I grew up on Long Island in the 1960s, and I went by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory twice a day, to and from school, for four years. I knew big things were going on in there, just off the main road through the trees, scientific things, way-over-my-pay-grade kinds of stuff. Science and I never bonded: the annual pithing of the frogs in biology, capillary action, photosynthesis, and so on. It might as well have been the far side of the moon, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, as far as I was concerned.
I ventured in for the first time just the other month. My new employers, Centerbrook Architects, have been designing the buildings for scientists at Cold Spring Harbor for decades. I was there to sit down with, among others, James D. Watson, the lab’s longtime director and currently, at 81, chancellor emeritus. To use the vernacular, Jim Watson, Nobel laureate, is one smart fellow.
In 1953, he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the genetic material that is responsible for how you and I develop, for our very identity, and in some cases for our untimely demise.
It was big, big science, this DNA discovery. It set the table for myriad other scientific endeavors to follow, and its full implications are still being explored at Cold Spring Harbor and in laboratories around the world. Why do some cancer treatments work well on some patients but not others? What genes are responsible for diseases like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s? What makes cancer cells metastasize, seemingly spontaneously in some cases? What causes autism?
The determination by Watson and Crick that DNA is shaped like a double helix, or a gently twisting ladder, ranks among the greatest discoveries of the 20th century. Watson was 25 years old at the time.
He would go on to other important discoveries, to serve as the director of the Human Genome Project, to teach at Harvard, and to write eight books.
As I settled into a chair in his office, I was painfully aware of the vast disparity in our respective résumés. He immediately put me at ease. His conversation was mesmerizing, and his answers were concise and so compelling at times that they would knock the questions that I had memorized (but foolishly not written down) right out of my head. He was gracious with my pregnant pauses.
I improvised. A photo on the wall behind him bore a resemblance to a young Orson Welles, I pointed out brightly. Not even close. It was Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. I had better luck identifying the large poster of the Russian tennis siren Anna Kournikova. I quipped that, for a moment, I thought I was in an auto body shop. He burst out laughing. The discussion detoured into tennis, a sport he still plays.
I can’t pretend I retained a great deal about the science Jim Watson talked about (largely thanks to a faulty tape recorder). But a few things vividly stuck with me. They may also strike K-12 educators now so intent on encouraging interest in math and science.
Watson’s education was predominantly in the liberal arts, the great books. He didn’t zero in on science alone, and his intellectual interests still vary widely. He believes scientists should not wall themselves off from the world, from nonscientists. His books on science have been called remarkably accessible to the general reader. He doesn’t hoard his knowledge; he prefers to share it.
Sociability and an admitted fondness for gossip helped Watson be a better scientist. Not surprisingly, Cold Spring Harbor’s scientists work in an intimate, village-like setting, rather than in sprawling factory laboratories. This free-range atmosphere keeps them in touch not only with one another, but also with the natural world that encompasses the campus.
Watson also attributed a great deal of his success to, of all things, being bored. Bored adults, like bored children, often resort to surprising enterprises and flights of fancy. Boredom can serve as the DNA of creativity. Watson was generally not inspired by the next logical scientific step, the obvious experiment. He preferred to leap four or five steps ahead and see if he could figure out what was going on beyond the pale. In 1971, he wrote a cover piece for The Atlantic in which he anticipated, by more than two decades, the coming of cloning and the moral questions it would pose.
The efficacy of boredom doesn’t just work for science, but for other disciplines as well, like architecture: “So if you’re not bored, but are excited by an ordinary building,” he said, “you’ll never produce a good building.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as A Lopsided Meeting Of the Minds