Join 3,550 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"The Double Helix has more in common with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood than, say, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
November 8, 2012 1:36 PM   Subscribe

"The Turn of the Screw: James Watson on The Double Helix and his changing view of Rosalind Franklin": Maggie Koerth-Baker's brief interview with Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, about his "infamous" treatment of Franklin in his book The Double Helix, on the occasion of the publication of an annotated and illustrated edition of the same.
posted by ocherdraco (32 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I stumbled across a nice site that has a bunch of bioinformatics problems that give students a background in bioinfo and lets them improve their programming chops solving them. It's called Rosalind.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:43 PM on November 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Well, that interview containing words that originated in the brain of the aging James Watson induced in me a lot less creeping horror than I expected.
posted by gurple at 2:01 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't understand why everyone has so much hate for Watson. I think he's a pretty cool guy.
posted by zscore at 2:07 PM on November 8, 2012


Hmmm.... he robbed data from a scientist to help himself get the Nobel prize and he's made asshole comments that ring of white supremacy.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:10 PM on November 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


I really need to read this. I read The Double Helix and came out much more in favor of Watson/Crick than I had been, I wonder how these additional correspondences might changed my mind.

And to dances, did you know that Rosalind died before the Nobel prize was awarded (and they can't be awarded posthumously)? I don't know whether she would have gotten the prize if she had been alive, but possibly she would have, which would completely change the dialogue from the way it is today.

Does anyone have a digital copy of the 6 page letter? I'd LOVE to read that, couldn't find it with some googling.
posted by Buckt at 2:13 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't understand why everyone has so much hate for Watson. I think he's a pretty cool guy.

Because I saw him speak once, in a sort of conversation with a female interviewer, and he was horrifyingly sexist. If you want to maintain your favorable opinion of him, don't ever watch him speak.
posted by gurple at 2:17 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Robbed data" is a bit harsh. They looked at it and used it to develop a theory they might not have published without it, but she still published her data under her own name with full credit. The general consensus is that she would not have published the structure of DNA herself, as she viewed the evidence as being insufficient for the creation of structural models. Probably if they had not looked at her data, either they would have seen her data when she published it and published their theory then, or Pauling would have beat them to it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:22 PM on November 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


buckt - Watson never acknowledged her contribution before she died or before they got the Nobel prize - and if he had, he might have never gotten the award inasmuch as he stole a part of her work.
Also, Pauling when asked about his two Nobel prizes said he would have had three if he stole from Franklin.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:25 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


It is an amazing book, well worth reading, and, as the BoingBoing article says, Watson doesn't always come off as the nicest guy either.

Also, an annotated version of the Watson and Crick paper. The highlight is the most understated line in science.


Also, Hark a Vagrant's take on Rosalind.
posted by blahblahblah at 2:37 PM on November 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Mix that with a little sexism...

...and a little routine antisemitism...
posted by ubiquity at 3:14 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]



I don't understand why everyone has so much hate for Watson. I think he's a pretty cool guy.

Because I saw him speak once, in a sort of conversation with a female interviewer, and he was horrifyingly sexist. If you want to maintain your favorable opinion of him, don't ever watch him speak.


A roommate of mine worked at James Watson's lab one summer. Obviously he's a well-known guy in science circles and facilities he is associated with tend to have a lot of notoriety, but it turns out, judging by the stories we heard that Dr. Watson is, well... batshit crazy. Highlights include "the gay gene," "the math gene," the idea that women can't be good at math because they don't have the math gene, and the well-tested theory that the fourth son is always gay (presumably because that's how the gay gene works).
posted by FreelanceBureaucrat at 4:30 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't understand why everyone has so much hate for Watson. I think he's a pretty cool guy.

