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Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 25, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

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 And while some of Watson's advice is wise (never be the brightest person in the room), some is obsolete.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.

From Booklist

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 fame—cocredit for deducing DNA's structure in 1953––but 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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (September 25, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375412840
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375412844
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,526,029 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Loyd Eskildson HALL OF FAME on October 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover
James Watson did not win the Nobel prize helping discover the double-helix structure of DNA by being stupid. Thus, it is no surprise that his "Avoid Boring People" is full of insightful and invaluable observations gained during his work. These "Remembered Lessons" are primarily aimed at those in academic/research endeavors; however, a large proportion apply to any area of focus. Examples follow:

College is for learning how to think. Learning "Why?" something occurred is much more important than a few facts (eg. the reasons for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire are more important than the birth date of Julius Caesar). It is better to simply know which books hold details you will need than to overload oneself with facts that never will be repeated. On the other hand, new ideas usually need new facts.

Students should choose courses that naturally interest them, and if one's grades are not largely a, they likely have not yet found their intellectual calling. One should narrow down their career objectives while still in college.

The academic world abounds in triviality. Choose a young thesis adviser - the older ones' expertise is most likely in fields that long ago had seen their better days, leaving devotees with diminished job expectations. Those breaking new ground inevitably threaten minds continuing in old ways. Extend yourself intellectually through courses that initially frighten - eg. math is necessary to pursue the frontiers of genetics. Never accept invitations to senior faculty homes unless you have reason to anticipate a very good meal or a fetching face.

Exercise exorcises intellectual blahs.
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Format: Hardcover
I have read this book after being a fan of Francis Crick for years, and sure enough, James Watson is also cast from a similar mold... inquisitive, assuming nothing, fun, witty, and introspective. This would be a great read I would imagine for anyone sunk in the institution of academia, it reveals how those institutions really work. I applaud Watson personally for his very important work, and his relevant views, which are neither incendiary nor aggresive, but simply based on the facts of an observable universe. Which is right where we belong.
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Format: Hardcover
James Watson, the scientist most famous for discoverign and writing about the Double Helix, writes a broad autobiography, complete with advice to those following in his footsteps. The book is heaviest on the people he met in life, and lighter on science, which makes for entertaining reading by a broader audience. Those looking for details on the science discovered (as opposed to the author's aquaintances) are best advised to look elsewhere.

There are several interesting ironies in the book. At the end of each chapter is a list of "Manners" describing career advice, yet much of Honest Jim's behavior (chasing undergads, writing unflattering portaits of his colleagues in the Double Helix) is extremely unmannered. Additionally, some of the flourish he adds as head of the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory (expensive renovations on his home) are at odds with the financial mess he was brought in to fix.

The quality of an autobiography, though, shouldn't be judged on a character assessment of the writer. The book gives a non-technical view of the life of one of American's most reknowned scientists, and provides a much broader view than he provided in the Double Helix. The "Manners" do indeed provide advice for junior scientists. Perhaps most important, it isn't boring, and that's a trap hard to avoid in scientific autobiographies.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Double Helix by James Watson is one of my most loved books about doing science, so I anticipated a very interesting reading about Watson's life from childhood until leaving Harvard in the 70's. But this memoir is a too big collection of people, places and facts in Watson's life to make an interesting reading about any of them. It all goes "I met this one, and then I worked with that one", and so on, and so on. Don't expect any deep insights into personalities of Jim's famous grad students, friends, scientific advisors or collaborators - the space for that in this book is taken by many names and events you wouldn't remember. Watson's feelings about the events in the books are also scarce - death of his mother, for example, has the same space in the book as some absolutely non-important trip to the sea. There is also - the biggest disappointment - too little space for a clear explanation of science done by his lab and other people, so for a non-biologist the importance of many successes mentioned in the book would remain obscure.
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.
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