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Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 25, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
SignatureReviewed byCarl 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 And while some of Watson's advice is wise (never be the brightest person in the room), some is obsolete.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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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
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Nevertheless this book was enjoyable to read, and as a biologist I was very thrilled to find here so many of legendary molecular biologists and cancer researchers, and discover some interesting details about discoveries in phage biology, DNA structure, protein synthesis and tumor virology.
So in the end I would recommend this book only to biologists or people with a deep interest in our science.
Dr. James Dewey Watson, 1962 Nobelist with F. Crick and M. Wilkins for discovery of the Double Helix DNA structure, is now an octogenarian who's authored eight widely-read and acclaimed books whose prose goes from A to Z & at 1 to 60 mph in contemplation's of sophisticated molecular biology using scientific jargon, OR as one that mirrors, chronologically, an attentive preoccupation in disclosing personal introspective revelations of one's musings on people and events that he, seemingly, evaluates critically and unceasingly in acute terms of being good, bad or even ugly. His cast of formidable characters includes more than 88 notables, most world-renowned scientists or ranking scholars, but no less importantly emphsized are his characterizations of various teaching and research centers or facilities, living quarters or residences in which he lived, taught, visited or studied at.
This Chronicle is thoughtfully divided into 15 chapters, each conclude with enumeration of a half-dozen learned manners or lessons beginning in childhood until the present time terminating with the year 2006 resignation of Harvard's 27th president, Larry Summers, in favor of Drew Gilpin Faust. The book is unsettling, revealing some censuring and condemnations emanating from his intensely preoccupied quest for scientific discoveries at expense of acquiring and thus a void in balance of societal skills, being virtually incapable, thereby, of "small talk" and appreciably introverted and ego-centric, but none-the-less an acclaimed research biologist of first magnitude.
His personal evaluation of Larry Summers's flaws (Harvard's youngest to matriculate) includes a conjecture of possessing Asperger's syndrome variant and speculating a 5 to 10 point IQ drop, an age-adjustment, in wunderkind Summers' intellect, musing that being genetically based Summers should find some sympathy from the furor triggered by his 'women-and science' firestorm that preceded his resignation and must be viewed as 'divinatory' in light of the 'race-IQ-diversity' fury Watson himself precipitated while touring the UK in October 2007 touting this book whose title, is itself, enigmatic - readable either as 'do not bore people' or 'avoid people who may bore you'.
It is comforting to read and know Dr. Watson is happily married to Liz (Lewis), a Columbia University graduate, and that they have two sons to keep them busy; Watson knows full-well that avant garde research is for the young & restless so he ought bask in glories past.
The book is an important read, for despite the furor which led to Watson's step down as Chancellor of CSHL, he is one of our important scientists who was well aware of treacheries in inciting anger when political correctness must take precedence over anything else, but has at certain ages and/or for diverse reasons perhaps, some lessons or manners do get lost and one becomes vulnerable and thusly must either seek or be provided protection by a murder of crows, publicists or peers or be hung out to wither as forgiveness is not always on the table. Unfortunately, there is not enough money in the world to conduct any further testing of IQ betwist racial groups, representing perhaps that unique or singular study which may not be conducted because the non-sicentists, i.e. society, will not license it.
This reviewer, a Harvard graduate, has heard Watson speak, has read his many books and wishes him success with his books and many years to fully indulge in his family life, including catching up with that small talk, something he denied himself in the past. He, like McArthur, is/was a good soldier but not one who will fade away.
The commentary on university structure and politics remains relevant today, and the homilies summarized at the end of each chapter are pithy and accurate, although a bit annoyingly pedantic, as is the wont of Harvard profs (excepting my seismologist friends, of course).
The references to women were confusing, at best. There are constant references to women to whom he is attracted, with the uniform theme that he chased them and was rejected. Not exactly the role women in science are hoping for, and I doubt the storyline was so simple in reality.
On the subject of his research, the author tried to make the genetics accessible, but he mostly confused me through a combination of arcane detail and lack of interest. I generally wound up skimming the paragraphs about races to research results, but which are less than a quarter of the narrative, and not essential to the tale.
So I'd summarize the book as somewhat uneven - overall a very good and unique read. The closest comparison for me is Feynman's books. "Boring" is less urbane and amusing but a deeper picture into the reality of a very successful scientist.