Dr. James Watson: The Discovery of DNA
Jamison, Kay Redfield, The Saturday Evening Post
In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, revolutionizing the way we understand life.
When I first thought about writing about exuberance, 30 years after having read The Double Helix as an undergraduate, I hoped to capture some of its importance by interviewing several scientists, most of whom I knew personally to be highly exuberant; a few others I knew only through their work. My interest was not in demonstrating that exuberance is essential to good science-clearly it is not; many outstanding scientists are introverted and not demonstrably enthusiastic, and for many others patience and dispassion are essential to the excellence of their work-rather, I hoped to show that for many scientists, exuberance plays a critical role in how they think about and actually do their work.
James Watson was an obvious scientist to interview about exuberance. When I asked him to rate both himself and [colleague] Francis Crick on a hypothetical ten-point scale of exuberance, he said emphatically, Ten!" then quickly added, "And then some!" He described exuberance, in his staccato, stream-of-consciousness way, as "an obsessive fascination, like religious fanaticism. You have to talk about it. Exuberance flows; it is never slimy. It is close to delirium. There is no feedback, no restraint, no bringing you back."
The greatest thing, Watson said, is the exuberance of sharing beauty or discovery with someone else: "It is necessary to share it. You run around and tell everyone. Shy people are seldom exuberant. It is a state of mind which can only be relieved by communicating the idea. If you are delirious, you have to share it. You have to demonstrate it to other people." When asked if he thought there could be such a thing as solitary exuberance, he said, "Perhaps. I don't know. You have to demonstrate it to other people." The major disadvantage of exuberance, from his perspective, was that "bad people can be exuberant," which makes them more dangerous than they would otherwise be, because they are more persuasive and energetic. In its most extreme form, he says, exuberance is "associated with madness." It can also, he added, "prove too much for your friends to put up with."
When he and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, Watson recalls, both were "bubbling over with exuberance. We had to share our ideas; we had to talk about it. It was a happy state, virtually delirious." (A scientist who was at the Cavendish [Laboratory] in the weeks following Watson and Crick's discovery used similar language to describe their mental state: "Both young men are somewhat mad hatters who bubble over about their new structure," Gerard Pomerat wrote in his diary at the time. "The two chaps," he added, were "certainly not lacking ... in either enthusiasm or ability.") Watson relates in The Double Helix that Crick constantly "would pop up from his chair, worriedly look at the cardboard models, fiddle with other combinations, and then, the period of momentary uncertainty over, look satisfied and tell me how iniportant our work was. I enjoyed Francis's words, even though they lacked the casual sense of understatement known to be the correct way to behave in Cambridge." The next morning, he said, "I felt marvelously alive when I awoke." Crick, meanwhile, had "winged into the Eagle [a Cambridge pub] to tell everyone within hearing distance that we had found the secret to life."
Watson places positive traits such as curiosity and exuberance (which he, like nearly everyone else I interviewed, believes to be more innate than learned) within an evolutionary context. When asked by the novelist Melvyn Bragg why scientists do science, he responded: "I just like to know why things happen, and I think that is probably something we have inherited. Curiosity about things, why things happen, can prepare you for how you live in the world. It has great survival value, this sort of curiosity, and it is a question of how our curiosity is directed. …