Saturday, March 27, 2010

One Hour with James. D. Watson

Ever since I had arrived at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, almost everyone I met spoke of Jim Watson. Some good stories, some not-so-good ones, but nonetheless everyone spoke of him. He also seemed to be present everywhere. I could find him on the walls of the Urey Cottage and the dining hall. I could see his life-size portrait smiling back at me every time I entered the Grace auditorium. He was also present (at least seemed so) in our dinner conversations with senior students, in casual talks with professors and by the time we were supposed to meet him, even in my imagination! I had been told the last night that if you were a Russian or a tennis enthusiast, Anna Kournikova was his favorite topic. Unluckily I was neither.

When we entered the lecture room at the Marks Laboratory, he was already there; sitting smilingly at the head of a long wooden table. I had seen him for the first time the day before, when I was walking down the hill towards the Jones laboratory with the half-frozen harbor to my right. He had driven past me in his verdant Mercedes. I thought it was him but couldn’t be sure. Now I was, as I looked carefully at the man who shot to fame fifty seven years ago when he proposed along with Crick the iconic double helical structure of DNA, “the secret of life”, as he prefers to call it. By the time he was a little beyond thirty, he was already a Nobel Laureate. His features still bore semblance to many a picture that I have seen of him from his youth. His eyes had retained that mischievous twinkle.

After we had introduced ourselves, he said that he would be telling us about his latest book titled ‘Avoid Boring People’. He quickly added that it had a double meaning but didn’t elaborate further. It seemed to me that he didn’t care to explain it to someone na├»ve enough not to get it! Fortunately I was saved of this humiliation almost immediately. Soon after, I was slightly shocked when he said, “I am the most famous living scientist. (Since) Madame Curie is already dead.” Vanity irritates me and is almost always untrue but I realized that in this case he might actually be correct! He spoke of his childhood and of his excellent education which enabled him to do what he did. He regarded Max Delbruck as his idol until he met him and realized that Max was no better a scientist than what he was! He briefly mentioned parts of the now famous story of how ‘The Double Helix’ was discovered. His memory didn’t betray him as he mentioned excruciating details of a bygone age with considerable ease. He would laugh often but almost always alone. His laugh was very awkward and it sounded like a snore. Yet no one could miss the air of superiority it embodied. He often said things that shouldn’t be said. Luckily we were prepared for that. We had already been warned by Dawn, the Admissions Officer and our sweet hostess.

His book deals with his rules to become famous. I agree with a few and disagree with the rest. Some of them were indeed nice. He believes that “If someone is the most brilliant person in a class, it’s not the best place for him”, with which I agree. After a slight pause he added, “But he should at least be the second best!” It was followed by his usual grin. He mentioned the need to look out for the big questions rather than solving things that everyone else could do. At some point he was talking of passion in science when he suddenly turned towards me and exclaimed with disbelief, “I don’t understand how arranged marriages work in India!” I only smiled back at him because he was not interested in knowing the answer. He also spent some time talking about how CSHL was better than Harvard or Cambridge! It was the most one-sided informal chat that I have ever been a part of. But it hardly felt awkward. It seemed that’s the way it is supposed to be with Him!

Soon, his casual and my much awaited one hour, was spent. He suddenly stopped and asked us the details of the Broadway show that we were to see that evening in New York City. When he heard it was Billy Elliot, he made a not-so-prudent comment on homosexuality. Then on my request, he agreed to pose for a couple of group photos which soon turned into a rage. And then after we shook his hands, all of us one by one, he drove away. He had lived up to his reputation of being an entertainer. He seemed to me incapable of being dull as he was of being mediocre. What shall remain with me, apart from a faint memory of that one-hour, is a signed copy of his famous book: “The Double Helix.”