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Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science [Format Kindle]

James D. Watson

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Remembered Lessons from Childhood on Chicago's South Side


1. Avoid fighting bigger boys or dogs

As a child I lived with being punier than other boys in class. The only consolation was my parents' empathy—they encouraged constant trips to the local drugstore for chocolate milk shakes to fatten me up. The shakes made me happy, but still all through grammar school other kids shoved me around. At first I responded with my fists, but soon I realized that being called a sissy was a better fate than being beaten up. It was easier to cross to the other side of the street than come face-to-face with loitering menaces with a nose for my fear. Likewise, I was no match for barking dogs, particularly ones I had provoked by climbing over fences into their domains. Spotting a rare bird is never worth the bite of a cur. Once bitten by a German shepherd, I knew that I preferred cats, even if they are bird-killers. Life is long enough for more than one chance at a rare bird.


2. Put lots of spin on balls

I long wanted to be part of the softball games played on the big vacant lot across Seventy-ninth Street. At first my only way to join in was to field foul balls. Then I learned how to put spin on underhanded pitches that kept even the better batters from routinely smacking line drives through holes in the outfield. From then on I felt much less an outsider on Saturday mornings. The spins that came from similarly slicing ping-pong serves helped make me a good player well before my arms got long enough to reach near the net of our family’s basement table.


3. Never accept dares that put your life at risk

Seeing classmates dash across a street to beat a coming car filled me with more horror than envy of their bravado. When I rode my bike three miles to the Museum of Science and Industry, I knew my constantly worrying mother would have preferred my taking the streetcar. But by being cautious—going down as many alleys as possible and never taking my hands off the handlebars when a car was passing—I was never really putting my life at significant risk. Likewise, in climbing up and over the branches of neighborhood trees or hoisting myself up along gutters to the roofs of one-story garages, I may have been risking a broken leg but not a fatal fall. The possibility of plunging more than ten feet never seemed worth the thrill of being high up.


4. Accept only advice that comes from experience as opposed to revelation

Listening to my elders just because they were older was not the way I grew up. Preadolescent exposure to my relatives’ views that the New Deal would bankrupt the United States and that Hitler would cease being an aggressor after conquering England left me with no illusions that adults are less likely than children to utter nonsense. For the most part, my parents tried to provide rational explanations for why I should think a certain way or do a certain thing. So I was convinced by my mother’s advice that I wear rubbers on rainy days so as not to ruin my leather soles. At the same time, I rejected her no less often heard argument that sodden feet led to colds.

By then I was conditioned to accept my father’s disdain for any explanations that went beyond the laws of reason and science. Astrology had to be bunk until someone could demonstrate in a verifiable way that the arrangement of the stars and planets affected the course of individual lives. Equally improbable to Dad was the idea of a supreme being, the widespread belief in whose existence was in no way subject to observation or experimentation. It is no coincidence that so many religious beliefs date back to times when no science could possibly have accounted satisfactorily for many of the natural phenomena inspiring scripture and myths.


5. Hypocrisy in search of social acceptance erodes your self-respect

My parents and most of their neighbors had nothing bonding them together but Horace Mann Grammar School. Mother, with an outgoing and generous personality, naturally rose to be president of the PTA. But except for a keen interest in baseball, Dad had nothing in common with his fellow fathers. That love, however, seldom drew him into the backyards of neighbors, where frequent blasts at the New Deal and occasional anti-Semitic jokes were insufferable for Dad, whose favorite radio personality besides Franklin Roosevelt was the Jewish intellectual Clifton Fadiman. He knew enough to avoid occasions where polite silence in response to repulsive remarks could be construed as acquiescence in their awfulness.


6. Never be flippant with teachers

My parents made it clear that I should never display even the slightest disrespect to individuals who had the power to let me skip a half grade or move into more challenging classes. While it was all right for me to know more about a topic than my sixth-grade teacher had ever learned, questioning her facts could only lead to trouble.Until one has cleared high school there is little to be gained by questioning what your teacher wants you to learn. Better to memorize obligingly their pet facts and get perfect grades. Save flights of rebellion for when authority does not have you by the throat.


