NPR

James Watson: The Double Helix and Beyond

In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick pieced together the structure of DNA — "the now-famous double helix. To celebrate the release of a new annotated and illustrated edition of his 1968 book, The Double Helix, James Watson reflects on the groundbreaking discovery.

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Well, luckily that we lost Dr. Crabtree that - I'm sorry that we did lose him, but fortunately for us we have our next guest with us here, it's Dr. James Watson, sitting right here with us. Welcome to the program.

JAMES WATSON: I'm glad to be back with you.

FLATOW: Well, let me begin our interview a little bit early. You are certainly not unknown, Watson and Crick, and you have also a new book out now called "The Double Helix," and it's got all kinds of annotations, and what's new about this version of the book?

WATSON: Oh, it's about twice the length, and we just include lots of supplementary material, so letters that Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins wrote to each other, letters that Rosalind Franklin wrote, and it builds up to an extraordinary story of...

FLATOW: It's called "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix" by Simon & Schuster. Is it true - let's go back to the original book. Is it true that Francis Crick tried to stop you from publishing it back in 1968?

WATSON: Well, in 1967. After it came out, he quickly saw that in fact he was probably helped by the book. He wasn't in any sense harmed. But he thought we should just describe science not as a story but the logical arguments and didn't want his - personalities to dominate things. But Francis is a very strong personality. It's why I loved him.

And of course some people found it a little too strong, but I had a very unique experience with Francis. And, you know, we were together every day for lunch, and I'd go to his house probably, oh probably twice a week for evening meals. So, you know, we had just this one objective: What is the gene?

FLATOW: Yeah. And why did you have that as your objective? What was going on in the world at that time? There was a race, correct, to discover the structure of the gene?

WATSON: Yes. Well, it was a small race in the sense that it was a group at King's College, and then I was interested in it when I was not there, and the King's College people didn't want me, so I went to Cambridge and through my enormous, you know, luck discovered Francis Crick, who was in a, you know, day of being in the same room, all we wanted to talk about was what was the structure of DNA because it seemed, you know, to be the most important molecule. It carried instructions. We didn't know how to do it, but I was - my background was in genetics. Francis' background was originally in physics. But there had been a very - it turned out to be influential book written by the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger on wave mechanics called "What is Life?"

And life was, you know, the information in genes and how could that be encoded. So both Francis and I had read that book soon after it came out, and it sort of changed me from wanting to be a birdwatcher. I wanted to...

FLATOW: You were bird watching?

WATSON: Yes, and I mean, things like bird migration, bird behavior, probably, you know, best to be left off for another 100 years, you know, I mean, real hard problems when you don't understand how the brain worked. You know, the gene which - we had reasons, you know, to think, well, it's not going to be that hard. Maybe because it came into existence, you know, it evolved. So it couldn't - there had to be some logic to it.

FLATOW: Right, and you eventually solved it and then won the Nobel Prize for that; you shared the Nobel Prize.

WATSON: Yes, we shared it with Maurice Wilkins, who had done - taken some of the early X-ray photographs which, you know, told us the parameters of the molecule.

FLATOW: Yeah, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I, talking with Dr. James Watson, author of the "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix," just out by Simon & Schuster. Dr. Watson is also chancellor emeritus of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, that's out there in Long Island in Cold Spring Harbor, New York.

Our number again, 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to talk with Dr. Watson. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and our Facebook page, join the discussion there, and also on our website at sciencefriday.com. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with Dr. James Watson, author of "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix," out by Simon & Schuster. Simon & Schuster - it's edited by Alexander Gann and Jan Witkowski. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

You mentioned Rosalind Franklin, and she's been a woman of controversy over your career, since the discovery, has she not been? You - last time you were - almost 10 years ago when you were here with me last time, you said that she actually got in your way of discovering the actual structure of DNA. I think your exact words were: we could have done it faster without her.

WATSON: Oh, I wouldn't say that now, because I don't know which way - you know, my arguments. No, she produced some, you know, very nice X-ray data. Wilkins had produced earlier data, which we largely used in going after the structure. So if Rosalind hadn't existed, we might have got the structure just as fast, but, you know, she was a very intelligent woman.

But she - for reasons I still don't know, she didn't want DNA to be a helix.

FLATOW: She didn't?

WATSON: No. And so that made it a harder problem because if it's a helix, a regular helix, every residue is related to the - every other residue in the same way. So if you solve the problem for two nucleotides, you've solved it for all of them.

FLATOW: But she did take that famous photograph 51, did she not, of the double helix?

WATSON: Yes. Most of the time we were with her, she was studying the so-called crystalline form and then took this wonderful thing and - but, you know, I...

