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Watson Dishes on Life in the Lab

In informal and funny talk, one of DNA duo promotes new book

By Chelsea L. Shover, Contributing Writer

Are you a boring person?

James D. Watson has a piece of advice for you: “Read something. Have some kind of fact which really makes you think.”

In a candid talk last night at Memorial Church celebrating his new book, “Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science,” Watson—the Nobel Prize winner who, along with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA—addressed his time at Harvard, praised polygamy, poked fun at Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, and discussed the state of science today.

He told the audience that he entered science because “I’d probably fail at anything else,” and, in an interview with The Crimson after his speech, said that as a result of discovering the double-helix, he knew that “I probably didn’t have to worry about my long-term future—someone was always going to hire me.”

Over the course of his speech, he mused about why cultures that encourage polygamy thrive (“Successful men should have a lot of children”); why he came to teach at Harvard (“To find a student wife”); current concentrations at Harvard (“1,000 economics majors—that’s scary”); women in science (“The more the better, as long as they don’t outnumber us”); genetic engineering (“Would I make people prettier? Yes”); and Sandel (“I just wish we could enhance him”).

He advised students interested in science to avoid pursuing a science career simply “to be a worker.”

“Don’t go into it unless you have a problem you want to solve,” he said.

In an interview after the talk, Watson, a professor in the biology department from 1956 to 1976, addressed Harvard’s impending Allston expansion—including construction of a 589,000-square foot science complex—which he criticized in a chapter in “Avoid Boring People.”

“I think Harvard should use its money to improve the quality of science, not quantity,” he said in the interview.

“Hire the best young people, offering them much higher salaries.”

Fernando Racimo ’11 said that he appreciated the lack of political correctness in Watson’s talk.

“He was so funny. He was amazing,” Racimo said.

But Joo-Hye C. Park ’09, said though she said she found Watson’s talk entertaining, she said, “I just feel like there is a line between politically incorrectness and disrespect.”

“I learned not to expect your run of the mill ‘I did this, I did that’ talk from him,” said Park, who attended a speech he gave last year.

Yesterday’s talk by the only still-living winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was sponsored by the Harvard Book Store and included a question-and-answer session with Richard M. Losick, Cabot professor of biology, and Andrew Berry, life sciences concentrators advisor and research associate of the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology.

The epilogue of Watson’s book was recently excerpted in the latest issue of 02138 Magazine.

“The epilogue was just to show I was still alive,” he said.

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