James Watson believes in eugenics. The things he has said in public on this topic are dangerous and he knows it. He is a monster.
posted by Craig at 4:39 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


From what I understand, Franklin died before Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel. This rendered her ineligible for the prize, since Nobels cannot be awarded posthumously. I am curious as to whether she would have been given the Nobel along with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins had she lived.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:40 PM on November 8, 2012


Nobels also can't be split between more than three scientists, so she would've probably bumped Wilkins from the award.
posted by Flannery Culp at 5:06 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


You can see Watson's intellectual blinkers pretty clearly in this interview, short as it is. He's probably heard people say that it was rather gauche of him to poke fun at Franklin's dress in his book, but he doesn't quite get that it's inappropriate to criticize female scientists for their dress or looks, whilst leaving men alone. So, in this interview, he doesn't say "I was wrong to poke fun Franklin's looks," but that, in fact, he's heard she had "a certain elegance" in evening dress, and so he was wrong in that regard.

That "whoosh" is the point going right over Dr. Watson's head, at speed.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 5:18 PM on November 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


There are more options these days, but I'm glad that my undergraduate advisor recommended reading Sayre's book on Rosalind Franklin as a counterpoint to the Double Helix.

NOVA has neat interactive guide to interpreting the famous x-ray Photograph 51 as published in Nature by Franklin and her graduate student Gosling.

I once used Watson's driveway at Cold Spring Harbor to get a car turned around.
posted by exogenous at 5:23 PM on November 8, 2012


"Robbed data" is a bit harsh. They looked at it and used it to develop a theory they might not have published without it, but she still published her data under her own name with full credit.

Mitrovarr, I have to contradict you. They saw the photo behind Franklin's back and without her permission. It's the early 20th century version of rifling through someone's password protected files.


Having seen Watson speak, I concur, the man is not only quite mad, he is a poor scientist and a grade A prat.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 5:23 PM on November 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Watson v Franklin - meh. Crick was where it was at. He made some instrumental contributions even after the double helix discovery - notably the discovery of the triplet codon. I've always assumed he was the real brains behind the double helix.
posted by batou_ at 5:36 PM on November 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


A sampling of Watson's racist remarks:
Referring to a recent interview, The Times UK reports that Dr. Watson suggested he is pessimistic about the “prospect of Africa” (a little vague, conceptually, but I assume he meant the continent’s growth trajectory and future) since the policies of the west, and other countries providing aid to African nations, assume that the people of Africa (read: black people) are as intelligent as we are. Now, this statement could be referring to a lot of things, including educational opportunities, specialized training in economics or industry, or even the performance on standardized tests (suggested by some researchers to be socially biased against students of color.)

But to make sure that we all understood what he meant, he continued speaking and clarified his position by stating that while he hoped everyone was equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
posted by peacheater at 5:40 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Awww, now everyone thinks I'm racist and sexist. I hadn't read anything by him since The Double Helix.
posted by zscore at 6:58 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


According to a documentary source I can't remember the title of, Rosalind Franklin was probably the victim of radiation exposure, doing her many X-ray experiments without the benefit of shielding. The documentary also made it clear of her major contribution, which has been underestimated.
posted by Brian B. at 9:31 PM on November 8, 2012


Blasdelb on Watson, Crick and Franklin, previously. Blasdelb's other comments in that thread are also good.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 2:43 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mr. Excellent: You can see Watson's intellectual blinkers pretty clearly in this interview, short as it is. He's probably heard people say that it was rather gauche of him to poke fun at Franklin's dress in his book, but he doesn't quite get that it's inappropriate to criticize female scientists for their dress or looks, whilst leaving men alone. So, in this interview, he doesn't say "I was wrong to poke fun Franklin's looks," but that, in fact, he's heard she had "a certain elegance" in evening dress, and so he was wrong in that regard.

That "whoosh" is the point going right over Dr. Watson's head, at speed.
Well, I'd take a less harsh POV on that comment (without excusing his sexism). He has not only apologized for the criticisms of her work, but - at least in his mind - apologized by way of retraction of his criticisms of her looks.

"I'm sorry I called her an ugly idiot. She's smart, and not ugly." - to paraphrase widely.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:41 AM on November 9, 2012


Alice Russel-Wallace: "Robbed data" is a bit harsh. They looked at it and used it to develop a theory they might not have published without it, but she still published her data under her own name with full credit.

