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Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science

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From a living legend—James D. Watson, who shared the Nobel Prize for having revealed the structure of DNA—a personal account of the making of a scientist. In Avoid Boring People, the man who discovered “the secret of life” shares the less revolutionary secrets he has found to getting along and getting ahead in a competitive world.

Recounting the years of his own formation—from his father’s birding lessons to the political cat’s cradle of ...
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2007 Hard cover First edition. New in new dust jacket. Tight binding with Clean text. New. First edition. Glued binding. Paper over boards. With dust jacket. 347 p. Contains: ... Illustrations. Audience: General/trade. Watson--who helped discover the secret of life (DNA) and won the Nobel Prize by the time he was 34--shares everything he has learned about getting good work done, in this delightful and wittily instructive memoir. Read more Show Less

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Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science

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Overview

From a living legend—James D. Watson, who shared the Nobel Prize for having revealed the structure of DNA—a personal account of the making of a scientist. In Avoid Boring People, the man who discovered “the secret of life” shares the less revolutionary secrets he has found to getting along and getting ahead in a competitive world.

Recounting the years of his own formation—from his father’s birding lessons to the political cat’s cradle of professorship at Harvard—Watson illuminates the progress of an exemplary scientific life, both his own pursuit of knowledge and how he learns to nurture fledgling scientists. Each phase of his experience yields a wealth of age-specific practical advice. For instance, when young, never be the brightest person in the room or bring more than one date on a ski trip; later in life, always accept with grace when your request for funding is denied, and--for goodness’ sake--don’t dye your hair. There are precepts that few others would find occasion to heed (expect to gain weight after you win your Nobel Prize, as everyone will invite you to dinner) and many more with broader application (do not succumb to the seductions of golf if you intend to stay young professionally). And whatever the season or the occasion: avoid boring people.

A true believer in the intellectual promise of youth, Watson offers specific pointers to beginning scientists about choosing the projects that will shape their careers, the supreme importance of collegiality, and dealing with competitors within the same institution, even one who is a former mentor. Finally he addresses himself to the role and needs of science at large universities in the context of discussing the unceremonious departure of Harvard's president Larry Summers and the search for his successor.

Scorning political correctness, this irreverent romp through Watson’s life and learning is an indispensable guide to anyone plotting a career in science (or most anything else), a primer addressed both to the next generation and those who are entrusted with their minds.

About the Author
James D. Watson was director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York from 1968 to 1993 and is now its chancellor. He was the first director of the National Center for Human Genome Research of the National Institutes of Health from 1989 to 1992. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, he has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, and, with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Molecular biologist James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, is one of the most famous scientists alive. He's also one of the most gifted and accessible writers among Nobel Prize-winning scientists. His 1968 book, The Double Helix, is a true science classic, one of the Modern Library's 100 Hundred Best Nonfiction Books. As its title suggests, Watson's "memoir and more" makes no pretense of undue solemnity; its 79-year-old author is too wise and contented to suppress his bubbling opinions. Avoid Boring People is a superb choice for readers who like to do the same.
Library Journal

Watson and Francis Crick, along with other lesser-known scientists (see Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA), will forever be remembered as the discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA in the 1950s. Since then, Watson, currently chancellor at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State, has remained an active participant in academics and scientific research. Part memoir, part essay on life, Watson's latest book (after Genes, Girls and Gamow) is surprisingly wry, witty, and instructional as he shares lessons and offers useful advice-hard-won through years of experience navigating the politics of academia and the scientific community-that runs from the humorous (e.g., "manage your scientists like a baseball team") to the wise (e.g., "ask the dean only for what he can give"). He also recognizes the need for bridging the worlds of science and nonscience to share big discoveries that can have a major impact on both spheres. He is concerned with educating future scientists on ways to balance life in and out of the laboratory for the benefit of all. Recommended for all academic and public libraries.
—Marianne Stowell Bracke

Kirkus Reviews
Age cannot whither nor custom stale the sharp tongue of "Honest Jim"-the title the Nobel Prize-winning Watson (DNA: The Secret of Life, 2003, etc.) originally wanted for The Double Helix, his first tell-all account of science and personal history. Now in his late 70s, Watson chronicles his life from birth through middle age. We learn of a close-knit family and an early love of ornithology, but the even greater appeal of genetics by the time of graduate school. Watson's career took off as he began working with hot-shot geneticists studying bacterial viruses (phages) like the future Nobelists Salvador Luria and Max Delbruck. Indeed, the names of Watson's mentors, peers and former graduate students read like a Who's Who in molecular biology. They also underscore some of the "remembered lessons" he adds to each chapter, e.g., "choose a young thesis advisor"; "choose an objective apparently ahead of its time." The main text deals with the years Watson taught at Harvard and later when he became director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, moving it from near bankruptcy to growth and continued pre-eminence. Watson has certainly made his mark as scientist, teacher, textbook writer, nurturer of talent and canny administrator. But Honest Jim also made known his contempt for mediocre faculty and administrators, and he lost a key battle in trying to get Harvard to fund tumor virus studies-the Next Big Thing in the '60s and '70s. Around that time, Jim, ever the nerd, finally met and won the lovely Liz, a Radcliffe undergraduate who married the 39-year-old bachelor in 1968. The chronicle ends abruptly in the mid-'70s, save for a shocker of an epilogue 30 years later. Watson againconfronts Harvard with the need to beef up basic science only to face Larry Summers and later Derek Bok, who had distinctly other ideas-though Watson does not fault Summers for his conjecture on women in science. Vintage Watson: brash, bumptious, brilliant-and never boring.
From the Publisher
“Aspiring Nobel laureates, pay attention. The road to the prize is laid out for you here. A book to be highlighted and handed down.”
Seed Magazine

