Exploring the good luck gene

I Do Not believe in luck. So I am always curious about the careers of very successful scientists and how they, rather than someone else, did the right work at the right time and the right place. I am not talking of geniuses like Archimedes and Newton, but of present-day scientists, since nowadays if Z does not make the discovery then you can be sure that Q or K will. So, how did it come about that Jim Watson came with Francis Crick to discover the structure of DNA, that most miraculous double helix. I asked Watson this as we sat in his beautiful art-filled house overlooking the bay at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island.

His father worked for a college and filled the house with books. He was also an amateur ornithologist and, by the age of 10, Watson was also deeply interested in birds. The two of them would go out on Sunday mornings bird- watching which had the added advantage that he did not have to accompany his mother who was a Catholic, to church. He was already aware of Darwin's theory of evolution and was doubting the existence of a soul. By adolescence, his interest in birds had become a bit obsessional and he loved collecting sightings of rare birds.

His interest in all aspects of bird behaviour, such as their migration, led him to go to the University of Chicago to take courses in natural history; he was becoming a zoologist. He had no interest in chemistry, though he began to want to understand the nature of life. But he had heard that living organisms were made up of molecules, and so began to puzzle as to how it was possible to start with molecules and end up with humans. Then in 1946, at the age of 17, he read the physicist Erwin Schrodinger's book What is Life? and became aware of, and interested in, genetics. More important, his reading of the book convinced him that the gene must have an extraordinary structure. At that time, no one knew how genes worked.

He applied to the California Institute of Technology, and this was his first bit of luck - they turned him down. So he went to Indiana University instead. Why Indiana? There were three brilliant geneticists at Indiana for the simple reason that they could not get a job anywhere else: Herman Muller because he had been in Moscow and was perceived to be a communist, and Salvador Luria and Sonneborn because they were Jews. He did a boring doctoral thesis but from Luria he learned about the importance of working on only the important problems and to recognise and keep away from poor science. Both Luria and Muller won Nobel prizes.

In the first summer, they took him to Cold Spring Harbor where geneticists, including Delbruck, met and taught courses. Delbruck - another Nobel Laureate to be - was the intellectual leader. Even more arrogant than Luria, he reinforced how important it was to choose important problems and to make judgments as to what was good or bad science.

Watson wanted to be like Delbruck - not only brilliant, but good-looking and a fine tennis player. It was particularly rewarding to be treated by him and the others as an equal, even though he knew he was not. But neither Delbruck nor any other geneticist that he knew of was interested in the actual nature of the gene, the structure of DNA. So he went to Copenhagen on the basis of a mistaken view that a scien- tist there shared his interest.

Then he went to Cambridge where he met Francis Crick. The story from then on is brilliantly told in his book the The Double Helix. He confirms that he tried to persuade Rosalind Franklin to build models of DNA, but that she would not listen. That was probably the second bit of luck, for Franklin, working with Maurice Wilkins, should have got the structure herself. Then, there was the third bit of luck. The great chemist Linus Pauling got the structure wrong.

Even so, I still think it is the best scientists that are the luckiest. Focus is all.

! Lewis Wolpert lectures at University College London