University alumnus and Nobel Laureate James Watson spoke to a packed house at the Oriental Institute Tuesday evening, in a wide-ranging discussion that went beyond his famous DNA-related work.
Promoting his newest book, DNA: The Secret of Life, Watson’s talk was sponsored by the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, the Alumni Association, and the University of Chicago Department of Genetics. These organizations felt he appealed not only to the scientific community, but also to the general public.
“He’s an alum, and we also like to do events that the entire University would enjoy, so he seemed like a great fit,” said Leone Musgrave, a U of C alumnus and co-coordinator of the event.
Perhaps best known for the elucidation of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) structure with Francis Crick, Watson subsequently won the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine.
In the simple publication that made Watson and Crick recognized as the leading scientists of their time, they argued that the DNA molecule is a double helix that resembles a slightly twisted ladder whose rails are made of alternating units of phosphate and the sugar deoxyribose. They also proposed that the rungs of the DNA ladder consist of pairs of nucleotides.
“I came to tonight’s lecture because I finished reading his book recently. I’m a poet, not a scientist, but I’m fascinated by his work,” said Patricia Gangas, a local Chicagoan.
Fellow Chicago resident Ron Barth was thrilled by the opportunity to hear Watson speak. “In the history of science, Watson is certainly one of the Greats,” he said.
Since his groundbreaking contribution to the understanding of DNA, Watson has published numerous books regarding the discovery. His latest book, DNA: The Secret of Life, in which he and co-author Andrew Berry describe the process researchers underwent to discover the ways in which DNA codes for proteins, part of the central dogma of genetics, was published last month.
Watson began his lecture on Tuesday night with an intimate portrait of his childhood. Born to educated parents, Watson acknowledged the sizable role they played in forming his own opinions concerning the world. He attended the 1940 and 1944 Democratic Conventions after acquiring his family’s political views, and continued to be skeptical towards religion.
“Being born without religious beliefs gives one greater freedom,” Watson said.
Watson also devoted much of his lecture to his experiences as an undergraduate at the University, where he said he learned about the philosophy streaming in from Europe, adding that he appreciated the objectivity of the Social Sciences Division.
“I remember going to Harper Library and reading many of the history books there,” Watson said.
Despite his tuition scholarship to the College, Watson felt slightly intimidated at times by the talented student body.
“At Chicago, I found myself to be one of the lesser bright students,” he said, recounting that he received Bs in certain biology courses here.
Nevertheless, Watson greatly enjoyed his classes and continued onto graduate school at 19 with a renewed passion for genetics, saying that biology departments across the country did not address the fundamental questions of life.
“At Chicago, no one discussed life; no one really knew,” Watson said.
Watson and Crick’s model of the DNA structure subsequently helped explain certain properties of life. However, Watson commented in his lecture on Tuesday that genetics would never be able to explain life completely because of the influence of nurture.
Scientists have not yet been able to resolve the nature versus nurture debate, or which component molds human beings the most.
“You can’t solve the nature versus nurture question until you find all the genes,” Watson said.
Over the course of the lecture, Watson also commented on the controversy regarding the encroachment of business into science through patenting. “I think patenting is all right, as long as the ability to work on genetic questions is licensed to everyone,” he said.
Finally, Watson addressed criticisms levied on him by his peers, saying that he believes that science provides the answers to the great questions, but does not address religion.
“They don’t like me because I’m a reductionist. But if you don’t reduce it to Chemistry, you have to reduce it to God,” Watson said of his critics.
At the end of the lecture, students asked Watson for advice in pursuing scientific projects. “You should always strive for happiness,” Watson said in response to student questions. “Talking to your friends is not very productive though; reading books is best.”
Many audience members were thrilled with the opportunity to meet Watson. “I came tonight because I want to take advantage of this University’s offerings, including the chance to meet Nobel Laureates,” said Michelle Jarrell, a first-year in the College who attended the lecture.
Second-year in the College Tony Degati agreed. “I enjoyed Watson’s potshots at the soft-headed metaphysicians and his honest embrace of reductionism. Watson was, as expected, well-informed and thoroughly critical,” he said.