FLATOW: Do you think that genetic engineering and genetics have changed a great deal over the last 10 years since you've been with us?

WATSON: Oh it's going much faster because, you know, we know the DNA sequences. We can do it much more precisely. And, you know, we can really genetically engineer a cancer cell. We can add a gene, take it out.

FLATOW: And that's what you're interested in now, I understand, cancer research.

WATSON: I've been primarily interested in cancer research for 50 years, really because they were tumor viruses, and viruses are, you know, just little bits of DNA carrying genetic information. So what was there about a virus which, you know, could make a cell cancerous?

FLATOW: You write in the preface that you said you wanted to write "The Double Helix" to give people a sense of how science is done. Is that why you took a somewhat different approach to the writing? The book is almost more about the drama of the discovery. You know, it's not written like...

WATSON: Well, I wanted to tell a story, yeah, and I never considered the other - I thought, you know, some stories are dull, but Francis Crick was just the opposite of a dull person, and Rosalind Franklin wasn't dull. So it was filled with non-dull people.

FLATOW: Was it dull when you got into it, when you first started? You were what, you were in your 20s, right? How long have you been doing science?

WATSON: I started doing science when I was effectively 20, a graduate student of Salvador Luria at Indiana University. And that was - you know, it took me about two years, you know, being a graduate student with Luria deciding I wanted to find the structure of DNA; that is, DNA was going to be my objective.

And then I went off to Copenhagen hoping to work on DNA. But then that proved not to be the place to do it, and luckily I was able to go to Cambridge, England and meet Francis Crick and John Kendrew and Max Perutz. It was a very exciting place.

FLATOW: You've said that you're trying no longer to be a celebrity signing autographs and being photographed or signing photographs, and you want to do - get back to serious work.

WATSON: Now, I know I'm going to have to continue to sign autographs although I - (unintelligible) seem unpleasant. But I do want to reduce the occasions, and, you know, being a public figure isn't my objective. My objective has always been to stop cancer. And I think there's a good chance we can do it over the next five to 10 years.

FLATOW: In what way? How we would attack it that would work in the next five to 10 years that hasn't worked now?

WATSON: Oh, I think we - you know, we have cancer genes, but we have to really look at the changes that occur in cancer cells and their biochemistry, and they lead you to a different set of objectives. But I think - I'm very excited.

FLATOW: You came under fire for some comments you made in 2007 to the Times of London about being, quote, inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.

You were called a racist for these comments. But when you later apologized, you said you had no recollection of it.

WATSON: I don't. And certainly it doesn't seem to be, you know, a very useful way to think.

FLATOW: So you don't remember saying it, and you - and you're basically saying, I would not have said that.

WATSON: No, I certainly wouldn't want to be quoted because it's totally outside my expertise.

FLATOW: But a lot of scientists go outside their expertise, don't they?

WATSON: With great danger. And - so, you know, my whole life has been basically trying to find intelligent students or, you know, highly motivated students and giving them an opportunity to do good science. And...

FLATOW: What is good science? What is the definition of good science?

WATSON: Well, when there's something important, and you understand it in terms of, you know, preexisting knowledge.

FLATOW: What makes good science different than bad science?

WATSON: Well, it affects more things. So you can say DNA is in all organisms. So it would be more important than something not found in - but, you know, the gene always seemed to be, you know, carrying the information for life. And so finding out what the gene was was, you know, when I was a graduate student, I wanted to know what the gene was.

FLATOW: And, and one of the reasons you said that has to do - I remember when we've talked about this many times in the past - is that you spoke out against religion and that you said that one of the reasons you wanted to discover the gene construction was to - I think your words were to take God out of the equation.

WATSON: Well, I don't believe in a god, so, you know, I wanted to find the true reason why something happened. So, you know, I have many highly religious friends, and they're never going to think the way I do, and I think I want to let them go on the way they are, and they're letting me go on the way I want to.

So I don't think about religion virtually at all. So - but my father wasn't religious. So it wasn't, you know, a big shift to try and have the explanations for life come on to science as opposed to religion.

FLATOW: So you don't think there is - that science is inherently at odds with religion, then?

WATSON: Oh sometimes it is, when, you know, they say the Earth is 8,000 years old or something like that. So - but people, you know, there can be religious knowledge, philosophical knowledge, scientific knowledge. I just focus on scientific knowledge. And, you know, it's worked for me.

And, you know, I've never felt a loss because of, you know, lack of religious feelings as sort of - there's so many good things to do without having a religious explanation.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones, to Nancy in - is it Framingham, Massachusetts?

