Fwd: Romancing the molecule

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    Romancing the molecule

    In 'Genes, Girls, and Gamow,' James D. Watson looks at love and DNA

    By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff, 2/27/2002


    COLD SPRING HARBOR, N.Y. - Offices of the great and famous have
    a dismaying tendency to look alike. The names on the plaques
    vary. The photographs bear different inscriptions. But always,
    along with the Danish modern furniture, there'll be those
    telltale plaques and photographs.

    The president's office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, one of
    the world's foremost scientific research institutes, would seem
    to be no exception. Certainly, the man who works there, James D.
    Watson, is very great and very famous: codiscoverer with Francis
    Crick of the structure of DNA; Nobel Prize winner; former head
    of the Human Genome Project; widely considered the most
    important figure in the history of the most important scientific
    field of the past half century, molecular biology.

    ''He's one of those few people who changed the world in a way
    people will be talking about 100, 200, 300 years from now,''
    says Nancy Hopkins, professor of biology at the Massachusetts
    Institute of Technology and a student of Watson's when he taught
    at Harvard during the '60s.

    Yet amid the many impressive pieces of memorabilia in Watson's
    office, there is at least one item unlikely to be found in any
    other office of anyone great and famous: the 2002 Anna
    Kournikova wall calendar.

    Watson is a man with no need to boast of his accomplish-ments,
    but just this once he'll make an exception. ''I got her
    autograph two years ago,'' he confides.

    More curious than the presence of the bombshell tennis player's
    calendar is that its being there is pertinent to Watson's
    greatness and fame. For it's indicative of a brashness, a
    friskiness, an absolute commitment to going his own way - and an
    ability to get away with doing so. As he says with a broad
    smile, ''I couldn't hang that there if I was at Harvard.''

    The calendar also suggests the forthright, if mostly chaste,
    interest in the opposite sex that Watson, 73, has long
    demonstrated. (It should be noted that Watson and his wife,
    Elizabeth, have been married for 34 years, quite happily it
    would appear, and have two grown sons.) That interest is very
    much on display in his new book, ''Genes, Girls, and Gamow:
    After the Double Helix.'' Not the least of Watson's
    accomplishments is his book about the DNA discovery, ''The
    Double Helix.'' An enormous bestseller upon publication in 1968,
    it's widely considered the single best firsthand account of how
    science is done. As the subtitle of the new book suggests,
    ''Genes, Girls, and Gamow'' is a sequel of sorts.

    Watson entered the University of Chicago at age 15. An interest
    in ornithology attracted him to biology. Caltech and Harvard
    turned him down for graduate study. So he went to Indiana
    University, where he turned to microbiology. After getting his
    PhD, he won a fellowship to study in Europe and became obsessed
    with DNA, ''the most golden of molecules,'' he once called it.
    Deciding that Cambridge University was the best place to do DNA
    work, Watson went there and met Crick. This was in 1951.
    Furthering (others have said poaching) the work of two
    University of London scientists, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind
    Franklin, Crick and Watson took less than two years to make the
    most momentous discovery in biology since Darwin.

    An essential coda

    It's at that point ''Genes, Girls, and Gamow'' commences. The
    book has earned harsh criticism for Watson's focus on his
    romantic life (or frequent lack thereof) at the expense of his
    science. Yet in a very real sense the book serves as an
    essential coda to ''The Double Helix,'' offering not just
    additional biographical information but a fuller demonstration
    of what it was that allowed so young and inexperienced a man -
    inexperienced in science as well as life - to make such a
    landmark discovery. How young was Watson? In his mid-20s he went
    around carrying a water pistol.

    The only reason his pursuit of the double helix isn't regarded
    as an act of absolute folly is that it did succeed. But that
    shouldn't obscure the fact that Watson's belief he and Crick
    could do it really was more than a little crazy. The confidence
    and optimism that led Watson to think almost any attractive
    young woman he met might be a suitable wife also helped someone
    not yet 25 think he could solve the biggest mystery in biology.
    In science, as in love, Watson was a profound romantic.

    The idea of Watson as romantic true believer is at variance with
    the image of him as scientific empire builder. Admirers and
    detractors alike acknowledge his hardheadedness - and enviable
    record - in scientific gamesmanship. As his friend and onetime
    colleague Paul Doty says of Watson's two decades at Harvard,
    ''He knew the age and expected tenure of everyone in the place.
    He was a great planner.'' When Watson took over at Cold Spring
    Harbor in 1968, it was considered a dying institution. The
    90-acre campus on Long Island's north shore was seen as a dead
    end. With an administrative acumen that may have surprised even
    him, Watson remade it into a dynamic force especially noted for
    its cancer research. And without the immediate credibility lent
    by his leadership, it's difficult to imagine the Human Genome
    Project's succeeding as it did.

    So part of what's so disconcerting about ''Genes, Girls, and
    Gamow'' is seeing someone so used to getting what he wanted
    professionally not getting what he wanted personally. What makes
    it more striking is the innocence of his desires. These were the
    '50s, after all, and while Watson clearly had nothing against
    sex, it was love he was after. ''I went around reading Jane
    Austen novels,'' Watson says. ''I was looking for a wife. It
    wasn't about lust; it was romance.''

