Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

Golden opportunity

The fabled Karolinska Institutet (KI). To anyone involved with science in the last century or so, that name springs to the mind’s eye plated with the gold of the Nobel Prize. It conjures images of elegant, wealthy Stockholm, a supermodel of a city: cold to the touch, remote, yet gifted with such stunning beauty, elegance, and wealth that it almost seems unfair, hoarded. Is has the glamor and pomp of royalty, the self-confidence (and cost of living) of New York, yet the cozy social democracy that provides reliable, clean public transportation and schools.

The KI is Stockholm’s crown jewel. Every December, Nobel week transforms almost the entire city into an opulent, charming celebration of science. Historians of science know that the curtain before the prize archives moves slowly forward, revealing the nominations and evaluations of individual laureates fifty years after the prize is awarded. The Chemistry and Physics prize archives are maintained at and administered by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Physiology or Medicine archives and prize, however, are administered by and housed at the Nobel Forum, a separate entity on the Karolinska campus. Alfred Nobel constructed an administrative architecture designed to maintain the integrity of his prizes, but the result is Byzantine.

Like the Rockefeller University or the PhD program at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the Karolinska is all science. Almost. They do have a small staff of trained, credentialed historians, who work at the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, a medium-sized yet rich collection—larger than Johns Hopkins now, yet much smaller than London’s Wellcome Library)—yet rich collection that focuses on works from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries. Located in a nineteenth century building that was, until recently, a courthouse. The facilities are solid with stone, warmed with wood, and softened by thick rugs.

In May, I had the great fortune to both work in the Nobel Forum archive and to be a guest at the Hagströmer Library. Both were thanks to the effort, persistence, and generosity of Eva Åhren a historian of science and medicine and now the head of the Unit for Medical History and Heritage, which includes the library and also houses a number of scholars in medical history,


The old courtroom at the Hagströmer Library

I first gave the Hagströmer Lecture, a public talk, sponsored by the Friends of the Hagströmer Library, to showcase the value of historical studies of science and demonstrate their relationship to both current science and current events. My lecture, based on my last book, was titled “From medical genetics to genomic medicine.” The main argument is that a medical-eugenic thread runs through Progressive-era eugenics all the way through the birth of medical genetics and the emergence of modern personalized genomic medicine. Thus, the “old, bad eugenics” was less hostile to medicine than scholars have thought—and contemporary medical genetics and genomics have a stronger connection to human population improvement than most of us are comfortable acknowledging. I’ve never seen much intellectual value in making people comfortable.

The lecture took place in what is certainly the most beautiful venue in which I have ever given a talk. It was in the former main courtroom, built on a circular plan, now lined with old books, and lit by a vast picture window that admitted the long Swedish evening throughout the lecture and the following reception.

Judging from the audience and the questions, we got the attention of the Karolinska scientists and some of the intellectual public of Stockholm. After the lecture, we had a luxuriously long question-and-answer period, in which scientists and laypeople alike peppered me with thoughtful questions on everything from the history of European eugenics to CRISPR and the possibility of designer babies. Near the end, Eva and I had a fun one-on-one conversation—a sort of scholarly stand-up routine—about the value and the need for historical studies of science. My argument, as regular readers will know, is that the more dominant science becomes in our culture, the more we need historians to help interpret it. The sciences and the humanities are not—or should not be—in competition. It’s more like human evolution: the better your fine motor skills become, the more valuable it is to have a well-developed prefrontal cortex to aid in planning, strategizing, choosing future options.

Dumanski and me

Ms Dumanski and me, at the podium where they announce the prize. You see? She’s actually very nice!

Having sung, I then had my scholar’s supper: Eva was pivotal in arranging for me to work in the Nobel Forum archives. The entire Physiology or Medicine prize, from sending out the nomination forms to organizing and hosting the meetings of the Nobel Committee, to arranging the banquet is done by three full-time staff. There is no trained archivist, even part-time. The administrator Ann-Marie Dumanski is gatekeeper to the archive and the Nobel Forum. By necessity, one of her principal jobs is to keep out the kooks and riff-raff. Not even my Johns Hopkins and Library of Congress affiliations satisfied her. For me to gain access, we had to persuade her that I was not a loony.


The fierce Ms Dumanski was in a good mood. Indeed, she was warm, welcoming, even chatty. Before handing over the documents I had requested, she regaled us with stories from her years there. The Nobel Prize is not the richest prize in science, but, thanks in large measure to Marie Curie, who won it twice (in 1903 and 1911) it is the most famous and the most prestigious. Some people will do almost anything to get one. They forge nominations. They show up at the front door with their inventions, saying, “I can haz Nobel Prize?” One man mailed them a generic silver trophy, on which he had had engraved:

Nobel Peace Prize

Nature             Science

Awarded to [his name]

The cover letter simply asked that they return the cup to his address, registered mail. That way, he could say, truthfully, that he had received a Nobel prize from the Karolinska Institute! Ms Dumanski said, “That cup will never leave this building!” I began to understand why she needs to be so protective.

