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Book Review

A peek inside the brilliant mind of a larger-than-life scientist

Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science, By James D. Watson, Knopf, 336 pp, $26.95

Let's begin by stating the obvious: James D. Watson is one of the most important scientists of the post-World War II era. Researching at Cambridge University in 1953, Watson teamed with Francis Crick to discover the structure of DNA (the famous double helix). Watson's groundbreaking work would revolutionize areas of scientific inquiry such as cancer research, genetic engineering, and forensics.

Watson's stellar career in science is intricately detailed in "Avoid Boring People." Watson describes winning the Nobel Prize in 1962 and also writing "The Double Helix," his classic 1968 book that helped popularize his scientific discovery. Watson organizes his latest book as a series of 15 autobiographical chapters, each concluded with a number of pithy "lessons" he's learned from those experiences.

From his days studying at the University of Chicago, for example, Watson learned that "knowing 'why' (an idea) is more important than learning 'what' (a fact)." To describe Watson as proudly skeptical would be an understatement, and his manner is oftentimes blunt, not just in the realm of science either. If you want to learn how science gets done in the real world, with all its competitiveness, personal rivalries, collaborations, and pure persistence, Watson makes for a wonderful guide.

When Watson begins teaching at Harvard in 1956, the start of a brilliant career as an academic, readers get an entertaining front-row seat on this glitzy world that runs on brains, gossip, and (sometimes) backbiting. Watson, for example, can barely contain his disdain for onetime Harvard President Nathan Pusey. After criticizing Pusey's heavy-handed reaction to student protests at Harvard in 1968, Watson notes that Pusey's face hinted at his status as an intellectual lightweight: "Pusey had a wrinkleless face that reinforced the impression of a life devoid of pain or pleasure." Watson also criticizes former Harvard president Lawrence Summers for his social tactlessness.

Outside the realm of science, Watson's blunt speaking may not always fall upon welcome ears. While teaching at Harvard, he unabashedly admits to wanting to marry a Radcliffe woman, preferably "a suitable blonde." Watson describes one of his Radcliffe lab assistants who accompanied him to Sweden for his 1962 Nobel acceptance this way: "Her fey urchin manners, together with her intense, catlike blue eyes, were likely to have no equal in Stockholm." In the end, Watson succeeds in marrying a Radcliffe undergraduate 20 years his junior.

The science contained in "Avoid Boring People" is explained in lucid prose, but it may present challenges to readers without a solid grounding in the life sciences. "The key surprise of the summer of 1963," writes Watson, "was finding that RNA phages start their multiplication cycle through attachment to sex-specific thin filaments (or pili) coming off the surfaces of male 'E. coli' bacteria." While this surprised Watson, some readers may be left scratching their heads.

Many of Watson's practical "lessons" will surely help academics of any discipline. Watson recommends a few obvious strategies, like cultivating friendships with decision-makers in high places. A personal favorite is "be prepared to resign over inadequate space." After years of Harvard infighting, Watson explains: "Losing an important space request means either your talents are not recognized or your department is relatively indifferent to whether you stay or go."

James Watson is both a scientific genius and a larger-than-life personality. His plain-speaking style may be interpreted as either courageous or needlessly blunt (or both), depending on the reader, but one suspects that Watson himself cares little. Those who dare to present the world with new ideas, as Watson has, need sharp elbows and thick skins. If "Avoid Boring People" proves anything, it's that science at its highest levels is not for the faint of heart.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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