James Watson is most likely the most famous living scientist. Everyone knows that he, along with Francis Crick discovered the DNA molecule back in 1953, 60 years ago. In 1962, those two along with Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize for their discovery.
As we remember scientists and their discoveries, I think we often miss the human element of the process. How they feel and felt at the time, what they think and thought, the softer side of science.
This photos shows Francis Crick and James Watson together in 1953 at Cambridge, from the Collection of the Cold Springs Harbor Lab Archives.
CNN interviewed Watson recently, and you can read the article and see the video here.
I found some of his quotes to be very interesting.
“All you can say is that you were very lucky. You were born at the right time and your parents gave you books when you were young.”
I’m all for that. I was and am an avid reader and I instilled that in both of my children as well.
Watson equates his passion for DNA and genetic research to his ancestor’s passion for the Gold Rush. I can empathize with that – once the DNA bug bites you, it’s lifelong and unrelenting! Passion fuels discovery of any type. Watson discovered a very different kind of gold – the elixir of all humanity.
Of the day they discovered DNA, he says, “We went to lunch. We had to tell people we’d done something important, but they didn’t know what we were saying.” That’s certainly not the case today. “Done something important” is an incredible understatement – perhaps the strongest understatement I’ve ever seen.
He said he felt queasy when they told everyone within hearing distance that they had found the secret of life. Well, making the discovery of the millennium will do that to you!
I understand how he felt though. I get the same look he must have received when I explain to my family how excited that I am that we’ve found a new haplogroup. Thank heavens for our genetic genealogy community today.
Watson’s reaction to the Eureka moment of discovery, “All we could say when we got it: It’s so beautiful.”
For those interested, Nature compiled what they consider to be the 5 classic DNA papers of which the Watson/Crick paper is one, of course.
Interestingly, Watson says he doesn’t want to die before he sees cancer cured and feels it could happen. I certainly hope so. Whenever this does happen, you know that genetics will certainly play a prominent role in the cure. Discoveries in medicine as well as in other genetics fields like molecular biology, evolutionary genetics, population genetics and genetic genealogy continue to be made every day – all stemming from this monumental discovery in 1953.
Watson says of himself, “I wanted to understand the world about me better. I wanted to do something important with my life.” Do you think he succeeded?