7. When intellectually panicking, get help quickly

Occasionally I found myself nervously distraught, unable to repeat an algebraic trick I had learned the previous day. I never hesitated in such circumstances to turn to a classmate for help. Better for one of them to know my inadequacies than not to be able to go on to the next problem. “Do it yourself or you’ll never learn” may have some validity, but fail to get it done and you’ll go nowhere. Even more frequently I was unable to express myself in words and habitually procrastinated with writing assignments. It was only with my mother’s last-minute help that I punctually submitted a well-written eighth-grade paper on the history of Chicago. Of much greater importance was Mother’s later insistence that she edit every word of my scholarship essay to the University of Chicago. I accepted her extensive editing with little guilt, then or since.


8. Find a young hero to emulate

On one of our regular Friday night visits to the Seventy-third Street public library, my father encouraged me to borrow Paul de Kruif’s celebrated 1926 book, Microbe Hunters. In it were fascinating stories of how infectious diseases were being conquered by scientists who went after bad germs with the same tenacity as Sherlock Holmes pursuing the evil Dr. Moriarty. Some months later I brought home Arrowsmith, in which Sinclair Lewis, helped by Paul de Kruif as expert consultant, relates the never-realized hope of his hero to save victims from cholera by treating them with bacteria-killing viruses. The protagonist’s youth gripped me and made me realize that science could be like baseball: a young man’s game whose stars made their mark in their early twenties.

Also encouraging me to aim high was my not-too-distant cousin Orson Welles, whose grandmother was a Watson. Though we never met, he also had an Illinois background and after being effectively orphaned was partly raised by my father’s uncle, the celebrated Chicago artist Dudley Crafts Watson. Always turned out with much panache, including a pince-nez, Dudley relished telling his nephew’s family of Orson’s triumphs, which began when he was a child actor in the Todd School. Orson’s daring was what appealed to me most, from his famous War of the Worlds radio hoax to his groundbreaking feature Citizen Kane. A scientist’s hero need not be a microbiologist, let alone a baseball player.

Revue de presse

“a deliciously detailed account of his life both in and out of science… insightful, useful and on target about science, competition, leadership, teaching and academic success…His remarkable recall of events…gives the reader the feeling of being there…full of insight into Watson and into a life in science…He is at all times blatantly but entertainingly honest about his likes and dislikes…Watson remains one of the most fascinating scientists of our time, as iconic in some respects ash is double helix.”
-- Huntington F. Willard, Nature

“the ne plus ultra of gadflies, James D. Watson…from his near-octogenarian heights, he passes on what he can to young scientists coming up and to the rest of us as well...Particularly entertaining”
-- Sara Lippincott, Los Angeles Times

“Among James Watson’s gifts is the flying gibe…those who can ignore Watson’s latest gaffe will not be bored.”
-- Brenda Maddox, The London Times

“James Watson is both a scientific genius and a larger-than-life personality...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…readers get an entertaining front-row seat on this glitzy world that runs on brains, gossip, and (sometimes) backbiting…The science contained in Avoid Boring People is explained in lucid prose [and] many of Watson’s practical ‘lessons’ will surely help academics of any discipline.”
--Chuck Leddy, Boston Globe

"Aspiring Nobel laureates, pay attention. The road to the prize is laid out for you here. A book to be highlighted and handed down."
--Seed Magazine

"Vintage Watson: brash, bumptious, brilliant--and never boring."
--Kirkus

"Watson proves as engaging as ever."
--Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"Entertaining and historically revealing."
--Carl Zimmer, Publishers Weekly

Détails sur le produit

  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 3284 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 368 pages
  • Editeur : Vintage; Édition : 1 (25 mars 2009)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ASIN: B000WJSAX8
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Amazon.com: 3.0 étoiles sur 5  25 commentaires
93 internautes sur 106 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Very Insightful! 23 octobre 2007
Par Loyd E. Eskildson - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
James Watson did not win the Nobel prize helping discover the double-helix structure of DNA by being stupid. Thus, it is no surprise that his "Avoid Boring People" is full of insightful and invaluable observations gained during his work. These "Remembered Lessons" are primarily aimed at those in academic/research endeavors; however, a large proportion apply to any area of focus. Examples follow:

College is for learning how to think. Learning "Why?" something occurred is much more important than a few facts (eg. the reasons for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire are more important than the birth date of Julius Caesar). It is better to simply know which books hold details you will need than to overload oneself with facts that never will be repeated. On the other hand, new ideas usually need new facts.