    Doty, who met Watson in 1955, agrees. ''He never boasted about
    sexual conquests or anything like that. It was sort of at the
    level of banter. He was continuously alert to female

    A clatter of enthusiasms

    That alertness remained in operation for some time. Hopkins
    notes how much it amused the students in Watson's laboratory at
    Harvard during the '60s. ''He would constantly say, `I think
    I've met the one.'''

    Eventually, Watson did marry and continued to climb ever higher
    in the scientific firmament. So what happens to a young man in a
    hurry once he's gotten where he wanted to go? If the young man
    is Watson, he keeps right on going. Hopkins speaks of her former
    professor's ''childlike quality.'' She recalls how his students
    ''felt he was one of us, someone of our age. He never lost it.
    He still has it. That childlike quality is central to him.''

    Watson remains a bundle of puppyish energy, a clatter of
    enthusiasms. ''The only way to stay young is to avoid old
    people, so I play 25-year-olds,'' he says of his thrice-weekly
    tennis matches. ''When I went to Harvard [in the '50s], people
    of 50 were old. You didn't think much of them. They'd stopped
    having fun. And I still find people of about 50 aren't much

    Watson has the ultimate grand-old-man resume (with snowy hair
    and shiny pate to match), but in almost every other regard he
    remains the lean and hungry enfant terrible. He moves a bit like
    a rag doll - loose, bouncy, unconstrained - and that's how he
    expresses himself, too. In a world where lab coats are rarely
    removed, Watson is notorious for unbuttoned views.

    ''It's never fun being in trouble,'' he says with a shrug. ''I
    would never say anything [just] to be unpleasant; it was always
    to get something done. So being a boat rocker, sometimes you're
    thrown out of the boat. That's the price you may pay. Like
    getting fired by [National Institutes of Health director]
    Bernadine Healy,'' as head of the Human Genome Project.

    Technically, Watson resigned the post, which he held from 1988
    to 1992. Depending on whom you talk to, he resigned because of
    possible conflict-of-interest issues over his financial
    holdings - or he was pushed out because he'd opposed Healy's
    wanting NIH to patent genes.

    Either way, Watson is equally proud of his shepherding of the
    project and his departure from it. ''It was good for me getting
    fired. The rule is, if you don't respect your boss, you should
    quit before you're fired.'' He grins. ''I didn't quit.''

    It's a terrific grin: eager, luminous, a little bit goofy. What
    makes it irresistible is the arrangement of elements. Watson has
    startlingly light-blue eyes and trampoline eyebrows. He also has
    an oddly skewed upper lip. When his brows lift, eyes widen, and
    lip rises, it's like watching a curtain go up.

    Both sides, now and then

    Watson's buoyancy brings to mind something Winston Churchill
    once said about Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of Watson's boyhood
    heroes. Meeting FDR, Churchill remarked, ''was like opening your
    first bottle of champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.''

    In Watson's case, there is a caveat: Even the best champagne can
    produce a hangover. The frankness of his views is only part of
    the problem. Another is his ability to be both acute and
    guileless. It's one of the things that makes ''The Double
    Helix'' such an absorbing book: The reader can hardly decide
    which is more remarkable - how deftly he analyzes others or how
    much he reveals about himself.

    It is one thing to experience such a personality on the page, or
    as a friend or mentor. But to do so as a rival could be nothing
    short of intolerable. To Watson, DNA was the most important
    thing in the world. That being so, he also felt it should be the
    most important thing to the Harvard biology department. Anyone
    who might question that, such as his colleague E. O. Wilson,
    would be made to suffer the consequences. Watson's capacity to
    offend was so great that Wilson, a man almost as famous for his
    manners as his scientific ability, once called Watson ''the
    Caligula of biology'' and ''the most unpleasant person I had
    ever met.''

    ''That doesn't fit now,'' Wilson says, citing Watson's great
    success at Cold Spring Harbor as a mark of his growth. ''You
    don't do that with careless behavior and indifference to other

    Watson will get an opportunity to portray his side of those
    battles. He's completed a volume of memoirs focusing on his
    Harvard years, 1955 to 1976. ''Oh, I can't talk about that,'' he
    says at least a half-dozen times over the course of a 75-minute
    interview. ''It's in the new book.''

    Instead, Watson prefers to dwell on the years just before
    Harvard. ''In '53, the number of people really interested in DNA
    in the world probably was less than 50,'' he says. Watson likens
    the arrival of molecular biology in the second half of the last
    century to that of nuclear physics in the first.

    ''It was one of the absolutely great eras in science, from 1950
    to, say, 1970,'' he says. ''Cambridge [England] in the '50s was
    like Copenhagen was like in the '20s and '30s, and Francis
    [Crick] was the [Niels] Bohr [figure].''

    Watson thinks he knows what the next scientific epoch will
    center on. ''Understanding the brain,'' he says, ''is the next
    great objective.''

    To explain what he means, Watson recalls the funeral of Doty's
    wife, Helga. ''There was a reading from Corinthians. A beautiful
    passage: The greatest gift of God to humans is love. It probably
    is the most important thing about us: the bonding in human
    society. But what's its basis? What makes the mother love the
    baby? How many genes have to work together? What does love look
    like in the brain?

    ''There will be a merger of psychology and biology. There are
    real big things out there that seem impossible to explain, but
    you just want to prove you can do it. You can't think of
    anything else but. It's in your blood.''

    Mark Feeney can be reached by e-mail at mfeeney@globe.com.

    This story ran on page G1 of the Boston Globe on 2/27/2002.
    Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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