Nobel table

Where the Knights of the Nobel (in Physiology or Medicine) congregate

The documents themselves were rich and fascinating. I was looking at the prize for the double helix, to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins in 1962. I received every nomination they received (which spanned 1960, 1961, and 1962), as well as some of the evaluations conducted by members of the Nobel committee. You will have to wait for the book for all the details, but the story behind this prize is a good deal more complicated than the histories thus far have told. Maurice Wilkins has a much more interesting role than has been acknowledged, as does Laurence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Institute, where Watson and Crick (but not Wilkins) worked. This in turn has implications for the social history of DNA, such as Watson’s treatment of Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in his best-selling book, The Double Helix. Looking at the nominations, one would have expected Watson and Crick to win the prize in Chemistry, not Physiology or Medicine. Nearly all their nominations were in Chemistry—and most did not include Wilkins. But Wilkins had a strong partisan on the Nobel committee, and Bragg and Arne Tiselius (the head of the committee) played a good deal of politics. It is not a coincidence that the Chemistry prize went to two other Cavendish scientists who worked with X-ray crystallography: Max Perutz and John Kendrew. It was a red-letter day for X-ray work, for the Cavendish, and for Bragg.In all, it was an exhilarating trip.


Linnaeus’s house

I haven’t even mentioned the jaunt up to Uppsala before Stockholm, in which I stayed next to Linnaeus’s garden, gave another talk, on DNA, to the history of science colloquium, and saw some of the sights of this charming old university town. These events were organized by another good friend and colleague, Maria Björkman. Maria also did me the indispensable favor of arranging for a graduate student, Felicia Edvardsson, to assist me by translating the Swedish evaluations.
I’ll admit, there was a bit of glamor to the trip. At the Hagströmer, I felt a slightly embarrassing surge of pride as I came onstage via the small back door through which the judge once entered the courtroom from his chambers. At the Nobel Forum, Ms Dumanski allowed me to sit at the seven-meter-diameter table, carved from a single piece of wood, where the Nobel committee deliberates the prizes, and let me stand at the podium where the prize is announced every October. We took a ferry that entered Stockholm harbor—for centuries, the primary way one arrived in Stockholm—with its grandly imposing buildings on full display. These moments are folded now into my life’s narrative, among the colorful stories with which one can bore one’s grandchildren.


Uppsala cathedral makes you believe in *something.*

Most important and valuable, though, were the opportunities to be a real historian: tracking down and poring over difficult-to-obtain documents; discussing both history and the value of history with scientists and the public; and spending time with generous and intelligent colleagues who are also friends.

This was not “collegiality,” the canned concept, often paired with “interdisciplinarity,” that is rife in university mission plans and which largely stands for not pissing anyone off. My experience in Sweden, however, was collegiality without quotation marks. It was the real deal: the genuine mutual affection, the shared joy of working with ideas, books, manuscripts, and past actors, the dedication to humanistic values that is eroding so quickly in today’s neoliberal university.

One can still find pockets of true collegiality. When we do find it, we need to enjoy every second.

A Whig History of CRISPR

“Shitstorm” would be one term of art for the reaction in the genome community to a commentary in Cell by Eric Lander, published on January 14. It presents as a definitive account of the discovery of CRISPR, the “gene editing” technique invented in 2013 and which blasted onto the science pages this year. CRISPR is likely to go down as the most important biotechnological invention since Kary Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

But I prefer another phrase to describe Lander’s account: “whig history.” The term comes from the Europeanist Herbert Butterfield. In a classic 1931 essay, Butterfield wrote that Whig history was “the tendency in many historians to write [English history] on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”

The term—now often lower-cased to distance itself from the particularities of British politics—has become historical shorthand for one way to use history as a political tool. It rationalizes the status quo, wins the allegiance of the establishment, justifies the dominance of those in power. One immediate tip-off to a Whiggish historical account is the use of melodramatic terms such as “heroes” in the title.

Lander’s piece is called “The heroes of CRISPR.”

In April 2014, the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT—of which Lander is the director— was awarded the first patent for CRISPR technology. The team of Jennifer Doudna (UC Berkeley) and Emmanuelle Charpentier (Umeå University, Sweden) filed their own application seven months earlier, but Zhang obtained fast-track approval. Much remains at stake over CRISPR: fat scientific prizes, almost certainly including a Nobel, as well as further patents. Who claims them will be decided in part by what version of history becomes accepted as “the truth.”

When Michael Eisen, the UC Berkeley/Howard Hughes Medical Institute biologist and astute commentator on genomics read Lander’s article, he went ballistic. In a tweet-blast of righteous indignation, Eisen howled that Lander’s piece minimizes Doudna’s contributions to CRISPR and thus (I’m paraphrasing here) serves as a propaganda organ on behalf of the Broad’s claim to the patent rights. “The whole thing is about trying to establish Zhang paper as pinnacle of CRISPR work,” tweeted Eisen. He continued, “it’s a deliberate effort to undermine Doudna and Charpentier patent claims and prizeworthiness.” It is, he believes, “science propaganda at its most repellent.” “Eric Lander and @broadinstitute should be ashamed of themselves.”

Others have joined in to express their dismay. At the least, many in the community think, some sort of conflict-of-interest statement should have accompanied Lander’s article. A long thread at PubPeer is devoted to the kerfluffle.

Is Eisen right? I’ll leave analysis of the technical arguments over the relative merits of each group’s contributions to the biologists. What I can do is look at the paper itself. Good writers know how rhetoric can be used to persuade. Does Lander use writing techniques to advance a self-interested version of history?

On first read, Lander’s piece seems eminently fair, even generous. It “aims to fill in [the] backstory” of CRISPR, Lander writes; “the history of ideas and the stories of pioneers—and draw lessons about the remarkable ecosystem underlying scientific discovery.” He traces CRISPR’s origins all the way back to Francisco Mojica, a doctoral student at the University of Alicante, in Spain, in 1989. Mojica discovered a new class of repeating sequence that was present in diverse organisms, suggesting widespread taxonomic importance. These, of course, were the first CRISPR sites—clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats. By 2000, Mojica had found CRISPR loci in 20 different organisms.

