Sunday, October 21, 2007

Nobel pub talk

Does an outspoken Nobel Prize winner such as 79-year-old James Watson—US co-discoverer, in 1953, of the structure of DNA—have the right to make shallow remarks, in public, about sensitive racial issues? A week ago, in an article in Britain's Sunday Times Magazine, Watson said that he is "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". Concerning the notion that the intellectual capacities of all humans are equal, Watson descended to a pub-talk level in saying that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".

Following this interview, Watson's scheduled presentation at London's Science Museum was immediately canceled. Above all, his longtime employer—the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, 35 miles east of Manhattan—decided to suspend Watson's responsibilities as their chancellor.

Watson's book The Double Helix, presenting the hectic search for the structure of the DNA molecule, is one of the most thrilling and best-written scientific tales I've ever read. When the discovery was made, in collaboration with Englishman Francis Crick [1916-2004] and New Zealand-born Maurice Wilkins [1916-2004], James Watson was merely 25 years old.

Accounts of this amazing breakthrough in fundamental knowledge are marred solely by the fact that the essential collaboration of the brilliant English crystallographer Rosalind Franklin [1920-1958] has rarely been fully recognized.

Concerning Watson's much-publicized words last weekend, I look upon them as harmless provocative nonsense from a silly old bugger who's currently promoting a new book with a sensationalist title: Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science. While I find it erroneous for any scholar today to suggest that human intelligence can be measured, and that the respective intellectual capacities of different races can be compared, I'm not shocked by the fact that an outspoken old-timer could let such words slip out of his mouth, as if he had downed a pint too many in a London pub. If it were I who had discovered the structure of the basic molecule of life, I think I might have spent the rest of my days in a permanent state of intellectual intoxication, and I would have never stopped making crazy statements.


  1. The question is: has a Nobel Prize winner the right to speak (in public) like an ordinary man sitting in a pub?

    I don't stop criticizing Sarkozy's approximate language. I think a President should be able to express himself in correct French.

    If one agrees or not with his ideas is another issue.

  2. To be honest, I have the impression that Sarkozy's French is nevertheless far better than Bush's English. It's true, though, that I've never imagined Sarkozy as an orator. He's more like a guy who might be trying to sell me an automobile.