Exploring the good luck gene

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup