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Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 25, 2007
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You've written this story three times now. The first, "The Double Helix," is possibly the best history of science ever written. The second, "Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix," is undoubtedly the worst -- I had to wash my hands repeatedly from the offal emerging from each page. Now we have, "Avoid Boring People," a modest step up from the last. I'll leave it to the New York Times to decide whether or not this rendition of the same material is boring and to others to critique whether your use of "Manners" in the title of each chapter indicates you have the foggiest notion about etiquette. But the little science that appears in this book is shockingly bad in at least three instances.
First with regard to emphasis: Anyone not familiar with the history of Molecular Biology would conclude from this book that the second most important discovery of the 20th century (after your discovery of the structure of DNA) was the isolation of the lac repressor by Wally Gilbert. Nonsense. What about the breaking of the genetic code (1 sentence), the development of recombinant DNA technology (1 sentence) or even the development of DNA sequencing techniques for which Wally shared the Nobel Prize (not mentioned at all)? The repressor story has always been overblown in part because of Jacque Monod's incorrect insistence (that you initially bought into) that all regulation was via repressors and that activators didn't exist.
Your second mistake is the claim that Alfred Tissières failed to break the genetic code because his preparation of polyadenine had aggregated. Nonsense. PolyA is about as soluble as salt. The reason his experiment failed is the same reason Marshall, Heinrich and I failed. Namely, we were all using trichloroacetic acid to precipitate the polypeptide products and polylysine (encoded by polyadenine) is the one polypeptide that is soluble in trichloroacetic acid. It took Ochoa's group to recognize that one had to use tungstic acid.
The third is your notion that seemingly erudite "scientific" questions are valid even when there is no possible way to answer them. Nonsense, again. Aristotle's musings on the nature of the atom weren't prescient but merely an exercise in mental gymnastics and a waste of time except as an excuse for practicing Attic Greek. For the same reason Nobelist Shelly Glashow has argued repeatedly that String Theory is worthless unless and until it can come up with a testable prediction. So the argument against Larry Summers' ignorant statement with regard to women scientists has nothing to do with political correctness. The question as to whether women's brains make them more or less suitable for science is untestable and therefore stupid. Fewer than 5% of my medical school class ('60) were women. (By the way, the Blonde that you were lusting after at Woods Hole in 1956 was one of them, but has the good taste to wish to remain anonymous.) The Harvard Medical School class of '08 is closer to 50% women. Has the female brain really evolved that fast? Of course not, it's just that accessibility has changed. And I wouldn't be surprised if by the end of this century half of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences go to women. Please stop this nonsense about political correctness.
And let your story rest...
The risk of autobiographies is that in writing a book centred on yourself it is very easy to come across of arrogant, but in Jim Watson's case toweringly so. His constant insults of other faculty members as dinosaurs, fossils and even calling them vapid gets rather tiresome, and he comes across as quite sexist when he chases any attractive girl he meets, including a number of his own research assistants, constantly describing them as cute or stunning, which makes me wonder if that was the reason he hired them in the first place. I'll admit that this isn't helped by the pictures of him, because while being tall and skinny is fine, having such a bony face and heavily shadowed eyes makes him look quite sinister, though I'm trying not to judge him on that.
For a book called Avoid Boring People, Watson can be surprisingly boring for a Nobel prize winner, going into the minutia of various experiments, and often comes across as very self-aggrandising, describing his constant efforts to get a higher salary and more prestige. To name each chapter after various manners picked up throughout his career is ironic given Watson's almost complete lack of them in his treatment of his peers.
I don't know if I should rate this book highly for the amount of information it contains and for Watson's candour in describing himself, talking about how even Francis Crick got angered by his narcissism, or penalise it for being a self-portrait of such an unpleasant person.
In the end I have decided to judge the book by how interested it kept me, which was very at the beginning and not at all in the second half. I can't help but contrast it with An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins, which several people have described as self-aggrandising, but which came across as witty and engaging to me, and without the pomposity that Avoid Boring People contained. Indeed, the main reason that I kept reading this book was an interest in how Watson would describe The Selfish Gene, which revolutionised the genetic understanding of evolutionary biology, but unfortunately this book stopped in the year The Selfish Gene was published (1976) without even mentioning it, which was disappointing.
Ultimately, this was simply a poorly written autobiography. To say a chimpanzee could write a better one would be too harsh, as I'm 99% sure that the chimpanzee in question did NOT write his own autobiography, but given the complete lack of evidence to the contrary, this is the default conclusion, and I would much rather reread Me Cheeta than this book.