By turning his lens on such unsung heroes, laboring away at universities well beyond the anointed labs of Harvard, MIT, UCSF, Johns Hopkins, and the like, Lander creates the impression of inclusiveness, of the sharing of credit among all the “heroes” of CRISPR.

But when he reaches Doudna and Charpentier’s chapter in the story, the generosity becomes curiously muted. Though Lander maintains his warm, avuncular tone, Doudna and Charpentier enter the story as brave soldiers, working shoulder to shoulder with others on the long journey to practical application of CRISPR. Some subtle techniques create a very definite impression.

For example, Lander narrates Charpentier’s story alongside that of the Lithuanian scientist Virginijus Siksnys. But Siksnys receives top billing. His name appears in the first line of two sections of the paper:

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.38.28 AM

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.40.57 AM

Charpentier’s name, on the other hand, appears at the bottom of a paragraph devoted to a component of the CRISPR-cas9 system called tracrRNA.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.38.53 AM

Jennifer Doudna is graciously given the epithet “world-renowned,” which may distract our attention from the fact that her first mention is buried in the middle of a paragraph, in the second half of a long sentence, the direct object rather than the subject of the sentence:

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.45.59 AM

Doudna and Charpentier go neck and neck with Siksnys through the next sections, but Doudna and Charpentier’s contributions are repeatedly diminished. “Sisnysys submitted his paper,” begins one paragraph. At the end of the paragraph Doudna and Charpentier’s paper receives mention. “Both groups clearly recognized the potential for biotechnology,” Lander writes.

Now, enter Feng Zhang and George Church of the Broad Institute. They receive the longest treatment of any actor in the story—a solid page out of nine pages of text. Then Doudna submits a key paper “with assistance from Church.” This and three other “short [ie., minor] papers,” Lander makes sure to note, “were accepted soon after Zhang and Church’s papers were published in early January, 2013.

Lander concludes his saga with words of benevolent wisdom, extolling the “ecology” of science that produces profound discoveries. History provides optimistic lessons about the idealistic world of pure science, carried out purely for the sake of furthering knowledge. One can almost see Lander dabbing away tears of joy as he writes,

The human stories behind scientific advances can teach us a lot about the miraculous ecosystem that drives biomedical progress—about the roles of serendipity and planning, of pure curiosity and practical application, of hypothesis-free and hypothesis-driven science, of individuals and teams, and of fresh perspectives and deep expertise.

I think Eisen has a point, therefore, in reading the paper as a crafty effort to establish Zhang and Church as the scientists who brought the relay race to the finish line—and to portray their principal competitors for patents and prizes, Doudna and Charpentier, as merely two in a long string of runners.

I’m glad to see other scientists, such as Mojica, receive credit in a major CRISPR narrative. Too often the early players and the scientists at lesser-known universities become lost to history altogether. But we should also recognize how Lander uses those actors to create a crowd in which to bury Doudna and Charpentier. It would have been possible to mention Mojica, Gilles Vergnaud, and others while still giving Doudna and Charpentier their due.

Update 1/19: Both Doudna and Church have said the article contains factual errorsI’ll leave it to the experts to debate the technical details of the science. My argument—stimulated and shaped by Eisen’s tweets—is about the tone and style of the piece. Lander is a public-relations master. He’s a compelling speaker and a sophisticated writer. He’s a giant in the field: he has been a leader in the genome community since early days of the human genome project. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

A Nobel can be split at most three ways, and there are four principal actors. How will the prize be partitioned? Doudna, Charpentier, and Zhang? Zhang, Church, and Doudna? Zhang, Church, and Mojica? I have witnessed the steady PR campaigns of scientists who went on to win Nobels. The Prize is supposed to be wholly merit-based, but, we being humans, reputation matters.

Update: One should also note the gender dynamics of the story. However conscious or unconscious it may be, efforts such as this underscore the often-subtle ways in which “history by the winners” still tends to end up being “history by the men.” Only way that stops is by saying it out loud. Tip o’ the pin to Anne Fausto-Sterling and Alondra Nelson for nudging me on this.

At its best, science is a model of human interaction: cooperative, open, focused on evidence and reason, unbiased by prejudice of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or disability. But science is no longer done in monasteries. Competition, pride, ego, greed, and politics play all too great a role in determining who gets credit, who wins the prizes, and who gets into the textbooks. As Butterfield recognized, controlling the history is both a perk of coming out on top and, while the battle still rages, a way to cement your team’s role in the crystallizing master narrative.

When a scientific history promises an account of “heroes,” when it is filled with sentimental language “miraculous ecosystem” of “pure curiosity and practical application,” and when that history is written by an individual who has much to gain by the acceptance of his own account, the piece should come with a conflict-of-interest statement—or at least a road-sign reading, “Danger! Whig history ahead.”

PS: See also Dominic Berry’s take on the Lander article, also drawing on the history of science but framing it in terms of intellectual property, here: http://blogs.sps.ed.ac.uk/engineering-life/2016/01/18/crispr-in-the-history-of-science-and-intellectual-property/


Nobel scientist Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs. English biochemist tells conference women in laboratories ‘fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry’” (The Guardian)

“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls…  I’m really, really sorry I caused any offence, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually.” (Tim Hunt)


Stockholm, 1983. A certain English scientist whose surname rhymes with…let’s go with a small boat that you pole along the river Cam…is 40 years old. He has received an invitation to the Nobel festivities honoring the geneticist Barbara McClintock, “for her discovery of mobile genetic elements.” He fancies himself a pick-up artist and thinks this will be an excellent place to meet girls. He starts at the top.