Students should choose courses that naturally interest them, and if one's grades are not largely a, they likely have not yet found their intellectual calling. One should narrow down their career objectives while still in college.

The academic world abounds in triviality. Choose a young thesis adviser - the older ones' expertise is most likely in fields that long ago had seen their better days, leaving devotees with diminished job expectations. Those breaking new ground inevitably threaten minds continuing in old ways. Extend yourself intellectually through courses that initially frighten - eg. math is necessary to pursue the frontiers of genetics. Never accept invitations to senior faculty homes unless you have reason to anticipate a very good meal or a fetching face.

Exercise exorcises intellectual blahs. If you are just a little sloppy you have a good chance of introducing an unsuspected variable and nailing down an important new phenomena; too sloppy, however, and you never get reproducible results.

Choose a research objective apparently ahead of its time - mopping up the details after a major discovery by others will not likely mark you as an important scientist; however, only take on problems where meaningful results can come over a 3-5 year interval. Work with a teammate who is your intellectual equal - this helps shorten flirtations with bad ideas.

Teaching can make your mind move onto big problems - especially when challenged by advanced students.

Exaggerations do not void basic truths; emphasizing exceptions and qualifying terms is not the way to get ideas across initially. Controversial recommendations require political backing.

Never offer tenure to practitioners of dying disciplines - eg. plant biology. The result will be an unwarranted appeal to less qualified students.

Begin and end every chapter of a book with a snappy sentence.

Don't take up golf - becomes too much of an obsession for too many. Similarly, two obsessions is one to many - must focus.

Managers should schedule as few appointments as possible - just say "Yes" immediately to legitimate requests, even if you don't have the money. Walk the grounds - get wind of problems early, see who is truly committed and probably going places (working weekends and nights). Institutions are either moving forward or backward - never stagnant (eg. top staff will leave if not moving forward).

Be a friend to your trustees - joining their clubs, donate to their causes. Attractive buildings project institutional strength.

At the end, Watson makes an important observation in today's too politically-correct world. "A priori, there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of people geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically."