“Insightful, useful and on target about science, competition, leadership, teaching and academic success. . . . Watson remains one of the most fascinating scientists of our time, as iconic in some respects as is the double helix.”
Nature

“Entertaining. . . . Watson passes on what he can to young scientists coming up and to the rest of us as well.”
Los Angeles Times
 
“Watson is both a scientific genius and a larger-than-life personality. . . . If you want to learn how science gets done in the real world . . . Watson makes for a wonderful guide.”
The Boston Globe

“Vintage Watson: brash, bumptious, brilliant—and never boring.”
Kirkus

“Watson proves as engaging as ever.”
Booklist

“Entertaining and historically revealing.”
Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375412844
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/25/2007
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.59 (w) x 9.62 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

James D. Watson was director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York from 1968 to 1993 and is now its chancellor emeritus. He was the first director of the National Center for Human Genome Research of the National Institutes of Health from 1989 to 1992. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, he has received the Copley Medal of the Royal Society and is a Knight of the British Empire (KBE). He has also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, and, with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.
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Read an Excerpt

Remembered Lessons from Childhood on Chicago's South Side

1. Avoid fighting bigger boys or dogs

As a child I lived with being punier than other boys in class. The only consolation was my parents' empathy—they encouraged constant trips to the local drugstore for chocolate milk shakes to fatten me up. The shakes made me happy, but still all through grammar school other kids shoved me around. At first I responded with my fists, but soon I realized that being called a sissy was a better fate than being beaten up. It was easier to cross to the other side of the street than come face-to-face with loitering menaces with a nose for my fear. Likewise, I was no match for barking dogs, particularly ones I had provoked by climbing over fences into their domains. Spotting a rare bird is never worth the bite of a cur. Once bitten by a German shepherd, I knew that I preferred cats, even if they are bird-killers. Life is long enough for more than one chance at a rare bird.

2. Put lots of spin on balls

I long wanted to be part of the softball games played on the big vacant lot across Seventy-ninth Street. At first my only way to join in was to field foul balls. Then I learned how to put spin on underhanded pitches that kept even the better batters from routinely smacking line drives through holes in the outfield. From then on I felt much less an outsider on Saturday mornings. The spins that came from similarly slicing ping-pong serves helped make me a good player well before my arms got long enough to reach near the net of our family’s basement table.

3. Never accept dares that put your life at risk

Seeing classmates dash across a street to beat a coming car filled me with more horror than envy of their bravado. When I rode my bike three miles to the Museum of Science and Industry, I knew my constantly worrying mother would have preferred my taking the streetcar. But by being cautious—going down as many alleys as possible and never taking my hands off the handlebars when a car was passing—I was never really putting my life at significant risk. Likewise, in climbing up and over the branches of neighborhood trees or hoisting myself up along gutters to the roofs of one-story garages, I may have been risking a broken leg but not a fatal fall. The possibility of plunging more than ten feet never seemed worth the thrill of being high up.

4. Accept only advice that comes from experience as opposed to revelation

Listening to my elders just because they were older was not the way I grew up. Preadolescent exposure to my relatives’ views that the New Deal would bankrupt the United States and that Hitler would cease being an aggressor after conquering England left me with no illusions that adults are less likely than children to utter nonsense. For the most part, my parents tried to provide rational explanations for why I should think a certain way or do a certain thing. So I was convinced by my mother’s advice that I wear rubbers on rainy days so as not to ruin my leather soles. At the same time, I rejected her no less often heard argument that sodden feet led to colds.

By then I was conditioned to accept my father’s disdain for any explanations that went beyond the laws of reason and science. Astrology had to be bunk until someone could demonstrate in a verifiable way that the arrangement of the stars and planets affected the course of individual lives. Equally improbable to Dad was the idea of a supreme being, the widespread belief in whose existence was in no way subject to observation or experimentation. It is no coincidence that so many religious beliefs date back to times when no science could possibly have accounted satisfactorily for many of the natural phenomena inspiring scripture and myths.

