He seems to have learned that lesson for life. After all, his disdain for good manners had won him fame and fortune twice over: first as a scientist, then as an author. Why stop, now that he was a statesman of science? When I first met Watson, at a lunch in the late 1990s, he made outrageous claims about blacks in America’s inner cities. I argued with him. At length, he said to me, “You seem very concerned about principles. What’s a principle?”
Many other reporters had that kind of experience too. But Watson’s opinions about race, gender, and other such topics stayed more or less unpublished until, while promoting a memoir titled Avoid Boring People, he shared them, in some detail, with a reporter visiting Cold Spring Harbor. The fateful interview ran October 14, 2007, in The Times of London, under the headline “The Elementary DNA of Dr Watson.” The reaction was swift. Watson had to cancel his book tour and resign as head of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He came in for ridicule a few months later when the Icelandic company deCODE Genetics reported hints in Watson’s own DNA of African ancestors.
Do Watson’s late years diminish The Double Helix? On the contrary: I’d say they only deepen its interest. For all its other virtues, the book’s real gift is its demonstration that science and story go well together. And a good story is always going to be human—lofty and ugly, high and low. Dr. Watson’s discovery is much easier to understand than Dr. Watson.
I’ve spent my career writing books about science and scientists. (One of them tells the story of a great biologist named Seymour Benzer, who is a footnote in The Double Helix.) They’re all driven by story as much as they are by science; and in every one I’ve struggled to make the story and the science seem all of a piece, as they do in the book I reviewed as a freshman, 44 years ago.
As I recall, my only regret about The Double Helix back in 1968 was that it had taken so long for Watson to sit down and write it. He sounded young, but he really wasn’t. That was the one sin I found it hard to forgive him—he was almost 40. I saved this criticism for the last line of my review, the only sentence I can still remember: “It is disappointing to realize that the book’s young hero is now middle-aged.”
Today, I have a few years on Watson the author—20 years, to be exact. I see so much more in his story now than I did the first time around, and even more on each re-reading. And, every time, I think: This is the place to go, for a writer. Somewhere in the twining of science and story, this is where you can write about life itself.
Gifts of a great book.