Tim Hunt (Nobelprize.org)

BMC: And so, Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, I wish to thank you and the Swedish people for their many courtesies. I hope I have conveyed some of the joy of the marvelous maize plant and the startling phenomena of the genome that one can discover when one has the time and the solitude to watch and to think. Are there any questions?

TH (aside, to companion): Watch this. Observe the master.

(to McClintock):           Yes, thank you. Before I speak, I’d like to say something: that’s a smashing dress.

BMC:       I hate dresses. They said I had to wear one, so I wore one. My niece found it somewhere near here.

TH:           Ahem, yes, I see. Well, jolly good one on me then!

[You see? She’s falling for me. Works every time.]

What I wanted to say was, all of these elegant trappings notwithstanding, that I find your argument…unconvincing. You haven’t shown any data of any sort that a contemporary biologist would recognize.

BMC:       Are there any questions?

TH:           [Always compliment them, then insult them a little. Never fails. Watch.]

What I mean is, I don’t mean to be indelicate, but what gives you the right to make such claims?

BMC:       What gives me the right, or what basis do I have? Please be clear. Well I can address both. What gives me the right is fifty years of studying genetics and the fact that I’m standing at the Nobel podium. The basis for my claims is my data, which I just reviewed. Weren’t you paying attention? Are there any other questions? Yes, you in the back…

TH:           [Ouuuuch! <grins> God I love older women! They find me irresistible!]


Later, at the Banquet…

TH: (suavely)      Ah! Dr. McClintock!

BMC:       Yes.

TH:           I just wanted to apologize for my remarks at your lecture.

BMC:       Yes.

TH:           I ought not to have been so candid in such a public forum.

BMC:       No.

TH:           I mean, I don’t honestly see what all the fuss is about your work. but I ought not to have said so in front of all of those reporters and, you know, the King and all. I hope I didn’t upset you. I just wanted to be honest.

BMC:       You’re the one who looks foolish. Did I upset you?

TH:           You…me…? I…

BMC:       Your pronouns seem to be functioning normally. But haven’t you any verbs? I would have thought Cambridge would teach you better English.

TH:           Now look here. There’s no call to be insulting.

BMC:       Oh, don’t take me too seriously. Turn sideways. [casts her eyes downward] I’ll give you this: you have a nice tush. [pats it][1]

TH:           WHAT?!? I never!

BMC:       Never? Too bad. Me neither…much. Never had the time. I was just too interested in chromosomes—and the Y is so short and stubby and dull. I do enjoy looking at a good tush, though.

TH:           You never fell in love? Say, with a charming professor, aloof yet alluring, with beguiling nostril hair?

BMC:       [snorts] Good one. Maybe you’re all right, Tom.

TH:           Tim. Timothy.

BMC:       Suit yourself. If I may be frank, I could never feel attracted to someone I thought wasn’t as smart as I am. And, well,…

TH:           [stiffens] Really! Now listen, what I need to tell you is this: Your experiments are just so baroque. You practice this old-fashioned style of genetics, your writing’s impenetrable, and your experiments! They’re so complicated—one has to learn half your maize strains and strange chromosome constructions just to grasp your hypothesis! I can’t honestly imagine how the Nobel committee even followed your work, let alone evaluated it. Why don’t you do some molecular experiments? Things become so much simpler!

BMC:       Yes. As I was saying…

TH:           Are you implying that I’m not…???

BMC:       Must I spell it out for you? If you’re not clever enough to grasp what I’m doing, why are you even here? God I hate these stuffed-shirt evenings!

TH:           Now look here, madam!

BMC:       No. You look here, squirt. And be quiet. I don’t mean you any harm—you’re no dumber than most of the other men I’ve spent my career around. But you’re no smarter either. I’ve been listening to you for ten minutes now, and you haven’t said a single intelligent thing. Don’t you ever grow up? There are more interesting punchbowls in this room. And I’ve had plenty of your Australopithecine views. That’s A-U-S…

[At this, TH’s eyes start to well] T-R-A-L-O-P-I-T-H-E-C-I-N-E. There!

BMC:           Gold star. [rolls eyes] Tom, I’m sure what you do is perfectly interesting to someone. And maybe—although of this I’m less certain—what you say, someone finds charming. But with me, neither happens to be the case. Now, about that punch… [walks off]

[Tears stream down TH’s cheeks. He falls to his knees, one arm extended melodramatically in her direction] Barbara! Dr. McClintock! Don’t go! I—I love you!

BMC: [To another, female, guest] My trouble boys is that all they want to talk about is romance and their own feelings. Always falling in love with you and weeping. How do they ever get any science done?


[1] McClintock was known to compliment people—men and women—on their tushes. In the words of a long-time friend, “She just liked tushes.”

Usmanov: ‘I don’t need no stinking medal’

It’s pledge week again on National Public Radio. Imagine if Bill Gates had called in and told them, “What’s your fundraising goal for this drive? I’ll meet your target right now if you’ll call off the drive”– and NPR said, “Thanks but no thanks—we’ll see what we can get on the phones.”

Alisher Usmanov (from Wikipedia)

It turns out that’s what happened with Watson’s Nobel medal. Christie’s whispered word about the auction in several countries before the sale. Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia, contacted Watson before the auction and made an offer for a financial contribution to the Lab, on the condition that Watson call off the auction, according to the latest report by Anemona Hartocollis in the New York Times (she’s had the Watson auction beat). But Watson turned down Usmanov’s offer. Hartocollis reports that Watson wanted to see how much he could get for the medal.

