Sydney Brenner on Jim Watson as a Writer: The Double Helix and Molecular Biology of the Gene
  Sydney Brenner     Biography    
Recorded: 10 Jun 2002

I, you know, you have to remember, most people—you know, it [The Double Helix] is the book of the young man. But you know when it was published Jim was in his forties already. So it’s published long after he already had the Nobel Prize. So it was—it was a book he wrote as a young man, but published as a middle-aged man of accomplishment, you see. So it’s a very curious book. It still gives you—there’s a lot of the naiveté [that] still comes through.

I think Jim—what has been totally underestimated—and again I’ve put this out—was the impact of Jim’s more—The Molecular Biology of the Gene. I think that that was a revolutionary book and I think Elliot, by the way, does quite a lot about that, because it actually carried the message to people and it had a very good style—something I now call “The Massachusetts Declarative.”

And I think he brought all these new ideas to a whole generation of people because you have to remember of the people who reigned at the time were the biochemists. And their books were extremely boring textbooks and here you had this connection between genetics and biochemistry explained very neatly for the first time. And of course it was the contrast there. And the contrast philosophically is the following; until DNA, biochemists were concerned with matter, that is how all these chemicals [were] made, and energy: where does the energy come from.

If you would have told people at the time that through DNA we could do the chemistry of biological information, nobody would have understood that statement. But that’s essentially what it was. It was that the reduction of biological information to a chemical problem, or a biochemical problem, same thing. And that’s essentially what they’d opened up. So there were those who didn’t actually grasp the concept of information. That’s why the Molecular Biology of the Gene is so important. Because it said exactly that! And once you can get that, then you can see that it just generated—helped to generate, tracked the interest of young people. And I think that that’s probably been underestimated and I’ve said so and it is one of Jim’s accomplishments. I think that textbook he wrote was very important.

Well, you know, you have to look at things in different ways, you see. I think as an author, as a writer, I would think that two things: The Double Helix is a unique book. And I think it’s interesting and it still captures something.

I think the Molecular Biology of the Gene as an exposition is in fact an important piece of—writing should not be—you want to know what is creative in it, what is new. And I think the Molecular Biology of the Gene put this new—all these new ideas across. So I would say as a writer that was very successful.

I think The Double Helix had its—you know, was also successful. But you see, most of us in science—we write papers; we don’t write books in that sense. Jim has—Jim wants to be known for his writings, I know this. I think he is—he wants to be known as a, as a contributor to literature.

Sydney Brenner is a pioneer in the field of molecular biology. He was born in South Africa in 1927 and received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1954. From 1979 to 1986 he served as Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology and from 1986 to 1991, as the Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory Molecular Genetics Unit, both in Cambridge, England.

Since 1996 he has been the President and Director of Science at the Molecular Sciences Institute in La Jolla and Berkeley. Brenner was honored as a Distinguished Research Professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla in 2000.

In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Dr. John Sulston and Dr. Robert Horvitz “for their discoveries concerning ‘genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death’” studying the organism C. elegans.