The man behind the headlines

October 26, 2007

James Watson has decided views on Rosalind Franklin, Larry Summers, cancer, networking and 'the archaic crap' that is religion. He shared a few of them with Matthew Reisz in the Nobel laureate's only UK interview. I walked into the eye of the storm. Weeks before I had booked an interview with James Watson to discuss his new book, Avoid Boring People , but when I arrived at his hotel, crisis talks were in progress. Along with his wife and the Oxford University Press publicist, Watson was secluded with a security guard and a PR consultant hired by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island, where he has long served as director, president and latterly chancellor.

How were they to limit the damage caused by the now notorious remarks about race and intelligence that had just appeared in an interview in The Sunday Times , the subsequent ferocious headlines and the lecture cancelled at the Science Museum in London? Watson had only arrived the night before. Would they fly him straight back to the US, cancel all interviews or just keep me waiting while they deliberated?

In the event, he was soon to be suspended from his job, to cancel his British engagements and to return home to sort out his future. But I was granted a brief audience with the great man - on condition that I avoided anything contentious. With the PR man sitting in, I could hardly refuse.

Watson has long been a controversial figure who loves throwing provocations into interviews with journalists - fat people have better sex, girls ought to be genetically engineered to be pretty. But he also clearly has some highly offensive views. Along with those in The Sunday Times , many are on display in The DNA Doctor: Candid Conversations with James D. Watson (World Scientific Publishing, £29, published next week). This is a bizarre book, in which the Hungarian chemist and science writer Istvan Hargittai makes much of the (hitherto unnoticed) Hungarian dimensions of Watson's career. But their extended interviews also give Watson plenty of rope to hang himself.

Speaking in 2002, he lamented that he feels obliged to watch his words. "I'm heavily restrained because I'm head of an institution and we have to raise money," he said. Yet as soon as the issue of religion comes up, there's no stopping him. "Fifty years after the Holocaust people are using it as a justification for bar mitzvah and other archaic crap ... The Pakistanis in England should probably just go home. They are being hated and should be hated because they were all for the World Trade Centre bombing. Just get rid of them ... I suspect that multiculturalism has reached its peak because it's crap ... ". If this is Watson's idea of being blandly uncontentious, it is hard to know what planet he's living on.

Yet he is also an extremely compelling and impressive figure. In the wake of The Sunday Times interview, a "technology specialist" crowed in The Independent : "One decade you're accepting the Nobel for discovering something amazing, a couple of decades later you're a doddering crank whose family probably hesitates before letting him play with the TV remote." This is callous, stereotypical and quite unlike what it feels like to meet Watson in person. Even jet-lagged and cowed by controversy, the 79-year-old Nobel laureate is quite incapable of doddering - or of boring people. He remains full of enthusiasm for young scientists carving out fresh fields, "people who want to conquer the world", and the new challenges ahead.

"I have two passions and obsessions now," he tells me with quiet emotion, "although one of my rules is that two passions is one too many. One is DNA sequencing to find the genes behind mental diseases. For personal reasons I want it done fast. I don't have 20 years, I want it done in five years. My schizophrenic son Rufus is 37, so he's spent almost half his life without a chance. He reads about six newspapers a day, so the newspapers focus him. We thought he was so bright he'd be able to take care of himself, but he can't. I'd just like him to be able to use his inherent ... He's a very nice person."

I wouldn't have broached it myself with the PR heavy sitting opposite, but this topic leads Watson into controversial territory. As is well known, a crucial clue to the structure of DNA was provided by the X-ray diffraction image taken by Rosalind Franklin of King's College London, which was shown to Francis Crick and Watson without her knowledge. There have been many claims, therefore, that they effectively stole some of the glory that should rightfully have been hers. Watson's own gripping and outspoken account in The Double Helix (1968) paints a notably sour picture of Franklin, full of comments about her looks and lack of femininity, before taking it all back in the epilogue (inserted, he now tells us, at the suggestion of an astute publisher).

The way that Franklin - whom her biographer, Brenda Maddox, calls the "Dark Lady of DNA" - was sidelined has haunted Watson's reputation, and seems to haunt him too. Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons From a Life in Science returns yet again to the issue. "She was mildly dysfunctional," he tells me, "I'm suggesting maybe for a genetic reason, she didn't know how to collaborate with people. She wasn't a nasty person, she was awkward."

One of Watson's key recipes for scientific success, by contrast, is finding the right collaborator. "Being a loner is a hard route; having a social circle you can share your scientific aspirations with helps keep you going. That was the great thing about Francis Crick - he was so analytical and wasn't afraid about hurting my feelings. You never got a compliment from Francis pro forma."

Once on the topic of scientists and their lack of interpersonal skills, Watson is on a roll. He says: "I asked an expert for a famous British example of autism, and he said the Cambridge maths department. And take Larry Summers (the president of Harvard who resigned last year after a controversial speech about the gap between male and female scientific achievement). He was a mathematical economist, and his ability to sense what other people were feeling or saying through facial movements was zero." I couldn't help wondering if he wasn't also talking partly about himself. Certainly there is something emotionally illiterate in his pained surprise at the offence his recent comments have caused.

As a memoir, Avoid Boring People is tainted by vanity. Along with the scientific technicalities, we hear far too much about the politicking in the Harvard biology department in 1956, the string of interchangeable posh and pretty blondes Watson wanted to get off with, the younger men he took sets from on the tennis court 40 years ago.

But the book is also full of sharp worldly wisdom on how individuals and institutions can get to - and stay at - the top in science. Lessons range from "Don't take up golf" and "Never dye your hair" to "Promote key scientists faster than they expect" and "Always buy adjacent property that comes up for sale". My favourite was "All give and no take will disenchant your benefactors" (ie, make modest but visible donations to the other charities your trustees happen to favour). It sounds obvious once Watson has said it, but how many fundraisers neglect this simple step for currying favour?

Watson's final chapter concentrates on keeping institutions strong in a ferociously competitive world where a single bad appointment can lead a department into an intellectual cul-de-sac for a generation. With a dynamism unusual in a man approaching 80, he stresses: "You've got to move swiftly. You can't let yourself be out of date. One of my rules was: Work on Sunday. If you've got to do something, get it done." Yet perhaps the real key is "seeing that people have enough money to have big dreams".

One of the great triumphs at Cold Spring Harbor came in the field of cancer research, "when," he says, "we discovered the relationship between what we called oncogenes and tumour-suppressor genes and how they regulate the cell cycle". Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that along with the genetic roots of mental illness Watson's other great obsession is the biggest dream of all. "Judah Folkman in Boston has revealed the existence of molecules whose main function is to keep cancer from developing - and they are not being worked on at the rate they should be. One fact dominates my feelings about this. There's a group of people who don't get adult cancers: victims of Down's syndrome. They're protected. So what protects them? Folkman thinks he knows ...

"I gave a course in cancer at Harvard 49 years ago. I hope that on the 50th anniversary I'll have a feeling of seeing total victory. I think Folkman's approach should be tested on a very big scale. If things go well, for a billion dollars you could get it done ... ".

James D. Watson's Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons From a Life in Science has just been published by Oxford University Press, £14.99.

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