So Usmanov let Watson hold the auction and then bid on the medal, determined to win—but to not take home his thank-you coffee mug. As one astute Genotopia commenter observed, things have reached a strange state when a Russian oligarch takes the moral high ground.

This latest twist is vintage Watson. I can well imagine him waving away the rotund Russian and his “boring” (my imagining of Watson’s word) offer of a straight gift. I think the thrill of the gamble caught him. Crick (‘s family) got $2.1M for his. Watson was confident he could beat that. But by how much? At the auction, he watched the bidding intently, grinned broadly when it crossed $4M, and celebrated afterward.

In remarks at Christie’s before the auction, he told the audience to always “go for gold.” Silver was never enough, he said. It turns out that he had something specific in mind: he wanted not the “silver” of Usmanov’s initial offer, but the maximum gold he could get for his gold. The gamble, the risk, the competition, the publicity. The chance to take the stage once again, to rile people up, confuse them, yank the public’s chain. It became about him, not the gift.

Watson enjoys playing the scoundrel and he chose, with classic perversity, to punch a few holes in this clichéd last refuge. The reasons to undertake philanthropy are to be–or at least appear–moral, generous, selfless, humane. As the dust settles on this latest bizarre event in Watson’s long career, he ends up seeming competitive, avaricious, and childish. Of all the reasons he gave for wanting to sell the medal, the most oddly touching was the wish to rehabilitate his image. Alas, he has only reinforced it.



Having His Medal and Selling It Too

Just when we thought that the Jim Watson Nobel medal story couldn’t get any weirder, the anonymous bidder who won the medal last week is returning it.

The medal-winner revealed himself to be Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia. He is paying the total $4.68 million but insists Watson keep the medal. His gesture appears to be one of generosity—but is it really?

“In my opinion,” Usmanov said, “a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognising his achievements is unacceptable.” He added, “James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him.” In short, Usmanov used the auction as a means of making a more than $4M donation to scientific research.

As I wrote the other day, it’s not true that Watson had to sell his medal—he’s hardly eating cat food. Usmanov’s stipulation that the money go to research tacitly acknowledges this fact. Triangulating—or rather, heptangulating—on Watson’s numerous statements about what he would to do with the money, he probably intended to keep a chunk of it, but give most of it away. Although he mused about giving to each of the schools that were primary to his education, experience suggests that most will go to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (always his favorite charity). We—or anyway I—will be watching for an announcement in the near future about the endowment of a new Cold Spring Harbor fellowship, probably for young scientists.

So much for the Hockney, though.

But there remains the question of whether Usmanov is doing Watson a favor by returning the medal. Usmanov has upstaged Watson, foiling any effort for Watson to rehabilitate his image through major charitable giving. Watson still has the $600k from the sale of the documents, which went to a different bidder, but that is a small fraction of what his total gift could have been.

Is Usmanov’s gesture a well-intentioned blunder or is it philanthropic one-upsmanship? By returning the medal, Usmanov is simultaneously contributing to scientific research and throttling Watson’s effort to do the same.

If, on the other hand, Watson’s only intention was to raise money for the Lab, then he gets to have his medal and sell it too. I think we can dispense with the prospect of his turning around and selling it again—that seems too cheeky even for Watson. But who knows? Every time he goes out for a long one, he seems to do a double reverse.

The one safe conclusion is that deterministic explanations rarely fit Watson’s actions. A single motivation almost never fully accounts for what he says. Darwin knows, Watson says much that deserves criticism. But anyone who takes his remarks at face value misunderestimates him, is more interested in self-congratulatory castigation than genuine understanding, or some combination of the two.

The Trouble with Jim

Colleagues, writers, readers, hear me for my cause…I come not to bury Watson, but to historicize him.

James Watson has not been in the news much in recent years. In fact, he has been lying low since 2007, when he said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa,” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours whereas all the testing says not really,” and was removed from the official leadership of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Prior to that, he had for decades been a staple of science gossip. No one has ever suggested that he embezzled money, cheated on his wife, or beat anyone up; his scandals have all been verbal. If there were a People magazine for science, Watson would have been its Kanye West.

Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation via Wikimedia Commons

But last week, he was once again making headlines and enemies—this time with his auction of his Nobel Prize medal and the original drafts and typescripts of his Nobel speeches. The medal sold for $4.1 million, with another $600,000 for the documents. The event was a good deal more interesting than you probably think.

Facebook and Twitter have been venting all week, the public’s ire only fueled by Watson’s public statements. In an interview with the Financial Times, Watson said several things that made right-thinking people go ballistic. (A link to this and a selective list of other major articles is at the bottom of this post.) He suggested he was financially hard up, as a result of being made a pariah since 2007. “Because I was an ‘unperson,’” he said, “I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income.” And yet, he wanted to buy art: “I really would love to own a [painting by David] Hockney,” he said. He iced it by insisting that he was “not a racist in a conventional way,” which sounds a lot like he was confessing to be an unconventional racist. Watson’s admirers buried their faces in their hands once again.

Watson, however, has not been the only one to thoughtlessly voice ill-considered views. In response, serious scholars expressed such nuanced positions as “Watson is a professional dickhead,” and “I no longer want to hear what [he has] to say.” “He’s a misogynist,” wrote one person on my feed. “…And don’t forget a homophobe,” chimed in another; “Yes of course,” replied the first, “I took that for granted.” Back-slapping all around, with much self-congratulation and smugness.

