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For Whom the Nobel Tolls: An Evening Out with James Watson

An off-Broadway play and a trove of lost letters have brought the discovery of DNA's double helix back into the headlines. The Nobel laureate weighs in



Gerry Goodstein

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NEW YORK—Never open a reporter's notebook inside The River Club. "People don't do work here. It's just not done," admonishes James Watson, the Nobel laureate, who is seated on a leather banquette overlooking Manhattan's East River. Our dinner companions grow jittery, an awkward silence falls, and finally the notebook gets tucked inside a purse. "These are just WASP conventions," adds Watson conspiratorially, and all is well again.

We had gathered Tuesday evening to discuss two recent events that had brought the story of Watson's co-discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 back into public consciousness—not that it had ever really fallen out. First, the play Photograph 51, a fictionalized account of the discovery from the perspective of x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, is now playing off-Broadway. Also, two of Watson's colleagues at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory published a long-lost trove of his co-laureate, the late Francis Crick's letters in the September 30 issue of Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group) The co-workers, Jan Witkowski, director of the lab's Banbury conference center, and Alex Gann, editorial director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, share Watson's sense of humor, his appetite for gossip, and most of his research interests, so the restaurant conversation shifted from the sex lives of various scientists, to debates over the relevance of left-handed DNA, and back to the legacy of the double helix.

The play, by Anna Ziegler, bears little resemblance to actual events, everyone agreed over cocktails, although they enjoyed it for what it was. Photograph 51, named for Franklin's famous x-ray image that revealed the helical nature of DNA, tells the story of her rocky relationship with the other personalities in the race to uncover the molecule's structure. In The Double Helix, Watson had described her as belligerent, territorial and someone who "might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes." Gann and Witkowski were pleased that the play had not softened her personality.

The character of Maurice Wilkins, Franklin's colleague at King's College London with whom she frequently clashed, "talked too much" in the play, Watson noted. The real Wilkins, who shared the Nobel with Watson and Crick, was quiet. He was more successful with ladies than people realized at the time, someone chimed in, although he was never interested in Franklin, as the play suggests.

The actor playing Crick did not do justice to the man, Watson complained. The real Crick could command a room with his presence and his intellect, but the play imparted him with a used-car-salesman vibe.

Gann and Witkowski expressed frustration over the play's account of how Watson first saw Franklin's photograph 51, the image that allowed him and Crick to build their successful DNA model. "The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race," Watson wrote in The Double Helix. In the play Wilkins sneaks the image to Watson in an ethically suspect manner; in reality Franklin's graduate student had given the image to Wilkins as Franklin prepared to depart King's College for a new assignment, so the sharing was legit, Witkowski said. "The story can stand on its own as a Shakespeare drama," he added. There was no need to take so much dramatic license.

The conversation soon moved into the club's formal dining room, where we sat in a quiet cove by a bay window. Watson said he was excited about the discovery of Crick's letters, because they confirmed the heightened emotions conveyed in The Double Helix. "We are really between forces which may grind all of us into little pieces," wrote Wilkins to Crick in December 1951 after a particularly trying standoff between his and Watson and Crick’s labs. . Many scientists had criticized Watson's original book manuscript for its gossipy tone, and Harvard University Press refused to publish it because of Watson's offhand, sometimes hurtful, remarks about other people. Watson said he had modeled the book's tone on fiction—primarily Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (which inspired Watson's original title for The Double Helix—"Honest Jim"), and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

As the dinner wound down and waiters served profiteroles complemented with silver pitchers of chocolate sauce, Watson noted that he is now writing his first scientific paper in nearly 40 years. We can cure a major disease with the resources we have now, he said. The manuscript has been rejected once, but he's trying again. Fear of failure has never stopped Watson.

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