Finally, Watson sympathizes with Larry Summers' recent removal as Harvard president for making an apolitical remark wondering if differences in women's brains accounted for their lower participation in scientific careers. Ironically, a similar recent slip-up by Watson jeopardized his leadership status at Cold Harbor.
76 internautes sur 95 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Engaging, witty, and anecdotally wise.... 27 septembre 2007
Par Intelligent Signs in the Universe - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
I have read this book after being a fan of Francis Crick for years, and sure enough, James Watson is also cast from a similar mold... inquisitive, assuming nothing, fun, witty, and introspective. This would be a great read I would imagine for anyone sunk in the institution of academia, it reveals how those institutions really work. I applaud Watson personally for his very important work, and his relevant views, which are neither incendiary nor aggresive, but simply based on the facts of an observable universe. Which is right where we belong.
103 internautes sur 137 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Tres veces 7 décembre 2007
Par Robert G. Martin - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
Jim, Jim, Jim....
You've written this story three times now. The first, "The Double Helix," is possibly the best history of science ever written. The second, "Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix," is undoubtedly the worst -- I had to wash my hands repeatedly from the offal emerging from each page. Now we have, "Avoid Boring People," a modest step up from the last. I'll leave it to the New York Times to decide whether or not this rendition of the same material is boring and to others to critique whether your use of "Manners" in the title of each chapter indicates you have the foggiest notion about etiquette. But the little science that appears in this book is shockingly bad in at least three instances.
First with regard to emphasis: Anyone not familiar with the history of Molecular Biology would conclude from this book that the second most important discovery of the 20th century (after your discovery of the structure of DNA) was the isolation of the lac repressor by Wally Gilbert. Nonsense. What about the breaking of the genetic code (1 sentence), the development of recombinant DNA technology (1 sentence) or even the development of DNA sequencing techniques for which Wally shared the Nobel Prize (not mentioned at all)? The repressor story has always been overblown in part because of Jacque Monod's incorrect insistence (that you initially bought into) that all regulation was via repressors and that activators didn't exist.
Your second mistake is the claim that Alfred Tissières failed to break the genetic code because his preparation of polyadenine had aggregated. Nonsense. PolyA is about as soluble as salt. The reason his experiment failed is the same reason Marshall, Heinrich and I failed. Namely, we were all using trichloroacetic acid to precipitate the polypeptide products and polylysine (encoded by polyadenine) is the one polypeptide that is soluble in trichloroacetic acid. It took Ochoa's group to recognize that one had to use tungstic acid.
The third is your notion that seemingly erudite "scientific" questions are valid even when there is no possible way to answer them. Nonsense, again. Aristotle's musings on the nature of the atom weren't prescient but merely an exercise in mental gymnastics and a waste of time except as an excuse for practicing Attic Greek. For the same reason Nobelist Shelly Glashow has argued repeatedly that String Theory is worthless unless and until it can come up with a testable prediction. So the argument against Larry Summers' ignorant statement with regard to women scientists has nothing to do with political correctness. The question as to whether women's brains make them more or less suitable for science is untestable and therefore stupid. Fewer than 5% of my medical school class ('60) were women. (By the way, the Blonde that you were lusting after at Woods Hole in 1956 was one of them, but has the good taste to wish to remain anonymous.) The Harvard Medical School class of '08 is closer to 50% women. Has the female brain really evolved that fast? Of course not, it's just that accessibility has changed. And I wouldn't be surprised if by the end of this century half of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences go to women. Please stop this nonsense about political correctness.
And let your story rest...
14 internautes sur 17 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A strangely ironic work 29 décembre 2007
Par therosen - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
James Watson, the scientist most famous for discoverign and writing about the Double Helix, writes a broad autobiography, complete with advice to those following in his footsteps. The book is heaviest on the people he met in life, and lighter on science, which makes for entertaining reading by a broader audience. Those looking for details on the science discovered (as opposed to the author's aquaintances) are best advised to look elsewhere.

There are several interesting ironies in the book. At the end of each chapter is a list of "Manners" describing career advice, yet much of Honest Jim's behavior (chasing undergads, writing unflattering portaits of his colleagues in the Double Helix) is extremely unmannered. Additionally, some of the flourish he adds as head of the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory (expensive renovations on his home) are at odds with the financial mess he was brought in to fix.

The quality of an autobiography, though, shouldn't be judged on a character assessment of the writer. The book gives a non-technical view of the life of one of American's most reknowned scientists, and provides a much broader view than he provided in the Double Helix. The "Manners" do indeed provide advice for junior scientists. Perhaps most important, it isn't boring, and that's a trap hard to avoid in scientific autobiographies.
10 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A great look inside the life of a scientist 9 novembre 2007
Par Michael P. Cook - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
Amongst the recent turmoil over his racial comments, I decided to pick up his book while at a local bookstore yesterday. I'm a chemistry PhD student, so not much of a critiquer. However, I know good science writing when I see it, and this is good science writing. My favorite aspect of the book is that he shows you what it is like to develop into a scientist, both dreams lost and gained. Since I am in academia, this was especially fitting, as the behind the scenes politics are hidden from view from the lowly graduate student. Aside from what he has recently said, I would highly recommend this book. This man won the Nobel prize for some of the most creative ingenious work with genetics ever done. A man like that should be heard above the cries of the ultra-sensitive. Read it. You wont be dissapointed.
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