NANCY: Yes, it's the same town as that pharmacy in question.

FLATOW: Ah-ha.

NANCY: Yes. James Watson, I know - I feel that 60 years ago you were a bit of a sexist pig, what you did to that woman and not acknowledging it. And today, 60 years old - later, you're a doddering old coot bordering on old age, and I want to say that my great uncle was also a James Watson and my cousin is named after him. And I say shame on you.

FLATOW: All right, Nancy. Let's...

WATSON: Well...

FLATOW: Let's get a reaction. Before you say something you'll be sorry for, Nancy.

WATSON: Well...

NANCY: (Unintelligible).

WATSON: You know, I was a friend of Rosalind Franklin after we found the structure, so I don't think Rosalind's view of me was the same as I've just heard. And, you know, I liked her. But, you know, I didn't know her. It was a very different matter. I think, you know, before we found the DNA structure, I'd seen her twice. So all my, you know, knowledge about her was that - and, you know, for reasons, you know, I can't say, she didn't want DNA to be a helix. So what...

FLATOW: But the DNA doesn't care what you want it to be, does it? It's what it is. So what's the...

WATSON: Yes.

FLATOW: So what's the difference whether she wanted it to be a helix?

WATSON: No. But she was rejecting structures because she wasn't sort of dominated by helical theory. So there was this theory, you know, you could interpret X-ray diffraction patterns if you said it was a helix, and for instance, Crick worked out with two other people the theory in October of 1951.

FLATOW: Right.

WATSON: So we could look at an X-ray photograph and say it had these helical parameters.

FLATOW: Right. So she must have been very surprised then when her own picture showed it to be the helix? She was not expecting it to be.

WATSON: No. I mean, once she saw our structure, you know, she immediately said it was right. So we never had any arguments afterwards and...

FLATOW: I think people are upset that, you know, as Nancy was saying that they - you and your team took her picture and did not give her the credit that she deserved.

WATSON: Oh, I don't - I've forgotten the details so...

FLATOW: Yeah.

WATSON: ...you know, I don't know how to reply to that...

FLATOW: OK.

WATSON: ...except I never felt guilty, because she had the photograph for about eight months and didn't, you know, ever interpret it. And so, you know, we didn't steal the structure. Maurice Wilkins showed it to me. So - and once you see it, so - I never thought our behavior was in any sense immoral. I thought we were, you know, just driven by the fact we thought DNA was going to be the most important of all biological molecules and the sooner we knew the structure, the better. We were very pleased, you know, that when we got the Nobel Prize, that Maurice Wilkins shared in it. Rosalind had been dead then for five years, so...

It would have been a complicated story if there had been four people. You can only give the Nobel Prize to three, and we could have argued four so - but, you know, it's sort of - the argument doesn't mean much, because she was dead, sadly.

FLATOW: Yeah.

WATSON: And, you know, we, you know, certainly, she was not disliked. I think she was - had difficulty in seeing social clues and suffered a lot for sort of... you know, I don't know...

FLATOW: OK. All right. Let me...

WATSON: But in any case, I don't think Francis - Francis liked Rosalind. Rosalind, you know, went, when she was dying, she went and stayed in the Cricks' house. So, you know, that's all I can say, is I don't think she thought we took advantage of her.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with James Watson, author of "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix," edited by Alexander Gann and Jan Witkowski on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Jim Watson. You had your own genome sequenced, did you not?

WATSON: Yes.

FLATOW: And you made it public. Made the sequence public, opted to make that information public. Why?

WATSON: Oh. I made it public except for one gene. I didn't, myself, want to know my susceptibility to Alzheimer's.

FLATOW: And you say you asked that that not be made public.

WATSON: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah.

WATSON: Yes. You know, otherwise, I thought, well, people can do something. You know, they might look at the sequence and give me some clue as to how I can have a better life. In fact, that happened. And so there are a whole series of drug - metabolizing drugs for which I'm deficient in one.

(LAUGHTER)

WATSON: And that was very useful to know because it's a good drug, but I should take it once a week...

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

WATSON: ...instead of - so the knowledge has made my life better. Yeah.

FLATOW: Let's go to Silas(ph) in New York. Hi, Silas.

SILAS: Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

SILAS: First of all, I just wanted to say it's an honor to be able to talk to you, Mr. Watson. I'm learning about you in my biology class, and it's incredible to be able to say I talked to you.

FLATOW: Have you got a question for him?

SILAS: I do. I was just wondering what was your life like after you discovered - after you became part of the discovery of the double helix? How did it affect your life?

FLATOW: Good question.

