"I really would love to own a Hockney"
December 1, 2014 4:12 PM   Subscribe

"No one really wants to admit I exist," says co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, James Watson, who after years of shunning over controversial statements is auctioning his 1962 Nobel Prize medal this Thursday to help pay bills and buy some artwork. Online bidding is an option.
posted by a lungful of dragon (60 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best solution I've heard online: crowdfund to buy it, melt it down and recast it with Rosalind Franklin's name on it.
posted by ambrosen at 4:15 PM on December 1, 2014 [186 favorites]


Why is it that people who believe in the genetic superiority of one race (usually, by an enormous coincidence, their own) over another don't usually seem to be good examples of the superior traits you'd expect them to have?
posted by Sing Or Swim at 4:18 PM on December 1, 2014 [19 favorites]


I've thought Watson was an asshole since I read his book 30 years ago.

His actions since that time have utterly failed to change my mind.
posted by kyrademon at 4:19 PM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Cue the tiny violins....
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:25 PM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


So he's going for the Pulitzer in passive aggression now?
posted by localroger at 4:25 PM on December 1, 2014 [11 favorites]


He was always a jerk, but he's been acting extremely offensively and erratically only since turning 75 or so. Unfortunately I think he may just have a moderate case of dementia that causes his bizarre outbursts. The fault is on the media for taking these racist/sexist quips at face value.
posted by miyabo at 4:28 PM on December 1, 2014 [8 favorites]


This thread seems to be trying to draw a connection between Watson being a jerk and Watson selling his Nobel. Is there one, or is the latter just being a handy excuse for recalling the former?
posted by Going To Maine at 4:28 PM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


insisted he is not racist “in a conventional way”.

Of all possible defenses, I did not expect this one. An unconventional racist.

I suppose he's no William Shockley.
posted by GuyZero at 4:36 PM on December 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


Going To Maine: the first sentence of the article at the second link says "One of the world’s best-known scientists is selling his Nobel Prize medal in a bid to allow him to “re-enter public life” after being shunned for the past seven years for his comments linking race and intelligence."

So yeah, there is a connection.
posted by caryatid at 4:36 PM on December 1, 2014 [4 favorites]



This thread seems to be trying to draw a connection between Watson being a jerk and Watson selling his Nobel. Is there one, or is the latter just being a handy excuse for recalling the former?

Slate has the answer. Of, more accurately, Watson gave the answer to the Financial Times, but I'm just linking to the Slate article since FT demands you register to read their precious content.
posted by dortmunder at 4:37 PM on December 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


This thread seems to be trying to draw a connection between Watson being a jerk and Watson selling his Nobel.

As does he, bemoaning how he's become an "unperson" since the negative reaction to his bold truth telling, and how he therefore can't make money like he used to.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:37 PM on December 1, 2014 [10 favorites]


This thread seems to be trying to draw a connection between Watson being a jerk and Watson selling his Nobel. Is there one, or is the latter just being a handy excuse for recalling the former?

I'm not trying, as the connection is from one of the linked articles that are all worth reading:

“Because I was an ‘unperson’ I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income,” he said.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 4:39 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Best solution I've heard online: crowdfund to buy it, melt it down and recast it with Rosalind Franklin's name on it.

I know it's a popular thing to believe that Franklin was robbed of the Nobel Prize by sexism, but whatever sexism she faced--undoubtedly a lot--it played no part. Franklin didn't win the Nobel Prize by virtue of being dead. That she never had a Nobel Prize to her name is not an injustice against her. She is now, rightly, recognized for her contribution in many other ways.
posted by Thing at 4:41 PM on December 1, 2014 [27 favorites]


here's a very good comment article from Adam Rutherford on this.
I think on Twitter he said he didn't choose the headline and didn't agree with it. His article is very critical of Watson but is more complex than the headline suggests.

