25 October 2007

Things that make me sad

James Watson resigns over "racist" comments.

Obligatory disclaimer: Watson's remarks (and some past remarks, apparently) were offensive and ignorant at best.

But I can't help feel sorry for the man. I have some lingering affection for him. I grew up with a fascination for biological sciences, and Watson and Crick were demigods in the textbooks; the mythic account of their discovery of the double helix was like Prometheus bring fire to the primitives. I read Watson's memoir, The Double Helix, and came away feeling as if I knew the young scientist in the '50s, like I was there during the exciting time of discovery. It was a key part of my inspiration to go into the life sciences. Sure, I knew there was much that was fictionalized and much that was omitted (Rosalind Franklin's contribution, for example). But still, it was a great story and great science.

It's sad indeed to see a great man end his career diminished in such a way. I don't blame him per se for having anachronistic views: he is quite old and I have known many elderly individuals to have embarrassingly unreconstructed views on race, sexuality, society, etc. It is a pity that he spoke out so prominently that it couldn't be ignored and that an institutional repudiation was required, and that he must thus end his long and distinguished career in ignominy.


  1. Here is a quote from 1973 Time Magazine article. Unfortunately, Dr. Watson was not new in his controversial views.

    Last week a scientist whose work has helped to make engineering—and even creation—of life a possibility tackled this dilemma head on. Dr. James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, the master molecule DNA, urged that doctors attending the birth of laboratory-conceived human babies be given the right to terminate the lives of the infants if they are grossly abnormal.

    Watson's statement, made in an interview in the A.M.A.'s new socio-economic magazine Prism, is no casual endorsement of infanticide. Watson believes that doctors have not fully considered the potentially disastrous consequences of their interference in natural processes.


  2. Yeah, he apparently has plenty of other "controversial" comments out there.

    Maybe the real point is that it's sad to see your childhood heroes revealed to be flawed human beings.

  3. since when does politics and controversial views have anything to do with the capacity for him to make an impact in scientific discovery

    i think this whole thing is way overblown.

    there was a litte problem with his statement... but what if he's right?

    i'm a pakistani american... and sometimes people are way to easily insulted...

    it makes me want to tell them to shut up to their face...

    oh no i'm being controversial

  4. Yes, well, Anonymous: what if a public figure respected for his intellect came out and said that unfortunately, Pakistani-Americans are more ill-mannered and cowardly than most?

    Would there be a "little problem" with that, do you think? Good grief.

    Thanks, 'fax, for mentioning Dr. Franklin. She seems to be getting her due a little late, but it's better than the obscurity she would have had.

  5. Watson and Crick did a brilliant piece of detective work to be sure. But they did it with stolen evidence. The prize should of been shared with Rosalind Franklin, whose crystallography images were the key to their breakthrough. But she died of ovarian cancer possibly resulting from her work and Nobel prizes are never awarded posthumously. Even back then, Watson wrote a rude and hurtful book that was still rude and hurtful after being edited to soften the comments.

  6. stolen evidence? that's ridiculous. 1) it's not stolen information if someone willingly shows it to you and 2) she published the x-ray structures in the same issue of nature as the watson and crick paper. so she got credit for her work, and they cited her in theirs. in science, we don't call building upon other people's results "stealing".

    I don't condone watson's recent comments, but in a response piece, he did make a point that I found very interesting- science is what it is, not what we want it to be. if it turns out that there are genetic variations that contribute to intelligence (and there almost certainly are), and differences in some of those genes are found to vary between races or ethnicities... what then? do we dismiss results because they don't conform to how we think the world should work?

  7. It is a shame and quite human that in all his magnificent brilliance, that spot of darkness overshadows him.

    Intelligence apparently does not excuse one from stunning ignorance in other areas.

    Adrienne Zurub
    Author,'NOtes From the Mothership The Naked Invisibles'


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