WATSON: Well, it gave me a good job at Harvard University, so I would say it had its advantage - it brought me into contact with some wonderful students. On the short term, it didn't make a girl that I wanted to marry, marry me. So she married someone else.

FLATOW: All that money and...

(LAUGHTER)

WATSON: So, you know, I wasn't joyously happy, and now I'm very glad she didn't marry me because I married someone who's wonderful. So I ended up all right. But, you know, I was young. I was 25 and didn't talk to girls very much because, you know, I didn't seem to have anything to say to them.

FLATOW: Did you ever - you've seen the movie that Jeff Goldblum played of you in...

WATSON: Yes.

FLATOW: What did you think of that performance?

WATSON: Oh, I think it's a very good movie. At first I didn't like it because it exaggerated Crick and I really wanting to be famous, whereas we wanted to do good science. And, of course, if you do great science, you become famous. But we had no thought for, you know, how famous we were going to become. And so you have to be driven by scientific curiosity.

FLATOW: What about Jeff as a sex symbol? He was a pretty sexy guy in that...

WATSON: Yeah, and certainly I wasn't at the time. And so - but it's a good movie, and it's now 25 years old and we're trying to reshow it now.

FLATOW: Are you, yeah?

WATSON: Because I think it's a good story and - but there's only time for two characters, it's Rosalind Franklin and me. And Francis Crick is just underplayed. And, you know, he dominates any room he's in. And in the movie, he didn't dominate the scene the way in reality he did. I mean, it's hard for Jeff Goldblum to be in any room where he doesn't dominate.

FLATOW: And there you have it. Talking with James Watson. We'll be back after this break. 1-800-989-8255. The book is "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix." It's really - the annotations and the illustrations really add a lot to the original version. And it's edited by Alexander Gann and Jan Witkowski. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're here talking with Dr. James Watson, author of "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix," edited by Alexander Gann and Jan Witkowski. And if I didn't mention it before, which I did, this is a very - if you've read the original and you want to get, you know, a new look with new annotations, new information, new letters that have come out since the original was published, it's a highly readable book. It was at the beginning and it's even more readable, more - did you - did anything new come out in writing this book? Did you learn anything new really, about yourself or the research, that you might have missed, from any of the letters that were put in there or were you surprised at anything there?

WATSON: No. I don't think I was surprised. But, you know, it was a close call. I mean, we shouldn't have won.

FLATOW: You should not have won.

WATSON: No.

FLATOW: Why not? Well, who should have won? Well, why should you not have won?

WATSON: No, I mean, you know, from the moral view - point of view, say, people of King's College should've won. They took the X-ray pictures, you know? Wilkins was thinking in terms of the helix, so in a sense it's sad that they didn't win, but...

FLATOW: You're not ready to give it back to them, the prize, are you?

WATSON: No. No. No, but I was, you know, very pleased when Wilkins joined us because without him, you know, we wouldn't have done it. So he was essential and, you know, a very decent, nice man.

FLATOW: So what - so if you shouldn't - if you should not have won it, what should people - what would you like your epitaph to be? What would you want people to remember most about you then?

WATSON: Oh, that I wanted to improve the world, make better life for other people. So, you know, I think I was lucky enough by becoming very, very famous very early that I could think about other people more. So I've had wonderful students and, you know, I've enjoyed writing and rooming in the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

FLATOW: And does your family life influence the direction of your research at all?

WATSON: I have two sons and very likeable, but - and neither is a scientist so I, you know, I'm thinking, you know, I'm really a driven scientist, you know? And you could've said earlier I'm a driven member of the Democratic Party or, you know, or I'm a driven birdwatcher. And so, you know, but I haven't been driven by too many things, so I've been able really to focus. And I had a wonderful education so - at the University of Chicago. So, you know, I really was the person probably most educated to find the structure of DNA, and I lived up to it.

FLATOW: Well, what do you think about the direction science is headed and what the public knows about science and how it treats scientists, or knows even what scientists do these days?

WATSON: I wish there would be more movies about scientists.

FLATOW: More movies.

WATSON: Yes, just to make us, you know, because we're really quite variable and to make people, you know, understand us a little better. The real problem now is science is getting so complicated that, you know, in the 18th century, as a scientist, you tried to understand all of science, and then in the 19th century it began to constrict. And now it's just unbelievably constricted and...

FLATOW: Scientists can't even read each other's papers now, can they?

WATSON: No.

FLATOW: They can't understand what each other is doing.

WATSON: Yes. But, you know, at certain stages, you really feel you're going to win. And so I've had the feeling for the last couple of years, you know, we're going to win against a lot of cancer pretty soon. We just have to go ahead and do it without, you know, just believe in yourself. Not worry that you might fail but just - that you've got a chance of winning, and just do nothing else.