(re: Franklin, Rutherford notes: "Contrary to some narratives, Franklin was not overlooked in this accolade. The rules are quite clear: Nobels are not awarded posthumously. Franklin had died from cancer aged just 37, in 1958, four years before the Nobel committee recognised what is undoubtedly one of the most significant scientific advances of the 20th or any century." Also worth remembering that Franklin carried out other incredible scientific work in her tragically short career, most notably her pioneering work on viruses)
posted by Bwithh at 4:41 PM on December 1, 2014 [7 favorites]


Crick had the ideas, Franklin did the work. Watson was along for the ride.
posted by tommyD at 4:43 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


This interview -- in which he has no income (except his academic income, of course) and is reduced to selling his prized trophy (so he can buy some valuable art) -- is so weird that I honestly can't tell where we are on the line between "look at this arsehole" and mocking the mentally ill. Just let him fade into obscurity.
posted by metaBugs at 4:53 PM on December 1, 2014 [16 favorites]


Cry moar, asshole. I've been hearing about what a tool he was for decades, from a number of different sources. If he feels like he's being treated like an "unperson" because people have reacted to his decades of offensive behavior and general dickishness by avoiding him, well, good. Maybe it'll provide an incentive to others to be not QUITE so much of an arrogant jackass.

I have seriously been hearing about what offensive thing Watson's said now for years, and I would love it if we could all just stop paying attention and let him live out the rest of his days in obscurity.
posted by sciatrix at 5:00 PM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


What's telling is that he's stated that part of his reasoning for selling the Nobel Prize medal was so that he can start to re-enter public life.

If I'm reading this correctly, the guy actually thinks that all this time it was the Nobel Prize that was keeping him down for all of these years.
posted by surazal at 5:02 PM on December 1, 2014 [8 favorites]


Christ, what an asshole (and Crick).
posted by phaedon at 5:02 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


The best thing that can happen to him is that he is ignored. While he says he wants to enter the public sphere again, I don't think he'd really enjoy that.

Entering the public sphere would mean that the entire world would center around the his abhorrent opinions and awful shit he has said (and continues to say?). The less he engages with the world these days the more likely it is that he'll be remembered for his scientific contributions.

It all feels very sad and tragic, really. It sounds like he was an awful guy, and now he's turning into a lonely old man (sure, you may have to work with an awful person, but you're not going to voluntarily socialize with them, are you?).

From the sounds of it, his racism, homophobia, and sexism were merely symptoms of him being an awful guy, not the cause of it. "E. O. Wilson once described Watson as "the most unpleasant human being I had ever met"" (E.O. Wilson is a successful old white heterosexual man who used to work with him).
posted by el io at 5:03 PM on December 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


Christ, what an asshole (and Crick).

I was gonna go with "Crick, Watson asshole."
posted by tzikeh at 5:08 PM on December 1, 2014 [25 favorites]


White man says that his success is inherent and "genetic" and displays a stunning ignorance of literally anything outside his PhD work. Let me get my surprised face on.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:17 PM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


“Because I was an ‘unperson’ I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income,” he said.

23andMe let him visit their campus or whatever recently. I was like," You guys really want people to know you hosted him?" Though I think people looked pretty bewildered posing with him. Looking at the pictures, I kind of couldn't help but imagine him saying a stream of racist and sexist Benny Hill-ish stuff while all the employees just had to politely tolerate him.
posted by discopolo at 5:30 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


I know it's a popular thing to believe that Franklin was robbed of the Nobel Prize by sexism,

This is not, in fact, true at all. I've never heard of any educator chalking it up to this and I certainly have never taught it this way. The textbooks that I use and materials that I provide on the subject are very clear:

The Nobel Prize is intended to be reinvested in more research.
Dead people can't invest.
The Nobel Prize, therefore, is not awarded to dead people.
posted by Fuka at 5:47 PM on December 1, 2014


As for James Watson, he is not so demented that he can't see he faces the thing that all elder white males fear most: irrelevance.
posted by Fuka at 5:49 PM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Dead people can't invest

Awarding a Prize to Franklin would have been an investment in the future of young girls who have an interest in science. Not everything about the Prize is about dollars. (Unless you have a taste for the finer arts, perhaps.)
posted by a lungful of dragon at 5:52 PM on December 1, 2014


Because I was an ‘unperson’ I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income

I also have no income apart from my academic income! EVERYBODY PITY ME!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:54 PM on December 1, 2014 [22 favorites]


Awarding a Prize to Franklin would have been an investment in the future of young girls who have an interest in science. Not everything about the Prize is about dollars. (Unless you have a taste for the finer arts, perhaps.)

