From Publishers Weekly
Carl ZimmerIt's coming on 40 years now since James Watson published one of the classic works of popular science, The Double Helix
. In that slender volume, Watson told how he and Francis Crick collaborated for two furious years to discover the structure of DNA. It is a great story splendidly told, but what truly set The Double Helix
apart from most other books about scientific discoveries was Watson himself, less a narrator than a character: a wildly ambitious young man splitting his time between searching for the secret of life and trying to find a date, ready to spill the beans on friends and enemies alike.The Double Helix
focused on only two years of a life that has now spanned nearly eight decades. After his Nobel Prize–winning work on DNA, Watson went on to become a towering figure in the new science of molecular biology, first at Harvard University and then as director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Watson offers a new look back in Avoid Boring People
, which he presents as, of all things, a self-help book. At the end of each chapter, he reviews the lessons he learned during that phase of his life. This is a book for those on their way up, as well as for those on the top who do not want their leadership years to be an assemblage of opportunities gone astray, he writes.There's much that is entertaining and historically revealing, and Watson still knows how to deliver a delicious skewering. He refers to his opponents at Harvard who resisted his push into molecular biology as so many prima donnas whose meager accomplishments scarcely justified even the status of has-been. There's also much cause for head-scratching. In the 21st century, Watson's descriptions of my hopes of finding a suitable blonde are not even funny. He pads the book with too many details, like the $8.86 his lawyer billed him for toll calls. And while some of Watson's advice is wise (never be the brightest person in the room), some is obsolete. A scientific team of more than two is a crowded affair made sense in the 1950s, but today it's impractical for Watson's intellectual grandchildren, who must work together in squadrons on massive projects to analyze entire genomes. And when he offers lessons on how to spend your Nobel Prize money, you realize that Watson is actually offering lessons on being James Watson. And that unique job, we all know, is very much taken. 65 photos. (Sept. 27)
Carl Zimmer's books include Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea
and Soul Made Flesh
. His next book, on E. coli
and the meaning of life, will be published by Pantheon next spring.
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In this memoir, Watson shows by example how to get to the top and stay there. Spanning his boyhood interest in birds to his resignation from Harvard University in 1976 to his leadership of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Watson's reminiscences encompass his claim to famecocredit for deducing DNA's structure in 1953but focus on his ambition and his conduct of academic politics. He exhibits candor and indulges in gossip, qualities that contributed to the controversy surrounding his account of the DNA breakthrough (The Double Helix,1968) and that enliven this example of the academic memoir, not a genre renowned for excitement. Through arch character sketches, light self-deprecation, and a comic penchant for appraising the behavior and physique of the human female, Watson swings between his scientific aims and the resistance he perceived in Harvard's biology department to molecular genetics. Following each chapter, he appends "manners" derived from his experiences, which in the aggregate amount to making one's mark early and demanding commensurate perks thereafter. In angular and opinionated prose, Watson proves as engaging as ever. Taylor, Gilbert