5. Hypocrisy in search of social acceptance erodes your self-respect

My parents and most of their neighbors had nothing bonding them together but Horace Mann Grammar School. Mother, with an outgoing and generous personality, naturally rose to be president of the PTA. But except for a keen interest in baseball, Dad had nothing in common with his fellow fathers. That love, however, seldom drew him into the backyards of neighbors, where frequent blasts at the New Deal and occasional anti-Semitic jokes were insufferable for Dad, whose favorite radio personality besides Franklin Roosevelt was the Jewish intellectual Clifton Fadiman. He knew enough to avoid occasions where polite silence in response to repulsive remarks could be construed as acquiescence in their awfulness.

6. Never be flippant with teachers

My parents made it clear that I should never display even the slightest disrespect to individuals who had the power to let me skip a half grade or move into more challenging classes. While it was all right for me to know more about a topic than my sixth-grade teacher had ever learned, questioning her facts could only lead to trouble.Until one has cleared high school there is little to be gained by questioning what your teacher wants you to learn. Better to memorize obligingly their pet facts and get perfect grades. Save flights of rebellion for when authority does not have you by the throat.

7. When intellectually panicking, get help quickly

Occasionally I found myself nervously distraught, unable to repeat an algebraic trick I had learned the previous day. I never hesitated in such circumstances to turn to a classmate for help. Better for one of them to know my inadequacies than not to be able to go on to the next problem. “Do it yourself or you’ll never learn” may have some validity, but fail to get it done and you’ll go nowhere. Even more frequently I was unable to express myself in words and habitually procrastinated with writing assignments. It was only with my mother’s last-minute help that I punctually submitted a well-written eighth-grade paper on the history of Chicago. Of much greater importance was Mother’s later insistence that she edit every word of my scholarship essay to the University of Chicago. I accepted her extensive editing with little guilt, then or since.

8. Find a young hero to emulate

On one of our regular Friday night visits to the Seventy-third Street public library, my father encouraged me to borrow Paul de Kruif’s celebrated 1926 book, Microbe Hunters. In it were fascinating stories of how infectious diseases were being conquered by scientists who went after bad germs with the same tenacity as Sherlock Holmes pursuing the evil Dr. Moriarty. Some months later I brought home Arrowsmith, in which Sinclair Lewis, helped by Paul de Kruif as expert consultant, relates the never-realized hope of his hero to save victims from cholera by treating them with bacteria-killing viruses. The protagonist’s youth gripped me and made me realize that science could be like baseball: a young man’s game whose stars made their mark in their early twenties.

Also encouraging me to aim high was my not-too-distant cousin Orson Welles, whose grandmother was a Watson. Though we never met, he also had an Illinois background and after being effectively orphaned was partly raised by my father’s uncle, the celebrated Chicago artist Dudley Crafts Watson. Always turned out with much panache, including a pince-nez, Dudley relished telling his nephew’s family of Orson’s triumphs, which began when he was a child actor in the Todd School. Orson’s daring was what appealed to me most, from his famous War of the Worlds radio hoax to his groundbreaking feature Citizen Kane. A scientist’s hero need not be a microbiologist, let alone a baseball player.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Preface xi

1 Manners Acquired as a Child 3

2 Manners Learned While an Undergraduate 21

3 Manners Picked up in Graduate School 38

4 Manners Followed by the Phage Group 55

5 Manners Passed on to an Aspiring Young Scientist 72

6 Manners Needed for Important Science 94

7 Manners Practiced as an Untenured Professor 118

8 Manners Deployed for Academic Zing 136

9 Manners Noticed as a Dispensable White House Adviser 155

10 Manners Appropriate for a Nobel Prize 173

11 Manners Demanded by Academic Ineptitude 195

12 Manners Behind Readable Books 213

13 Manners Required for Academic Civility 240

14 Manners For Holding Down Two Jobs 259

15 Manners Maintained When Reluctantly Leaving Harvard 286

Epilogue 316

Cast of Characters 329

Remembered Lessons 343

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2007

    A reviewer

    I felt offended when Watson was dismissed from Cold Spring Harbor Labs for his crude-but-harmless remarks on the intelligence of Africans. But now I'm happy he's out of the intellectual pool. In this book Watson comments in a glib, shallow, self-satisfied way on the social aspects of his career as a scientist. His 'reflections' consist of pointers for incipient Nobel laureates that manage to be both arrogant and trite. Watson drops names - first names - with alacrity and bad taste. Swedish royalty and genuinely bright scientists and politicians are his instant buddies. He stops just short of calling President Kennedy 'Jack.' The book contains a little interesting history and very little science. Watson himself comes off as dull and mildly offensive. The writing is mediocre at best. I'm donating my copy to the Hopkins, Minnesota public library if you feel compelled to read it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2014

    I AM BORED AND IT IS SUMMER BREAK

    I am in Nevada. Boring.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2007

    A reviewer

    The way to Avoid Boring People is to avoid this boring book itself! It was a very sad atempt with a catchy title that makes you want to read it, but it ends up making you cry. I highly suggest NOT reading this book!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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