I don't disagree with you - But I don't think the nobel committee saw things how you do back then.
posted by Fuka at 5:56 PM on December 1, 2014


I think an economist with a nobel should buy it.

So they won't be lying when they say have a nobel prize.

They will still have the problem of everything else they say though.
posted by srboisvert at 6:01 PM on December 1, 2014 [24 favorites]


I was fortunate enough to be able to unperson him just a few months ago. I was working in a conference room with a grad student on some revisions to their paper, when HEY EVErYBODY! here's your least favorite crazy racist science uncle, Jim Watson! I mustered just enough politesse to be introduced, then just walked out of the room to work elsewhere, rather than wait around for him to say something egregious enough to provoke an abrupt departure directly.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:15 PM on December 1, 2014 [8 favorites]


I honestly can't tell where we are on the line between "look at this arsehole" and mocking the mentally ill.

I don't think he is mentally ill. I think it is silly, or at least too easily dismissive to call him mentally ill. I think he is a very smart asshole with very wrong ideas, but in the shades-of-grey world I live in, I think he's an asshole whose actions here are definitely worth a broader look.

I am a scientist and work with very smart and very opinionated people, who must sometimes value their opinion enough to put forward what can be controversial ideas even in the face of really strong criticism from colleagues. The scientific community is generally conservative about those kinds of ideas, with exceptions made when awards like the Nobel Prize are handed out, which has at times been given to scientists who came up with groundbreaking work that questioned existing dogma and was found correct maybe a few years later, and sometimes decades after the fact.

So that's the environment he grows up in, and he says stuff which is clearly shitty, but he thinks is correct or at least aligns with his worldview, but the scientific community that once recognized his earlier work with the highest of accolades, as well as the public at large, found these views abhorrent and basically shuns him.

He owns this physical manifestation of former glory, one that symbolizes his membership in the highest ranking of scientists. By putting this symbol up for auction, he is expressing, among other things, he no longer feels a part of our community, and that he would value personal ownership a piece of abstract art higher than the maintenance (however strained) of that connection.

To be entirely clear, I also find the controversial things he has said to be horribly racist, but beyond paying bills and buying fine art, I wonder if his actions must seem to him also a unambiguous repudiation of the community he was once a valued part of.

There's an element of human tragedy here that goes beyond lazy notions of calling him mentally ill or a sufferer of dementia — perhaps one of the last statements that this largely powerless scientist will get to give, one from a very smart and very wrong old person who was not able to let go of his opinions, which effected the loss of his career and reputation.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 6:24 PM on December 1, 2014 [23 favorites]


Contrary to some narratives, Franklin was not overlooked in this accolade. The rules are quite clear: Nobels are not awarded posthumously.

According to the official Nobel Prize website, the above rule only came into effect in 1974, after which two posthumous prizes had already been awarded (one in 1961, the year before Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded theirs). So, there's that.
posted by exact_change at 6:33 PM on December 1, 2014 [35 favorites]


Okay, is there anyone else who did something great and yet is hiding some horrible stories that "everybody" knows about out there?

If we could just evict all the bigots, abusers and harassers from our cultural Mount Olympus all at once, that'd be super, thanks.
posted by chicobangs at 6:33 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


How much Hockney does a Nobel Prize buy?
posted by spudsilo at 6:47 PM on December 1, 2014


I honestly can't tell where we are on the line between "look at this arsehole" and mocking the mentally ill.

If he's mentally ill enough to not be responsible for his actions, then can't we put him in a nice home somewhere, instead of letting him wander the halls of academia, where he may do harm to self or others?
posted by happyroach at 7:01 PM on December 1, 2014


How much Hockney does a Nobel Prize buy?

Depends if you're looking at a photomontage, an iPad drawing or other art print or at a unique individual canvas. If he wants, say, a large Hockney swimming pool painting he'd probably better start work on a second Nobel prize.
posted by yoink at 7:01 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


According to the official Nobel Prize website, the above rule only came into effect in 1974, after which two posthumous prizes had already been awarded (one in 1961, the year before Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded theirs). So, there's that.
posted by exact_change at 6:33 PM on December 1 [3 favorites +] [!]


