Unbobbled mind packs ’em in


Monday afternoon throngs of science enthusiasts and U of C celebrity-seekers packed two BSLC lecture halls, spilling into the aisles and lobby. They were there to see James Watson, PhB’46, SB’47, famous for his 1953 discovery, with Francis Crick, of DNA’s double-helix structure. Only half of the audience actually did see him; the rest watched a live video projection from the next room. Watson’s leisurely lecture touched on his Chicago education and his general life experience, rather than his Nobel-winning discovery. In fact, he quipped, the original paper on which The Double Helix was based was very short, and “the reason it was short was that there wasn’t very much to say.”

During his lecture Watson projected photographs and early writings featured in Crerar Library’s exhibition “Honest Jim: James D. Watson, the Writer,” which runs through May 28. He recalled his childhood in Hyde Park, his early interest in ornithology, and his introduction to scientific skepticism in Erwin Schrodinger’s What Is Life? No one at the University, he joked, believed he would ever make anything of himself, whereas at graduate school at Indiana University everyone thought he was smart. Chicago, Watson said, “has made a pretty serious person out of me.”

He closed with advice to students: “In your 20s you should be totally devoted to yourself and no one else. Don’t worry about the poor, don’t worry about the environment, don’t worry who the president is.” A swelled head, he suggested, might not be such a bad thing for young people. “If a young person isn’t arrogant, something’s wrong.” In the lobby after his lecture, alongside his newest book, DNA: The Secret of Life (Knopf, 2003, $39.95), patrons could buy bobble-head James Watson dolls with large, smiling heads ($20.95).

Joseph Liss, ’04

Photo: Photo by Elliott Brennan (top).

January 21, 2004