Recorded: 09 Sep 2003
I mean you think nowadays we’re well aware of Jim’s incredible contribution to administration of science, to inspiring young scientists, to fundraising, you know, all these sort of mundane things that he’s actually extremely good at; to building up biology at Harvard, to writing fantastic textbooks, to getting other people to do things, you know, all of that is amazing. But in a century or two from now looking back on his life, historians will say that Jim Watson, oh, yeah, he’s the man who found the double helix along with Francis Crick, you know. In the end that’s his one line entry in history and you can’t get away from that. The genome is going to be important, but it’s not—you know, his inspiration behind getting people to do the genome and his leadership of the project, very important. But in the end, the historian says [that] he’s the man who found the double helix.
Now what the historian is also going to say is—and he had a very important part in the history of art, if you like, because he wrote The Double Helix. That’s a very different kind of achievement. Discovering the double helix is something that is totally dispensable whether you like it or not, if Jim hadn’t done it somebody else would have done it very soon afterwards. And that makes it all the greater achievement in some ways, because he had to get there before the other people. It was a race in a sense that doing a great work of art is not a race. But The Double Helix as a book as opposed to the double helix as a thing is a work of art in the sense that it’s creative, challenging, and unique. Nobody else would have written it if he hadn’t written it. You know, it’s quite possible for the whole history of molecular biology to exist without a book like that being written. And will go on being read for a very long time. Now there aren’t that many books which are still being read thirty five years after they were published, particularly about science because science is so full of obsolescence, you know. You don’t read books written in the ‘60s about genetics on the whole because they’re old hat and they got everything wrong. Well, not everything, but you know they didn’t know a lot of the answer that we know now. But you will read The Double Helix for the rest of the 21st century I think people will read it. And they will read it because it is a human portrait, it’s a novel. It’s a novel about people and how they interact when they’re trying to discover something. So I think he has twin places in history; as a discoverer of the double helix and as writer of The Double Helix.
Matt Ridley is a journalist and a leading science writer. He earned his Ph.D. in zoology from Oxford University in 1983. He worked as a correspondent and editor for The Economist, a columnist for Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and as editor of The Best American Science Writing 2002.
His books include Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature; Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation; Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters ; Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human; and Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code. His books have been short-listed for many literary awards.
He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Ridley is the honorary life president of the International Centre for Life, Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s park devoted to life science that he founded in 1996. He is chairman of Northern Rock plc, and other financial services firms.
In 1996, Ridley first visited Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and made James D. Watson’s acquaintance. In 2006 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and is a visiting professor at the lab.