This book says that the 1970s adjusted rule described above says that only *prizewinners* can be awarded the Nobel posthumously. That is to say, for instance, after it has been publicly announced that you have been awarded a Nobel, you unfortunately die on your way to the prize ceremony.

As the book says, this is stricter than the *original* rule (as made by Alfred Nobel's original statutes) which would have applied to the 1962 Nobel prizes, which says that you could receive the Nobel posthumously if your name had already submitted as part of an official candidate proposal (before any selection of winners was made). Presumably that is how the earlier posthumous Nobel prizewinners got their awards.
posted by Bwithh at 7:32 PM on December 1, 2014 [11 favorites]


Okay, is there anyone else who did something great and yet is hiding some horrible stories that "everybody" knows about out there?

Kary Mullis won a Nobel Prize in chemistry and is a climate change denier and an advocate of astrology.

He also doesn't believe AIDS exists and encourages people with HIV not to seek treatment. Really.
posted by 256 at 7:33 PM on December 1, 2014 [18 favorites]


Going To Maine: "This thread seems to be trying to draw a connection between Watson being a jerk and Watson selling his Nobel. Is there one, or is the latter just being a handy excuse for recalling the former?"

The articles I read said that 1) the Nobel may not bring as much money as past auctioned Nobels have because of the unpleasantness of the man who won it; and 2) He is whinging that he has been fired off lots of boards and things (that paid him money) for being a big racist, so he "has to" sell his Nobel because he's only living on his academic salary, which is apparently inadequate to his art-buying habits.

But definitely some of the quotes I saw from him read like someone who isn't quite all there all the time, which is sad. And that's on top of the sad part where someone so talented turns out to be a racist.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:48 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Kary Mullis won a Nobel Prize in chemistry and is a climate change denier and an advocate of astrology.

Kary Mullis is into just about any crazy thing you could think of but he strikes me as a very different case than Watson.
posted by atoxyl at 7:49 PM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


I understand why Rosalind Franklin couldn't win the Nobel Prize (because of not being alive when it was awarded). My problem is that Watson and company did received the prize, despite the fact that a big reason they figured out the DNA structure was because of getting hold of her unpublished data without her knowledge.
posted by eye of newt at 8:38 PM on December 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


I see the Wikipedia editors have a sense of humor. In the Kary Mullis article, right after the section on his denialism, there's a paragraph on his use of LSD, followed by this little gem: "Extraterrestrial Life - Mullis reported an encounter with a glowing green raccoon at his cabin in the woods of northern California around midnight one night in 1985. He denies the involvement of LSD in this encounter."
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:37 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Mullis reported an encounter with a glowing green raccoon at his cabin in the woods of northern California around midnight one night in 1985.

There's a simple explanation for that... a future winner of the Nobel prize, awarded for developing time travel, went back to 1985 and painted a raccoon with glow-in-the-dark paint. You know how they are at Caltech.
posted by 1367 at 11:00 PM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


This has a name: Nobel disease. That article has a comprehensive list.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:50 AM on December 2, 2014 [8 favorites]


I understand why Rosalind Franklin couldn't win the Nobel Prize (because of not being alive when it was awarded). My problem is that Watson and company did received the prize, despite the fact that a big reason they figured out the DNA structure was because of getting hold of her unpublished data without her knowledge.

Exactly this. It's not that, hey, too bad this talented guy turned out to be a bigot. It's that, hey, the very thing this supposedly talented guy is celebrated for is based in the bigoted stealing the work of an insignificant woman. It's bigotry all the way down.
posted by medusa at 1:15 AM on December 2, 2014 [6 favorites]


How is selling his Nobel supposed to redeem Watson's reputation? People don't scorn him because he has a Nobel, they scorn him because he's a racist, sexist piece of crap.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:16 AM on December 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


Going by the Slate article dortmunder linked to, it seems Watson has pretty much always been awful. I wouldn't necessarily chalk up his behavior to mental illness or dementia; he might suffer from it, but his track record goes back pretty far. In a way it reminds me of the dialogue around Bobby Fischer. Absolutely brilliant in his chosen field, and said vile, anti-Semitic things. A lot of people tried to explain this away as a guy who was clearly becoming unhinged in his autumn years. There were certainly signs this was happening, but his anti-Semitism went back decades.

