the Bible is manifestly wrong, why should any of the rest of it be accepted automatically? … And what would be more important than to find our true place in the universe by removing one by one these unfortunate vestiges of earlier beliefs?”

In 2003 he was one of 21 Nobel Laureates who signed the Humanist Manifesto.

Watson appears to share many of Crick’s strong opinions against religion, though he hasn’t been as vocal about it.  But I did find this bit in Watson and Berry’s book, DNA: The Secret of Life (I reviewed this book ten years ago in The New York Times); and Berry, who is my pal, told me that this is pure Watson:

Watson:BerryWatson also told me that everyone working on this problem thought that the “secret of life” would come from a reductionist approach, but that “Linus [Pauling] thought it would come from chemistry and Delbrück [Max Delbück, a geneticist] thought it would come from physics.” He said Pauling turned out to be right (DNA), and Delbrück had to concede he was wrong by signing a written admission of chemistry’s success.

I will add here that all the great advances in unraveling the molecular basis of inheritance have come through materialism and reductionism; as usual, religion has added not a jot or tittle to this knowledge.  And that is why scientists, especially the good ones, very often abandon belief in God. In our attempts to understand the universe, we’ve come to realize that, like Laplace, we never need the God Hypothesis to explain anything.  And so we let it go, eventually becoming philosophical naturalists from our experience rather than from an a priori commitment to atheism.  After thousands of years of lucubration, and endless pages of wasted ink, theologians have come no closer to understanding the universe than they did in the Middle Ages, despite many religion resting firmly on empirical claims. Contrast how much more we’ve learned about God since 1953 with how much we’ve learned about the molecular basis of inheritance. /soapbox

Finally, I asked Watson to autograph a copy of the new annotated and illustrated edition of The Double Helix edited by Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski. It’s a lovely production, and I already have Watson’s autograph on a first edition). Here’s what I got:

P1000570

Many thanks to Jim for being so obliging and to Andrew Berry for digging out the quote.

69 Comments

  1. Posted May 30, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    .

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 31, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      sub

  2. Posted May 30, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    That’s a great chat you had there, Jerry! Thanks for asking my question (and the others), and for the fascinating answers.

  3. Posted May 30, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Of all the perks that come with the job of being a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, getting to have a chat with Doc Watson has to be one of the best.

    Jerry, would you object to pointing him to that earlier page where we all asked some questions? I’d like to think he’d get a kick out of reading them, at the least, and I’d hope he might feel inclined to email you responses to some that you could then post.

    Cheers,

    b&

  4. gbjames
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    sub

  5. Anania(Ethiopia,Afr)
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    awesome!!!

  6. Michael
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    I studied at Churchill and can confirm the brothel story! Crick’s original letter is on display in the archives (apologies for the terrible image quality):

    • Posted May 30, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      …and people say Richard Dawkins is strident!

      That is one most awesome letter.

      One also wonders what happened to the ten guinea check….

      b&

    • TJR
      Posted May 30, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      Cracking stuff, and interesting to see he assumed that “Hetairae” would be understood.

      My favourite Alexander the Great joke: “Hetairoi? Hetairae more like it!”

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 30, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        I think you mean it the other way around….but that was most of the Greek soldiers, esp the Spartans.

        • TJR
          Posted May 30, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

          I think I see what you mean, but I did mean it this way round.

          It was a contemporary (IIRC) joke about Alexander’s alleged “closeness” to his Companion Cavalry (Greek: Hetairoi).

          But as you say, nothing unusual in that at the time.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 30, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

            Ha ha oh I thought you meant to Hephaestion.

    • gbjames
      Posted May 30, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      A most excellent letter.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 30, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      That’s actually brilliant. Using the world hetairae in one word illustrates how archaic he felt building a chapel was.

      BTW hetairae were highly educated. I figured if I had to live as a woman in ancient times it would be best to be a hetairae if Greek or a Vestal Virgin if Roman (you get to hear all the secrets, all you have to do is keep a stupid flame going, you get the best seats at the blood sports while all the other women were in the nose bleed section & you won’t die in childbirth).

    • Mary Canada
      Posted May 31, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      Wow! That’s amazing

    • Dominic
      Posted June 3, 2013 at 5:44 am | Permalink

      I think it comes into the Crick biography by Matt Ridley. Someone is working on a long intellectual biography – cannot recall who.

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this, JAC.

    That shirt is just way too big for you to wear.