FLATOW: Let's go to Craig in New London, Connecticut. Hi, Craig. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CRAIG: Well, thank you, Ira. I hate to sound like the rest of the callers and say it's an honor to be talking to Dr. Watson, but it certainly is. I followed him every since I was a young man. I'm now 57. And I think he's been a huge influence on so many people. And I think regardless of who won between the four or five people that we were debating with this afternoon, everybody wins from the work that they did. And the question I would love to ask him is the question that he was asking all those years ago about what the structure of DNA is, and was certainly the most important, or one of the most important questions of its time: What question today holds that same magnitude?

WATSON: Oh, I think it is - new question now, information is organized in the brain, you know, how our brains work. And Francis Crick spent the last 30 years of his life trying to think through it. And I think at the end of it, he'd been - he hadn't got very far. But, you know, we undoubtedly need new experimental facts.

FLATOW: So why have you not gone into that field? Why are you concentrating...

WATSON: I've always...

FLATOW: ...on cancer, and not the brain? Thank you, Craig.

CRAIG: Thank you so much.

WATSON: Because I want to stop cancer. You know, I saw a young uncle of mine that, you know, young children, he died when I was 20 years old. So, you know, so if you can do it, do it. So, you know, you can't do everything. And cancer is a disease, you know, of mutated genes, and so, you know, I'm a gene person. So it's to be able to see... And so I'm hoping the problem is simpler than many other - you know, I don't want 100 different cures of cancer. I want, you know, give me five. So if you had, you know, five medicines you could do away with 90 percent of cancer. That's sort of my objective. I think we're going to do it.

FLATOW: Let me get another question in from Greg in Naples, Florida.

Hi, Greg. Greg?

GREG: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

GREG: Hi. I just wanted to comment. I drive by churches. I noticed Mr. Watson, or Dr. Watson said something about being an atheist, which I am, and I'm an amateur scientist. I read a lot about early bacteria and the, you know, free-floating DNA and how it was encapsulated in, you know, the early life. It just fascinates me. And I drive by churches and I think, what a waste of money and energy with these creation myths. And if we channeled some of that into cancer research and that type of thing, we'd be way further ahead as a society.

FLATOW: OK, Greg. Dr. Watson?

WATSON: Well, I think there's a sort of satisfaction that science gives to me and a large number of other people, isn't shared by other people. And they're more satisfied with religious explanations. And my feeling is that if that's what satisfies them - I certainly want to, you know, encourage them to feel, you know, to improve their lives. So, you know, I'm not against tax exemption for religious bodies or anything like that. You know, they play - like many things, they play a, you know, a positive role for many people. And it's a complicated matter, but I think...

FLATOW: Do you think you've mellowed in that opinion over the years?

WATSON: Yeah, sure.

FLATOW: You've become a little more mellow? Because you were a little more outspoken against religion years ago.

WATSON: You know, it's not my main enemy now, you know, not at all.

(LAUGHTER)

WATSON: And, you know, I'm not a Richard Dawkins. And, you know, my wife goes off to church on Sunday. And - they're nice people. I'm not sure if she's inherently religious, but the social thing is fine. And so we're good friends with our local church. You know, we don't - there are real enemies, but I don't think religion is now one of the, what I would say, my enemy.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So your real enemy now is finding a cure for cancer?

WATSON: Yes. Or, you know, schizophrenia, or, you know, there are a number of them. But I focused - you know, because, you know, cancer has been, you know, a disease of mutated genes. And to a certain extent, mental diseases amounted to that. It's just a - boy, is it complicated.

FLATOW: You have personal experience with mental disease in your family, with schizophrenia?

WATSON: Yes, we had a son who has cerebral problems because his short-term memory is...

FLATOW: Right.

WATSON: ...sometimes too short.

FLATOW: Yeah. And I've heard that that was a motivating factor for you getting interested in this. Years ago, we talked about this.

WATSON: Yeah. It certainly - you know, our son lives with us, and he's highly intelligent. But he has, you know, he can't do everything, and, you know, I dream we'd find something that can help him.

FLATOW: All right. And I thank you - we've run out of time, Dr. Watson. I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

WATSON: Oh, it's a pleasure being back here again.

FLATOW: Dr. Watson is here because of his - the publication of "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix," an improvement on the book he wrote years ago. And this was, I'm sure, helped by editors Alexander Gann and Jan Witkowski. And as I say, it's a great read, and I - Dr. Watson is also a chancellor emeritus of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory out there in Long Island. Thank you again for being with us today.

WATSON: Oh, oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular