Watson: “My Life with DNA”

by Kiko Matsing

BFFs: Watson and Crick (Source: The Independent)

Two years ago, about this time, I attended a lecture by James Watson, titled “My Life with DNA”. It clearly sounded like one he has already given in so many occasions, the traveling roadshow of a venerable Nobel Laureate in his netherworld of retirement. It was a very casual retelling of his life and the stories around the discovery of DNA’s structure. I worried sometimes where the talk was leading to, as one would with a grandfather who was about to make a fool of himself without knowing it. Afterall, Watson was 77 to the day that day, and beamed like Bilbo Baggins as the audience sang him his Happy Birthday song.

I have always thought that if Watson and Crick had not figured out the structure of DNA, somebody else eventually would have. The problem itself was laid out in Erwin Schrödinger’s book What is Life?. The task of genetics was to determine how information is encoded and processed in cells for the function of life, and furthermore, this information must reside in a molecule. The age was ripe for the discovery: we were able to isolate and purify this genetic material, determine its chemical composition, and probe its structure precisely using X-ray diffraction techniques.

I got this impression, in fact, from the TV movie based on The Double Helix, Watson’s memoir itself. If not Linus Pauling, it could have been Maurice Wilkins, or even Rosalind Franklin, portrayed in the movie as a rigid lab rat in contrast to the chummy pair. I was actually rooting for her, like I always would for an underdog, as she turns into the lone tragic figure in this story. Watson concedes that his main contribution to the work was the base-pairing of the nucleotides, and that Crick was the one who really knew crystallography, even writing him a manual, “Fourier Transform for Birdwatchers”. Ha! (Watson came to science because he learned from his father the love of birdwatching.) This was precisely the man’s appeal: he was funny in an amiable, self-deprecating way.

At the end of his lecture, he was asked what he learned from all these experiences. He replied: to go to the frontiers but not to go there alone, to take a companion with you who will save you from your own prejudices. Here, he referred to his fruitful lifelong friendship with Francis Crick, his companion at the leading edge of science, in contrast to Rosalind Franklin, who also worked at the frontiers, but worked there alone.

The information for solving the structure of DNA was available at that time; they arrived at it first by playing around with models. Indeed, their paper (Nature 1953, vol. 171, p. 737) rests mainly on stereochemical arguments. Franklin thought that the structure of DNA would be revealed to her by mathematics, from the calculation of X-ray diffraction data. She never played with models. Here is where the lightness that friendship brings triumphs over cold, solitary diligence.