  8. Posted May 30, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    “What I found most interesting was Watson’s claim that both he and Crick were driven to find the structure of DNA as a way to dispel the religious notion that life could not be explained through a materialist and reductionist paradigm”

    I find this comment interesting as well. The NA all talk about the retreat of religion before science in general terms but it would be nice to see something specific. For example, who were the highly educated Dembskis and Meyers of the 1940s and 50s who made sophisticated arguments that life couldn’t be based on ‘materialist principles’ and what form did their arguments take. I suspect it would sound very similar to what we hear today from the DI.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted May 30, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Francis Crick, as quoted in The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson:

      An important reason Crick changed to biology, he said to me, was that he is an atheist, and was impatient to throw light into the remaining shadowy sanctuaries of vitalistic illusions. “I had read Schodinger’s little book, too. Essentially, if you read that book fairly critically, the main import is very peculiar; for one thing, it’s a book written by a physicist who doesn’t know any chemistry! But the impact – there’s no doubt that Schrodinger wrote it in a compelling style, not like the junk that most people write, and it was imaginative. It suggested that biological problems could be thought about, in physical terms – and thus it gave me the impression that exciting things in this field were not far off. My own motives I never had any doubt about; I was very clear in my mind. Because when i decided to leave the Admiralty, when I was about thirty, then on the grounds that I knew so little anyway I might just as well go into anything I liked, I looked around for fields which would illuminate this particular point of view, against vitalism. And the two fields I chose were what we would now call molecular biology, though the term wasn’t common then, certainly I didn’t know it – but I would have said the borderline between the living and the nonliving. That was the phrase I had in my mind, on the one hand. And on the other, the higher nervous system and this problem of consciousness, whatever that may mean. And I had a period of some – weeks, maybe longer, trying to decide between these two. I eventually decided on what we now call molecular biology simply because I thought what I knew, as a physicist, was more relevant! But as you know, in recent years, we’re now edging towards the nervous system.”

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted May 31, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        Religious apologists often bring up how some great scientists were inspired to do science by their religous faith. Crick is a great example of how a scientist may be inspired by their atheism.

        Methodological naturalism won’t apply to a scientist who is convinced that a profoundly difficult scientific problem is beyond the power of science to solve, and who beleives that God is the answer. And maybe won’t be enough to motivate a wishy-washy agnostic either. The really difficult stuff may need the motivation of a hard-boiled atheist to get the job done!

        • Diane G.
          Posted May 31, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

          Great comment.

  9. Posted May 30, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Fantastic opportunity for you to chat with James Watson (who looks grrreat!), and thanks for letting us hear some of it.

    The only folks Who do not look fat (or pregnant) in loose, billowy clothes with a large, coloured pattern are thin giants, better known as supermodels. For the rest of us mere mortals, the comfort such clothes give us is well worth the illusionary weight gain. :-)

  10. DavidIsaac
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Minor quibble–Max Delbruck was a physicist before he turned to genetics, which makes the bet with Linus Pauling more understandable.

    I spent a couple of years as a grad student at Indiana University-Bloomington, doing fly genetics in the lab of Tony Mahowald (who later moved to Jerry’s institution) and I enjoyed going through HJ Muller’s personal copy of Genetic Variations in Drospophila melanogaster, with his personal annotations, at the Lilly Library. (The Library also had [has?] a great collection of hardback science fiction & fantasy novels from the 1940s and 1950s.

  11. David Sepkoski
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this, Jerry. Getting historical accounts from scientists themselves is always a little dicey, but it’s also often the only way to get really important pieces of information that aren’t in any published or unpublished documents. This sounds like a really fun conversation.

    I’d always wondered about the order of authorship on the first paper myself (even though I think Watson discusses it in one of his books or essays). Sometimes, though, there’s a story behind the “official” version. For example, Gould always claimed that the order of authorship of the original 1972 paper on punctuated equilibria (Eldredge and Gould) was straightforward, since the idea was originally published by Eldredge in 1971. But it turns out that even though it had been agreed beforehand that Eldredge would be first author, on the penultimate draft of the paper (which Gould had revised), the order was changed to “Gould and Eldredge.” Needless to say, it was eventually reversed, but not before a tense conversation between the two in which Gould blamed his “very obedient Germanic secretary” for the “error.” I’m sure there are many similar stories behind important jointly-authored papers…

  12. Clive Page
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Crick’s comment about religion has a context that not everyone reading this may be aware of.

    About that time in the UK homosexuality was legalised but the Act of Parliament stipulated that it was only legal “between consenting adults in private”. So his comment about Christianity has an interesting resonance, and those (like me) who heard him make that comment certainly enjoyed the ironic reference.

  13. FloM
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    simply awesome!

  14. Posted May 30, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    a DNA haiku:

    the bases’ precise
    sequence is the code of the
    genetic info

  15. Lancelot Gobbo
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Those gold Nobel Medals are pretty impressive. Bill Boyle (Physics, 2009) brought me his in a plastic carrier bag(!) so I could look at it. No doubt the most valuable thing I have ever held in one hand.

