The historian and journalist Horace Freeland Judson who died last year will remain a man envied by many. His book “The Eighth Day of Creation” stands as the definitive history of molecular biology, and it’s unlikely to ever be surpassed. But the volume is not just comprehensive history; it provides a wholly unique window into how scientists actually think and work, often examining like a diamond cutter examines a rough diamond, the real guts and muscle of research work. It takes us into scientists’ labs and minds, illuminates their often imprecise and yet rewarding thinking processes and sheds much light on the itinerant and biased ways in which the initial inroads into scientific discovery are made. It digs deep into personal feelings, rivalries and genuine admiration. And it finally emerges as the most complete chronicle we have of molecular biology as a human interest story. Judson may not have been at the Cavendish in 1953, but he gives every bit the impression of being present at the creation.
One of the major reasons why Judson’s book is unlikely to be surpassed is simply because he was a man who was both lucky and prescient enough to discover his life’s work at a time when almost all the protagonists in his drama were alive. In the preface he lists at least a hundred names who he interviewed, often multiple times, and these names constitute probably ninety-nine percent of the most important molecular biologists of the twentieth century. Crick, Watson, Perutz, Pauling, Bragg, Sanger, Brenner, Meselson, they are all there. Now many of them are gone, and anything anyone wants to say about them will have to come from second-hand sources. One suspects that the most commonly accessed second-hand source will be Judson’s book.
James Watson and Francis Crick in an interview with Horace Freeland Judson
Thanks to the Nobel Week Dialogue, we now have access to another unique historical source, an interview conducted by Judson with James Watson and Francis Crick in 1993, forty years after the discovery of the structure of DNA and twenty-five years after Watson’s memoir “The Double Helix”. It’s been presented today at the Nobel Week Dialogue and it was definitely worth hearing what they have to say. Please find the link to the video here.
Judson starts by asking Watson and Crick about their educational background and what influence if any it had on their famous work. It’s worth recalling that the precocious Watson started college at the University of Chicago at age fifteen, at a time when the president of the university, Robert Maynard Hutchins, was stressing the virtues of broad and mandatory education in both the sciences and the humanities. Part of this education involved reading the “Great Books”, classics of science in their original form. This broad education instilled in Watson a tendency to seek out facts even if they turned out to be from disparate sources. Crick on the other hand considered himself an overage physicist in his mid-thirties whose work was interrupted by the war. He too had been to an English public school which provided an unusually good and broad education in the sciences. Unlike Watson, he also had a firm grasp of the mathematics of x-ray diffraction
But perhaps greater than these influences was a little book by Erwin Schrodinger called “What is Life?”, written during the hopeful year of 1944 when Schrodinger, driven partly by Nazism and partly by his unconventional views on marital harmony, had settled in Dublin, Ireland and asked to give a series of lectures at Dublin’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Schrodinger who was as much of a philosopher as a physicist, was interested in biology and believed that genes, not proteins were at the center of the puzzle of heredity. In his book he stressed the idea of complementarity. It was a viewpoint that made a striking impression on many physicists drawn to biology, including Crick and Maurice Wilkins. The German-American physicist Max Delbruck was mentioned in the book: Delbruck who had trained as a physicist at Niels Bohr’s institute had been inspired by both Bohr and Schrodinger to study bacteriophages, or viruses which infected bacteria. As a physicist, Delbruck knew that the study of the simplest atom, hydrogen, had been immensely helpful to physicists in exploring the applications of quantum mechanics. Perhaps something similar could be done with biology in the form of its own “hydrogen atom”, the bacteriophage. Delbruck teamed up with the Italian emigre Salvador Luria who employed both phages and bacteria in demonstrating the presence of random mutations in genes. This was very important work which would get Delbruck and Luria the Nobel Prize. By a stroke of luck Watson turned up at Indiana University where Luria was on the faculty. Having read Schrodinger’s book, he quickly became enamored of Luria and Delbruck’s work and from then out his eye was fixed on the gene as the unit of heredity.
At this point in his career, after a not particularly glamorous postdoc with Herman Kalcker in Copenhagen, Watson could have had two choices; the Pasteur Institute in Paris or the Cavendish in Cambridge. The venerated Pasteur Institute had been the site of major discoveries in infectious diseases, but their focus was mainly genetic. The Cavendish on the other hand had been led by William Bragg since before the beginning of the war, and as a pioneer of x-ray diffraction, Bragg’s focus had always been on structure. That Watson chose the Cavendish over the Pasteur in spite of his background in genetics is a testament to his wisdom in picking structure as the enabler of genetics. He realized that while genetics was going to be what the gene was all about, without knowing anything about the structure of DNA, you couldn’t really make any headway. This was the spark that lit the flame.
