Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes and Societyby James D. Watson
A principal architect and visionary of the new biology, a Nobel Prize-winner at 34 and best-selling author at 40 (The Double Helix), James D. Watson had the authority, flair, and courage to take an early and prominent role as commentator on the march of DNA science and its implications for society. In essays for publications large and small, and in lectures around the world, he delivered what were, in effect, dispatches from the front lines of the revolution. Outspoken and sparkling with ideas and opinions, a selection of them is collected for the first time in this volume. Their resonance with today’s headlines is striking.
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Part I: Autobiographical FlightsEmotionally and intellectually I have been more formed by Chicago than by experiences anywhere else. Outsiders often sneer at Chicago, but I know otherwise. There, in 1928, 1 was born into a family with three paramount values. One was the importance of books and the belief that knowledge would liberate mankind from superstition, which for my father, brought up to be an Episcopalian, meant religion. The second value was birds. From his adolescence, my father was addicted to observing birds, and later I happily joined him knowing that it liberated me from the Sunday services of my mother's church. By the time I entered South Shore High School, I also was obsessive about trying to find rare birds in Jackson Park, around Wolf Lake, or out in the Indiana sand dunes at Tremont. It gave romance to my life and more than compensated for being even shorter than my finally 5'2" sister, Betty, two years my junior. Our third family value was the nobility of the Democratic Party, led by my first real hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Then if you had a family car, you could afford to be a Republican, but if you had been knocked down by the Depression, common sense made you a Democrat.
Beginning when I was about 12, my father and I every Friday evening made the mile-long walk to the library on 73rd Street to browse among its stacks and invariably bringing several home to digest during the following week. Our house was also filled with books, the more recent of which came from the Book of the Month Club, but most of which came from the used book shops in the Loop or Hyde Park. Dad worshiped persons of reason and took particular pleasure in readingthe thoughts of the great philosophers. His library also had the occasional book on science, and it was those, not the books on philosophy, which I pored over when the weather was too unpleasant for bird watching. Learning about evolution particularly caught my fancy, with Darwin's theory of natural selection providing a rational way to think about the diverse forms of life that first excited me through trips to the Field Museum.
Even before I entered the University of Chicago in 1943, 1 had begun to daydream about being a scientist, though I had to wonder whether I was bright enough to enter this world filled with geniuses. All too clearly I had not entered the University of Chicago at 15 because of my high IQ. I was far from the child genius that say Wally Gilbert, several years later, grew up to be in Washington. My premature departure from South Shore High School instead reflected the fact that Robert Hutchins, still the almost boy president of the University of Chicago, considered American high schools disasters that never could be reformed. And instead of wasting money failing to improve them, he had the simple solution of getting kids into college two years earlier. That I was one of the first entrants into Hutchins' Four Year College owed much to my Southside-Irish raised mother, who had gone to the nearby University of Chicago. It was she who saw that I filled out the application form for a tuition scholarship which later let me attend college, initially needing only from my family the two three-cent fares for the daily streetcar ride of some 30 minutes.
My first two years at the U of C were superficially not very successful, with my grades (largely B's) continuing to expose to all my non-genius qualities. But they prepared me for the future by instilling upon me three new values. The first was to focus on original sources instead of textbooks - read the great books themselves, not the interpretations of others. The second value was the importance of theory. Of course, you have to know some facts, but much more important is how to put them together in some rational scheme. And thirdly, you had to concentrate on learning how to think as opposed to improving memorization skills. Initially, to my annoyance, the big comprehensive exams that gave us our grades for the entire year often seemed to bear no relation to what you learned in your lectures. With time I realized that I did not have to take notes but instead could concentrate on whether the lecturer's words actually made sense. In retrospect, I now realize I was acquiring the mental habits which later made me acceptable first to Luria and Delbruck and later to Francis Crick.
And Chicago being then the Second City and the University of Chicago not as old as Harvard, I saw no reason to treat authority with much reverence...
Meet the Author
James D. Watson was born in 1928 in Chicago. After graduation from the University of Chicago, he worked in genetics at Indiana University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1950. He spent a year at the University of Copenhagen, followed by two years at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University. There he met Francis Crick, and the collaboration resulted in their proposal in 1953 of a structure for DNA. After a two-year period at Cal Tech, he joined the faculty at Harvard where he remained as Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology until 1976. Since 1968, as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, his research has centered on bacterial virus, molecular genetics, and the synthesis of proteins.
In 1962, together with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, Dr. Watson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. Prior to The Double Helix, he wrote The Molecular Biology of the Gene, which is now in a third edition.
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