The mainstream media hasn’t been much better. In Slate, Laura Helmuth achieved the trifecta of yellow journalism: inaccuracy, hyperbole, and ad hominem attack. Her article, “Jim Watson Throws a Fit,” asserted that Watson was “insuring [sic] that the introduction to every obituary would remember him as a jerk.” In her professional analysis, “he has always been a horrible person.” Always? I would love to borrow Helmuth’s time machine: I have a lot of gaps I’d like to fill in. Watson, Helmuth coolly noted, “knows fuck all about history, human evolution, anthropology, sociology, psychology, or any rigorous study of intelligence or race.” Serious academics whooped and cheered. Helmuth, however, knows fuck-all about Watson; her piece is riddled with inaccuracies, rumor, and misinformation. Nevertheless, she exhorted Slate readers not to bid on the Watson medal. I admit I did follow her advice—and for the foreseeable future I’m also boycotting Lamborghini, Rolex, and Lear Jet.

Most surprising to me was the generally serious Washington Post. Like many people, I think of WaPo as a sort of political New York Times: tilting slightly leftward but mainly committed to high standards of journalism. But they headlined their article, “The father of DNA is selling his Nobel prize because everyone thinks he’s racist.” That sounds more like the National Enquirer than the Washington Post. Elsewhere, several articles referred to him as the “disgraced scientist” or “disgraced Nobel laureate.”

Watson-haters may jump down my throat for what follows, on the premise that I am defending Watson. I am not. Watson-lovers (dwindling in number, but still more numerous than you might think) may believe I fail to defend him enough. What I want to do is cut through the hyperbole, the ignorance, and the emotion, and attempt to do good history on a challenging, unpopular biographical subject. Watson has much to reveal about the history, the comedy, and the tragedy of 20th century biomedicine.


I have known and watched Watson for nearly 15 years. A year ago, I published in Science magazine a review of his Annotated, Illustrated Double Helix. I used the review to argue that in his treatment of Rosalind Franklin, Watson was conveying Maurice Wilkins’s view of her. In 1952-53, Watson scarcely knew Franklin, and later, Crick became good friends with her. Wilkins, however, hated her. The feeling was mutual and stemmed, at least in part, from lab director JT Randall’s bungled hiring of Franklin. Wilkins may well have been sexist, but probably not unusually so for his day. Ditto Watson and Crick. But in The Double Helix, Watson wanted to curry favor with Wilkins—his prime competitor and fellow laureate. The Double Helix is part history, part farce. It is naive to read it prima facie.

I had thought the review critical, but to my surprise and his credit, Watson loved it. He wrote me a personal note, saying that I was the first Double Helix reviewer who had gotten him, Wilkins, and Franklin right. (Against myself, I must note that Horace Judson was the first person to note that Watson and Crick’s principal competition in the Double Helix was not with Linus Pauling, but with Franklin and Wilkins.)

Last summer, I received a call from a senior person at Christie’s auction house, saying that Watson was auctioning off his Nobel medal, as the Crick family had recently done with Francis’s. Crick’s medal fetched about $2 million. Watson has always idolized Francis and, of course, competed with him. He has said more than once, in private and in public, that the idea to sell his medal first struck him when Michael Crick sold Francis’s medal. The other day, he told Nature, “I wanted to be at least equal to Crick, but this exceeded his.” The friendly competition between the two still exists. Yes, I’m aware that Francis is dead.

Based on the Science review, Watson requested me to write an essay for the auction catalogue. In addition to the medal, he was selling a draft of his Nobel speech and a complete set of drafts of his “Banquet” speech. A medal’s a medal; these documents were what piqued my interest. Since my current book project is on the history of DNA, it was literally a golden opportunity. Further, I would have unlimited personal access to Watson (he turns down most interview requests, especially from historians). I would of course be invited to attend the auction. In full disclosure, Christie’s naturally paid me an honorarium for my writing; I charged them as I would charge any private, for-profit company. Watson himself has paid me nothing.

Keep your friends close—and your biographical subjects closer.

When Christie’s broke the story of the auction, the press and the blogosphere pounced. Many people’s immediate reaction to the news was disgust, a sense that he was disrespecting the award. Two principal questions were on everyone’s mind. In formal interviews, public comments, and private statements, Watson obliged with a bewildering array of answers.

Why was he doing it?

  • He needs the money. (“I have no income, apart from my academic income” [Financial Times])
  • He is not doing it for the money (“I don’t need the money” [public remarks at Christie’s]). He doesn’t. The New York Times reports his annual salary as $375,000. He also has a mansion on Long Island Sound, an apartment on the Upper East Side, and other assets.)
  • He wants to restore his image/polish his legacy (quite plausible)
  • He wants to get back into the news (not entirely implausible)
  • He is thumbing his nose at the scientific establishment (Slate). (Not only unfounded but ignorant. Science is one establishment he doesn’t want to thumb his nose at.)

What is he doing with the money?

  • He wants to endow a fellowship for Irish students (from his ancestral County Cork) to study at Cold Spring Harbor.
  • He will give money to The Long Island Land Trust and other local charities.
  • He wants to give money to the University of Chicago.
  • He wants to establish an HJ Muller lecture at Indiana University.
  • He wants to give money to Clare College, Cambridge.
  • His “dream” is to give Cold Spring Harbor a gymnasium, so that the scientists could play basketball (this would have required about $10M, he said after the sale).
  • He wants to own a painting by David Hockney.
  • He will keep some of the money.

Several observations immediately pop out of this. First, he plans to give away at least most of the money. Almost everything he has said involves charity, although in some cases (e.g., the Hockney—see below), this was not obvious. Most of these non-obvious gifts would go to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory—always Watson’s favorite charity.