Also, whatever the rules about the Nobel Prize and dead people are, Franklin still got robbed.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 1:58 AM on December 2, 2014



This has a name: Nobel disease. That article has a comprehensive list.


Great link. I only knew about Linus Pauling's vitamin C quackery.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 5:37 AM on December 2, 2014


Nobel Rot?
posted by AJaffe at 9:01 AM on December 2, 2014 [2 favorites]


WRT Kary Mullis, it's worth remembering that in addition to the things that are listed in that "Nobel Disease" link, he's also a serial sexual harasser.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:04 AM on December 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


the very thing this supposedly talented guy is celebrated for is based in the bigoted stealing the work of an insignificant woman

It's one thing to say that Franklin deserved more recognition for the crucial role her work played in untangling the structure of DNA. It's another thing—and a false one—to suggest that Watson and Crick did nothing but steal her work and present it as their own. Franklin had got as far as suspecting that DNA had a helical structure. The double-helix postulate was entirely Watson's and Crick's.

People say about modern art that it's equal parts "I could have done that" and "yeah, but you didn't." Something similar is true of almost all scientific breakthroughs. It's the nature of science, which is generally incremental and collaborative, that whenever any major advance in the field is made there are numerous people who were "close" in one way or another to making that advance and that there are even more people whose contributions to the "discovery" were essential but also unheralded. Watson and Crick undoubtedly acted unethically in their dealings with Franklin and Watson is equally undoubtedly an asshole in all kinds of other ways. But they made a genuine, startling and important contribution to human knowledge. Pretending that they didn't because we'd like a nice tidy story in which only nice people get Nobels is silly.
posted by yoink at 10:10 AM on December 2, 2014 [4 favorites]


yoink: It's one thing to say that Franklin deserved more recognition for the crucial role her work played in untangling the structure of DNA. It's another thing—and a false one—to suggest that Watson and Crick did nothing but steal her work and present it as their own. Franklin had got as far as suspecting that DNA had a helical structure. The double-helix postulate was entirely Watson's and Crick's.

It should also be mentioned that Watson, Crick, and Wilkins (who is the most to blame in the entire unpublished data affair, if someone has to be) received the Nobel prize for their entire body of work on nucleic acids, not just on the structure of DNA. There was a lot of work that went into demonstrating their structure was correct, as well as other discoveries related to DNA and RNA, that were involved. The difficulty in proving the structure is part of the reason it took so long for them to win the prize.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:20 AM on December 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


WRT Kary Mullis, it's worth remembering that in addition to the things that are listed in that "Nobel Disease" link, he's also a serial sexual harasser.

I had no idea I thought he was just a crank.
posted by atoxyl at 12:07 PM on December 2, 2014


I see Brian Josephson is on that Nobel disease list. I went to a lecture by him on his 'Mind-Matter Unification' work several years ago, organised by the Cambridge University Science Society — never before had I been in a room with so many people cringing uncomfortably.
posted by daisyk at 1:57 PM on December 2, 2014


at this point I pretty much think of winning the Nobel Prize as being approximately analogous to being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; it's an honor in that it means that your impact has been unquestionable, but since it usually takes a long time for everyone to come to the consensus that your impact has been unquestionable, there's a lot of folks who've faded out since doing their best work and there are weird victor-writes-history politics on just who gets included and how.
posted by kagredon at 10:17 PM on December 2, 2014




The medal has sold for USD$4.76 million.

Ohmygod! I've totally regained all my respect for James Watson for some reason! How did that happen? I must invite him to some scientific conferences!
posted by happyroach at 8:49 PM on December 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


My guess is that Craig Venter bought it to wear around the house.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 9:18 AM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]




in some kind of weird O. Henry-esque twist, the medal really is cursed?
posted by kagredon at 11:20 PM on December 9, 2014


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