    • Posted May 31, 2013 at 2:27 am | Permalink

      What’s the most valuable thing you’ve held in two? :-o

      /@

      • Lancelot Gobbo
        Posted May 31, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        My son!

  16. JBlilie
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Great stuff, thanks! And nice shirt by the way. We are sartorial brothers!

  17. Occam
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a fascinating and inspiring account!

    The Churchill College chapel caper was previously narrated by one of Crick’s biographers, Matt Ridley. Or should I say, The Fifth Viscount Ridley, FRSL, FMedSci, DL, Tory member of the House of Lords, 2011 Hayek Prize laureate, former chairman of Northern Rock until its nationalisation, and a regular contributor to The Spectator, where the hilarious Hetairae fund anecdote was also published.
    Despite the reservations implicit in the above enumeration, His Lordship’s story makes good reading.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted May 31, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      The Viscount can write well enough in cases where he is in control of his biases. Re Watson’s remark on the absence of great scientists and public antagonism to anthropogenic warming. No scientist would be great enough, I suspect.

  18. Posted May 30, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    What a wonderful report of a fascinating conversation! Thanks for letting us all in on it.

  19. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    the “Central Dogma” that is expressed thus DNA → RNA → Protein.

    You should expect a visit from Larry Moran. This is one of his pet peeves.

    • pacopicopiedra
      Posted May 30, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      What, exactly, is the pet peeve?

      • JBlilie
        Posted May 31, 2013 at 5:16 am | Permalink

        Some peccadillo (often a minor error of fact or grammar) that particularly annoys a person and is almost certain to ellicit a (negative) response.

        • Diane G.
          Posted May 31, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          It was my impression that paco meant Moran’s specific peeve…

      • Posted June 1, 2013 at 6:04 am | Permalink

        The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology

        http://sandwalk.blogspot.ca/2007/01/central-dogma-of-molecular-biology.html

        My “pet peeve” is that the standard description (DNA → RNA → Protein) is NOT how Crick described the Central Dogma in either of his two papers on the topic.

        It is, however, the way Watson misunderstood Crick’s work.

        • Posted June 1, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

          Check me on this, if you would?

          Crick’s Central Dogma is that making proteins is a one-way function — that you can make proteins from genes, but you can’t make genes from proteins (or proteins from proteins). Rather like how you can make sausage from a pig, but you can’t make a pig from sausage.

          Watson, on the other hand, focussed on the particular implementation of the process, of DNA transcribed to RNA templates used to make proteins. And, while that’s usually how it’s done, there are many other variations on the theme, including RNA transcribed to DNA.

          Yea / nay?

          b&

          • Posted June 1, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

            Yes. When reverse transcriptase was discovered (1969?) Watson had to revise his textbook version of the Central Dogma. Crick, on the other hand, published a paper in Nature showing that reverse transcriptase did not affect the correct version of the Central Dogma.

            Since then, there have been dozens of papers extolling the death of the Central Dogma but all of them refer to the incorrect version of Watson and not the correct version of Crick.

            • Posted June 1, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for that.

              It’d be interesting from an information theory perspective to examine the logical consequences of violations of the standard dogma. Would organisms evolve more quickly and / or efficiently if there was a feedback loop between the inheritable encoding bits and the functional bits? Or would it be inherently unstable?

              Could help shed some light as to whether the DNA/RNA => protein path was fortuitous or yet another suboptimal compromise — the great granddaddy of the recurrent pharyngeal nerve. And going from that to looking for protein analogues that could encode genetic information would be really interesting, especially for exobiology….

              b&

  20. exsumper
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Does he still believe that some races are more intelligent than others?

    • Gayle
      Posted May 31, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

      I’ve been told that he’d not a big believer in the intellectual abilities of women either.

      • Gayle
        Posted May 31, 2013 at 4:20 am | Permalink

        *he’s

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 31, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        I noticed Franklin didn’t come up in the conversation.

    • neil
      Posted May 31, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      The good news is that great scientists do not need to be infallible. That is only required of Popes.

  21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, great conversation and great account!

    Speaking of a great conversation, this leads to some questions:

    Crick continued to pursue the problem of how DNA made proteins, eventually formulating what is known as the “Central Dogma” that is expressed thus DNA → RNA → Protein.

    As Reginald Selkirk already noted, Moran may visit. And since Moran has some great quotes from Crick, if they aren’t cherry-picked maybe he is correct?

    “Fig. 1. Information flow and the sequence hypothesis. These diagrams of potential information flow were used by Crick (1958) to illustrate all possible transfers of information (left) and those that are permitted (right). The sequence hypothesis refers to the idea that information encoded in the sequence of nucleotides specifies the sequence of amino acids in the protein.”