Second, his eyes are bigger than his wallet. Reasonable estimates for an endowed lectureship are $250,000 and about $750,000 per student for graduate fellowships (http://www.gs.emory.edu/giving/priorities/naming_policy.html). A Hockney oil could cost more than Watson’s medal: they routinely fetch $7M–$8M (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2045824/Modest-British-artist-David-Hockney-74-worth-staggering-80-million.html).

On the Hockney, Watson said at the auction that in fact he “already had a couple of Hockneys.” He has a decades-long relationship with the artist, dating back, he said, to when Hockney offered to draw him, did so, handed him a print—unsigned—and then put the signed original up for sale. Watson laughed that he had to buy back the drawing he had been offered. He said he had no Hockney oils, however. But nor did he have any space in his house for a Hockney: his intention was to hang it in one of the Laboratory’s buildings. For many years, Watson has been decorating the Lab grounds with artwork. Reasonable minds may disagree about the need for a scientific laboratory to boast millions’ worth of art, but Watson wants Cold Spring Harbor to be a place of beauty and even luxury.

Third, the man is all over the place. Most articles about the auction seized upon one of his remarks and presented it as “the truth” about what Watson thinks. That’s even worse than reading The Double Helix at face value. Watson loves pissing people off—he may well have deliberately misled the media. Perverse, given the rationale of burnishing his image, but not for that reason ridiculous. He simply is not consistent. That inconsistency is something to explain, not brush aside.

Watson has always cultivated a loose-cannon image: having no filters has been part of his shtick. He has been observed deliberately untying his shoes before entering board meetings. But in his prime, he could usually filter himself when necessary. Nowadays, he keeps his shoes tied. Although he is clearly compos mentis, his ability to regulate his filters may have slipped. He’s always been cagier than he’s been given credit for, but his loose-cannon image is becoming less of an image and more of a trait. The quality he has nurtured, one might say, is becoming part of his nature.


Which raises the question: Is Watson merely a crank? Clearly, many in the science community believe he hurts the image of science and is best simply ignored. They treat him as an outlier, an aberration: someone whose views do not represent science or what science stands for.

I have a different view.

Granted, Watson is extreme in his candor; even his staunchest allies admit that he over-shares. But for both better and worse, he is emblematic of late twentieth-century American science. His lack of filters, not just over the past few days but over the last few decades, throws a harsh but clear light on science. He was there at the creation of molecular biology. Through his guileless but often brilliant writing, speaking, and administration, he has done as much as anyone to establish DNA as the basis for modern biomedicine and as a symbol of contemporary culture. He has helped reconfigure biology, from a noble pursuit for a kind of truth into an immensely profitable industry. Thanks in part to Watson, some students now go into science for the money. It has been said that in transforming Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory into a plush campus, filled with gleaming high-tech labs, posh conferences, and manicured grounds full of artwork, Watson made Cold Spring Harbor into a place where the young Jim Watson could never have flourished. The same can be said about his role in science as a whole.

The remarks Watson has made about women and minorities are emblematic of the late 20th century. His comments focusing on women’s looks rather than their intelligence are precisely the kinds of comments feminists have fought against since The Feminist Mystique was published, the year after Watson won the Nobel. Although such comments are thankfully much less tolerated than they once were, far too many men still objectify women. Once again, this is not to forgive his remarks; rather, it is to demand thoughtful explanation.

As to race: we are a racist society. From the time the first British and French landed on these shores, whites have condescended to and exploited every non-WASP ethnicity they have encountered: Native Americans, Africans and their descendants, Latinos, Asians, Jews, Irish, Poles, Italians. And many of those groups have then turned around and condescended to and exploited others. In his book of last summer, the New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade wrote that anti-racism in this country is now “so well-entrenched” that we can afford to ask “politically incorrect” scientific questions about racial differences in intelligence. The current protests over police brutality toward black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, and elsewhere say otherwise.

Were Watson merely a rich old white guy who says retrograde things about race and gender, he could—and arguably should—be ignored. What makes Watson different is that he sees everything in terms of genetics–and not much else. In New York this week, he said that if one looked hard enough, one could find a genetic correlation with Baptism or with being a Democrat. One can probably find a “gene for” essentially anything. Genomic analysis is now so fine-grained, so precise, that the definition of “trait” is arbitrary. The problem is not that Watson is wrong about these presumptive correlations, but that it’s meaningless. The project of finding the genetic basis of everything has become too easy, too inexpensive, too powerful. His style of genetic determinism may again be more extreme than most, but his scientism (crudely, the belief that all social problems can be addressed with science) generally is common and becoming commoner.

Watson, then, shows us what happens when a typical man of the twentieth century thinks about genetics too much. James Watson is worth listening to, is worth understanding, because he represents both the glory and the villainy of twentieth-century science. He may not be easy to listen to, but neither was the viral video of Daniel Pantaleo choking Eric Garner easy to watch. If we shut our ears to Watson, we risk failing to understand the pitfalls of the blinkered belief that science alone can solve our social problems. Those who resort to simplistic name-calling do little more than reiterate their own good, right-thinking liberal stance. Doing so may achieve social bonding, but it gains no ground on the problems of racism, sexism, and scientism. Those who think the conversation ends with playground taunts are doing no more to solve our problems than Megyn Kelly or Bill O’Reilly. Calling Watson a dickhead is simply doing Fox News for liberals.

What is the corrective? Rigorous humanistic analysis of the history and social context of science and technology. Science is the dominant cultural and intellectual enterprise of our time. Since the end of the Cold War, biology has been the most dominant of the sciences. To realize its potential it needs not more, better, faster, but slower, more reflective, more humane.

