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