    “Crick restated the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology in a famous paper published in 1970 at a time when the premature slaying of the Central Dogma by reverse transcriptase was being announced (Crick, 1970). According to Crick, the correct, concise version of the Central Dogma is …

    once (sequential) information has passed into protein it cannot get out again (F.H.C. Crick, 1958)

    The central dogma of molecular biology deals with the detailed residue-by-residue transfer of sequential information. It states that such information cannot be transferred from protein to either protein or nucleic acid. (F.H.C. Crick, 1970)

    I’m just a poor layman with an astrobiology interest here. But since all the permitted information flows occur, it seems the usual idea of dogma is, confusingly, broken but that Crick’s own and very deliberate formulation isn’t.

    And if Crick formulated it specifically that way, why isn’t that the one used? The usual instance of the sequence hypothesis maybe should have its own name instead, say “the dominant flow”.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 31, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      Oh, to be a layman like Tor!

  22. dongiovanni
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Just out of curiosity, did you stay for Lenski’s talk? If so, anything interesting transpired?

  23. Gordon
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I am told by a semi-reliable source, but cannot vouch for it, that the Churchill Fellows got their own back by appointing chaplain (who had become an atheist) and who refused to hold services.

  24. Hempenstein
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Never mind the shirt – what boots does one wear to a conversation with JD Watson?

  25. Dave
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Excellent, thank you.

  26. Rob Bate
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    I am a birder and one time, maybe a year ago, I was looking for a extralimital Eurasian Wigeon on the north shore of Long Island in deep winter. There was one other man birding that day in the parking lot I found by a cove where many waterfowl were gathered. Birders often sidle up to each other in these situations to compare notes and such.

    I told the man, obviously an oldtimer, that I was searching for the Wigeon which he refered to by it’s old name, “Baldpate.” He introduced himself, said his name though I didn’t get it clearly. As I was leaving he mentioned that he was a discoverer of DNA.

    “What was your name again?”

    “James Watson.”

    I was so flabergasted I didn’t get the obligatory vanity photo just being able to thank him for his work. It dawned on me afterwards that, in my search for the rare bird, I had slipped onto the grounds of the Cold Spring Harbour Research Labs.

    • JBlilie
      Posted May 31, 2013 at 5:17 am | Permalink

      Wow, that is wonderful.

  27. Jim
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    The shirt doesn’t make you look fat, it just makes your head look small :-D

  28. Diane G.
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I recall to this day the, well, joy, with which my bio profs in the late 60’s presented this relatively new, revolutionary break-though. I remember the unbidden emotional response one had–a thrill–upon hearing it. (The same class covered the Urey-Miller experiment which of course had everyone expecting the creation of life in vitro within a few years.)

    Just a couple of years later, in grad school, another prof was left nearly speechless after explaining plate tectonics. He turned away from the blackboard, spread his hands, and simply said, “that’s just so . . . cool!”

    Heady times. The pieces were all falling into place, the big mysteries explained, everything made sense, and surely we’d finally become the rational society presaged by the Enlightenment.

    • Posted May 31, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Plate tectonics is younger than DNA?

      So am I (by less than a decade).

      But it’s awesome (in all senses) how rapidly things have changed. When I was doing my physics degree, the solar neutrino problem (the flux was between one third and one half of what it should’ve been) was unsolved; now we know that it’s because there are three kinds of massive (not very, but non-zero) neutrinos allowing oscillation between the kinds such that some were of the two experimentally undetectable kinds when they reached the Earth.

      (One of the competing explanations was that the statistics used to calculate the expected flux were wrong… and they couldn’t be trusted because they’d been developed by biologists… :-o)

      /@

      • gbjames
        Posted May 31, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        Well, not exactly… Alfred Wegener proposed the idea of continental drift in 1912.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Wegener

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 31, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        Wegener set off a controversy that simmered for 50 years or so till plate tectonics came along. IIRC.

  29. sgdutt
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    A delightful report ! Many thanks for bringing in Crick,too.

  30. sgdutt
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    A delightful report ! Many thanks for bringing in Crick, too.

  31. Jim Thomerson
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    When I took introductory biology in 1954, the professor told us that it was likely DNA was the genetic material.

    In 1959, I took a required course for a MS in Geology. Almost half the course was taken up with a debunking of Wegener’s continental drift. I finished the MS in Geology degree in 1961. It doesn’t really please me that all my geology education was about the geology of a world with fixed continents.

  32. jackgreenlees
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a fascinating account, Jerry.

    As a trivial aside, it’s interesting that Dr Watson used the British dating convention in signing your book. A throwback to his Cambridge period?

  33. Posted March 1, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    My family always say that I am wasting my time here at net, except I know I am getting knowledge everyday by reading such
    nice content.


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