I share the romantic vision of science: the quest for reliable knowledge, the ethos of self-correction and integrity, the effort to turn knowledge to human benefit. And at its best it achieves that. But science has a darker side as well. Scientific advance has cured disease and created it; created jobs and destroyed them; fought racism and fomented it. Watson indeed is not a racist in the conventional sense. But because he sees the world through DNA-tinted glasses, he is unaware of concepts such as scientific racism—the long tradition of using science’s cultural authority to bolster the racial views of those in power. Historians of science and medicine have examined this in detail, documented it with correspondence, meeting minutes, and memoranda. Intelligent critique of science is not simple “political correctness”—it is just as rigorous (and just as subjective) as good science. The more dominant science becomes in our culture, the more we need the humanities to analyze it, historicize it, set it in its wider social context. Science cheerleading is not enough.

The trouble with Watson, then, is not how aberrant he is, but how conventional. He is no more—but no less—than an embodiment of late twentieth-century biomedicine. He exemplifies how a near-exclusive focus on the genetic basis of human behavior and social problems tends to sclerose them into a biologically determinist status quo. How that process occurs seems to me eminently worth observing and thinking about. Watson is an enigmatic character. He has managed his image carefully, if not always shrewdly. It is impossible to know what he “really thinks” on most issues, but I do believe this much: he believes that his main sin has been excessive honesty. He thinks he is simply saying what most people are afraid to say.

Unfortunately, he may be right.


Here is a selective list of some of the highest-profile articles about Watson and the Nobel medal auction:

11/27/2014 “James Watson to sell Nobel prize medal he won for double helix discovery” (The Telegraph)

11/28/2014 “James Watson to Sell Nobel Medal” (Financial Times)

12/01/2014 “The father of DNA is selling his Nobel prize because everyone thinks he’s racist” (Washington Post”)

12/1/2014 “James Watson Throws a Fit” (originally titled, “James Watson is Selling Off His Nobel Prize: Please Do Not Bid On It”) (Slate)

12/02/2014: “Disgraced scientist James Watson puts DNA Nobel Prize up for auction, will donate part of the proceeds” (New York Daily News)

12/02/2014 “Jim Watson’s Nobel Prize Could Be Yours…For Just $3.5 Million” (Scientific American)

12/3/2014 “By Selling Prize, a DNA Pioneer Seeks Redemption” (New York Times)

12/04/2014 “Watson’s Nobel Prize Medal for Decoding DNA Fetches $4.1 Million at an Auction” (New York Times)

12/04/2014 “Watson’s Nobel Medal Sells for US$4.1M” (Nature)

12/05/2014 “James Watson’s DNA Nobel Prize sells for $4.8M” (BBC) [incorrect: their figure includes the “buyer’s premium,” i.e., the cut for the house]


More wacky science á la Coburn

"It's elementary, my dear Crick"Senator Tom Coburn has been attacking what he considers spurious science funded by the National Science Foundation. In a scathing recent report, he skewered grants that supported a robot that folds laundry (an activity recently proven to lead to Nobel Prizes) and taught shrimp how to run on a treadmill. Coburn, who holds a BS in accounting, an MD, and a PhD in BS, knows his science. He told ABC News, “What it says to me is, they have too much money if they’re going to spend money on things like that.”

What else “like that” has grant money been spent on over the years? Funny you should ask. We here at genotopia have compiled, as a public service, a list of insanely useless research that, as it turned out, led to Nobel Prizes. See if you can identify them. Get one point each for correctly identifying the scientist, year of their Nobel, and the scientific topic. Play along and win! Post your score in the comments section to be sure you can claim your prize!


1-6: Consider yourself an honorary Republican Senator.
7-14: You will receive a copy of Coburn’s memoir, My story and I’m sticking to it, forthcoming from Anal Richards University Press.
15-20: You will be entered in a drawing for a coveted slot as chair of an NIH study section!
21-24: Congratulations! You’ve just been elected Secretary of Labor!

a) For decades, the Carnegie Institution of Washington gave money to an eccentric, prickly loner who eventually stopped publishing altogether, and whose main contribution, if you can call it that, was a study of colored spots in corn!

b) In the early 1950s, the March of Dimes funded a bright but aimless postdoc and a superannuated and feckless British graduate student working in England, paying them to diddle around with Tinker Toys!

c) In the late 1950s, the Jane Coffin Childs Fund supported research on sex in bacteria! This same researcher went on to study life on Mars—the only science which has no subject matter!

d) Countless thousands in federal funding went to a foreign researcher who studied what happens when you poke a sea slug!

e) For more than 40 years, this Caltech scientist was supported in his research into how to create mutant fruit flies!

f) This kooky researcher was supported in what he called the “wonderful experience” of studying brown fat in Syrian golden hamsters! He later proposed the wacky hypothesis of an infectious disease that isn’t caused by any organism!

g) This so-called scientist spent time creating mutants of beer yeast that die when it gets warm! Just keep it in the fridge—it tastes better anyway!

h) This person spent years on the federal dole trying to figure out how many different kinds of garbage a rat can smell!




Answers: a) Barbara McClintock, 1983, transposable genetic elements; b) James Watson and Francis Crick, 1962, DNA double helix; c) Joshua Lederberg, 1958, bacterial conjugation; d) Eric Kandel, 2000, signal transduction in Aplysia; e) Edward B. Lewis, 1995, genetic control of early embryonic development; f) Stanley Prusiner, 1997, prions; g) Leland Hartwell, 2001, cell cycle regulation; h) Linda Buck, 2004, odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system.