Mitrovarr, I have to contradict you. They saw the photo behind Franklin's back and without her permission. It's the early 20th century version of rifling through someone's password protected files.
Which still isn't theft. It's (potentially) a crime, and (certainly) invasive and immoral, but not theft.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:42 AM on November 9, 2012


zscore: Awww, now everyone thinks I'm racist and sexist. I hadn't read anything by him since The Double Helix.
I don't. I think you were genuinely asking to be informed, and you got the information you desired. No fault.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:44 AM on November 9, 2012


FTFA:
Watson kind of becomes the catty best friend,
Nice turn of phrase. Heh.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:52 AM on November 9, 2012


A woman's place is in the lab: History comes alive in "Photograph 51," about biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, who got scant credit for her DNA research.
posted by homunculus at 6:52 PM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


L.A Theatre Works staged Photograph 51 as a radio play not long ago. It's pretty good. If you can't download it from that link, it might still be in the LATW podcast archive.
posted by Flannery Culp at 6:57 PM on November 9, 2012


"Watson v Franklin - meh. Crick was where it was at. He made some instrumental contributions even after the double helix discovery - notably the discovery of the triplet codon. I've always assumed he was the real brains behind the double helix."

Both Jim Watson and Francis Crick, as well as Franklin while she was alive, continued to make totally game changing discoveries after their model for Franklin's double helix.

Jim Watson is kind of like an extreme version of that kind of geek who was always smart enough to figure out the problems in math class without doing the work, and never felt he needed to learn how in order to function. Only the difference is that he was actually smart enough to be pretty much right. They really both were the brains behind it, using Franklin's and Chargoff's data.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:57 AM on November 13, 2012


Alice Russel-Wallace: Mitrovarr, I have to contradict you. They saw the photo behind Franklin's back and without her permission. It's the early 20th centurys version of rifling through someone's password protected files.

It's not that simple. First of all, in the sciences, you don't exactly own your data, even if you were the one running the experiment. You have the right to be credited (usually!) but you don't necessarily have complete control; the lab PI, the department you work in, the funding agency, and others may have access to your data and partial control over it. Considering they usually paid for it all, I'm not sure I'm really against them having reasonable input. Universities and government funding agencies are usually decent about it.

In this case, according to wikipedia, her student handed the data over to Wilkins because Franklin was leaving to a new position and the program director had required all of the DNA data to stay with the department. So Wilkins had pretty legitimate access to it. Whether this includes showing the data to Watson is, well, nuanced - some people would say it is acceptable and others not. But they didn't rifle it out of her desk.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:39 PM on November 13, 2012


It really isn't that nuanced, while there are certainly legitimate questions of whether Franklin or Randall had more right to agency over what happened the data and Gosling couldn’t be said to be wrong in sharing it with Wilkins exactly, it unambiguously did not belong to Wilkins. Wilkins unambiguously stabbed both Franklin and his boss Randall in the back in an act that is hard not to describe as a jealous and misogynistic betrayal.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:18 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't really agree with that analysis. If Franklin wasn't permitted to take the project with her when she left and was requested to turn it over to Wilkins, it would have been his job to continue the project as he saw fit. This includes choosing collaborators and sharing data with them. Otherwise, he would have been unable to continue the project.

Really, if anything is gotten from this, it should be the importance of proper collaboration and the avoidance of petty feuds. If Watson, Crick, and Wilkins hadn't viewed her data, nobody would consider it important today; it would just be one of the many pieces of supporting evidence cited by Pauling when he eventually got it right. On the other hand, they didn't credit her nearly enough (she should have probably been a coauthor) and the way they acquired her data has somewhat tainted their work. If they could have just gotten along and collaborated correctly, it would have been better for everyone.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:46 AM on November 14, 2012


« Older Ad creatives, designers, animators, directors, ill...  |  Rolling Jubilee.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments