Monday, April 28, 2008

After the helix - definitely not elementary

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, genetics, autobiographies

You're 34, a Harvard professor, and you've just received the Nobel Prize for work done before you were 25. Now what? For Dr. James D. Watson, "Now what?" happens midway through his new book Avoid Boring People: and Other Lessons from a Life in Science. (Though this is an autobiography, it is classified 572 (DD): "Life Sciences, Human Races" and QH3 (LCCN): "Natural History, General". The LCCN is at least close to the mark; the DD is wildly inaccurate. I'd have expected to find the book under BIO.)

Jim Watson in an odd duck. He clearly displays that unique mix of intellectual brilliance with social ineptitude that I find common among polymaths. As is also common to the breed, he learned human relations by calculation rather than innately. That which comes naturally for most must be learned by some, hence the book's subtitle.

Yet the brainy are typically the most playful. The book's title exemplifies this. At first it seems an elitist comment, until one notices the extra word "other" that appears only in certain light.

It is also characteristic of a polymath to make up the rules as one goes along. While the narrative is straightforward (which Watson attributes to helpers and editors), the book's structure is particularly focused on the "Lessons". Each chapter title begins with the word "Manners": "Manners Picked up in Graduate School" or "Manners Appropriate for a Nobel Prize". Each chapters ends with an explication of a handful of lessons, including "Avoid Boring People" after Ch 5, about avoiding people who are boring, and "Avoid Boring People" after Ch 15, about not being a bore. That fifteenth chapter ends with his resignation from Harvard in 1976, and while his epilogue skims the years through 2007, one can't help expecting another volume to follow.

Throughout, the author focuses on the science of genetics that is his passion. Whether working with phages (a kind of virus), bacteria, or molecular models, he has wanted to understand how genes make proteins which regulate genes to make other proteins...and so on. He doesn't scrimp for his reader, speaking of galactosidase or ribosomes as one expecting the reader's full comprehension. Be prepared to look stuff up as you read, if you're not already familiar with the field.

I could not avoid noticing that Watson's second focus, after science, is women. He pursued them relentlessly, but didn't really "catch" one until nearly age forty. He first mentions Elizabeth Lewis 80% of the way through the book, and, tellingly, once he is safely married to her, hardly mentions any woman thereafter...a sign of genuine love and fulfillment (and perhaps some of her watching eye).

Jim Watson has lived a life full of accomplishment and honors. For some, winning a Nobel Prize culminates a career. For him, it was the beginning. The Nobel came midway through a couple of decades as a Harvard professor. Having recently completed forty years guiding Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the first thirty years as its director, and its Chancellor since, he has been a guiding force in American and international genetics research for fully half the 20th Century, and now for a twelfth (so far) of the 21st. He's eighty and going strong. You gotta wish him well!

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