Thus both Watson and Crick were primed to attack the structure of the gene when they had their fateful meeting at the Cavendish. The two hit it off right away. Each one discovered in the other a kindred mind that was inquisitive, fearless and eager to gather facts from every possible source. The confluence of factors that made the discovery possible has been discussed in a previous post. In Judson’s interview, Crick dispels the belief that he and Watson brought a knowledge of physics and biology respectively to the problem. As was seen earlier, the key discipline in understanding DNA was chemistry and the two main protagonists both had the wisdom to gain enough chemical knowledge to make a difference. Much of what they needed to solve the problem was really learnt on the fly.
The role of Rosalind Franklin
The interview then moves on to a sensitive topic; the role that Rosalind Franklin played in the discovery. Watson and Crick both acknowledge that in terms of data, Franklin probably came the closest to unraveling the structure. Asked by Judson what held Franklin back, Crick replies that her problem was that while she was a first-rate experimenter, she lacked the expansive theoretical understanding that would allow her to make sense of the diffraction pattern and tie together the disparate bits of data. And she wouldn’t talk to others about her work, partly because of the difficult relationship she had with Maurice Wilkins. A more contentious question concerns possible institutionalized sexism at King’s College, London, where Franklin and Maurice Wilkins worked. Watson’s own account “The Double Helix” was later accused of hints of benign sexism, although all three men seem to agree that there was no overt sexism in either of the institutions.
It should be remembered however that at this time women were still a minority in the world of science. Just ten or twenty years earlier there was a much more explicit and official bias against the inclusion of women in research and the life stories of many outstanding scientific women – Gertrude Elion and Gerty Cory being merely two of them – testify to this state of affairs. Dorothy Hodgkin was a rare example of a success story. The fact is that while the post-war environment had started to gradually recognize the status of women as equals, women still very much faced an uphill battle in being recognized as peers in academic circles. Franklin must undoubtedly have faced these obstacles, and whatever her other flaws, there is no doubt that she doggedly persevered in this environment and became an outstanding experimentalist. It’s a tragedy of her life that, for whatever reasons, she did not seek out people to talk to. In the interview both Watson and Crick thought that if she had started talking to Crick (who was known as a garrulous conversationalist who was eager to talk to anyone who might listen), history might have been quite different.
The interview ends with Watson and Crick telling Judson what their current work was about. After his memorable time at the Cavendish, Watson briefly led a lab at Harvard after which he assumed responsibility of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where for the next thirty years he guided the work of outstanding young biological scientists. He was also the leader of the Human Genome Project during its early years when he famously clashed with Craig Venter. All this time, Watson was as well-known for being a fair mentor who never co-authored a paper if he hadn’t done the actual work as he was for occasionally making candid and controversial statements about any subject that caught his fancy. But no one can accuse him of not being honest with his opinions.
Crick on the other hand became the intellectual leader of molecular biology, serving the kind of role that Niels Bohr did in theoretical physics. More than anyone else he always had a grasp of the broader picture, and he made important contributions to the genetic code and to a host of other minor but important topics in the field. During his later years he moved to the Salk Institute in La Holla (where he was joined by fellow genetics pioneer Sydney Brenner) and turned to the overwhelming problem of the brain and human consciousness. He teamed up with the neuroscientist Christof Koch (who has narrated their adventures in his recent book “Consciousness”) to explore the basic differences in brain structure between conscious and unconscious states.
Picking the right field
In the last few minutes of the interview, Watson and Crick stress the virtues of being in a new field at a time when there are few people and the discoveries are ripe for the picking. Part of this is pure luck, being in the right place at the right time, but part of it is undoubtedly having a nose for the right question and the opportunity to answer it. DNA in 1953 offered such opportunities. While molecular biology still holds great surprises, it’s no longer a new field of interest to a few; by his own estimate, Watson counted a quarter of a million researchers working in the field even in 1993. Since then the number could only have grown exponentially.
The brain on the other hand is a much newer field where great fundamental discoveries are still lurking, and this is what led Crick into the field. Although there are many researchers working in the area, we have only now gotten our hands on the tools which would allow us to explore the fundamental features of memory, learning and consciousness. When it comes to the brain, we are still waiting for our Watson and Crick. Perhaps we will find them among those who watch this interview.