Recorded: 09 Sep 2003
Jim’s role as a writer, I think, is very, very important in the history of science. Not only did he write the most successful textbook in molecular biology, but he also wrote the most successful popular science book of the ‘60s and the ‘70s. And I think he changed the way popular science writing was done. I don’t think we recognize this as much as we should because it’s a fairly gradual revolution. But up until the mid ‘60s and the late ‘60s, people were writing about science as if it was a branch of science education. In other words, they were essentially writing didactic books that said this is what we’ve discovered, this is what we now know, and this is how you ordinary people should understand it. Whereas from The Double Helix on you start to get more and more books that say, these are the problems that we don’t understand the answers to; these are the things we’re ignorant about. And this is how we are trying to tackle them. And this is one story about how we tackled a chunk of ignorance and we turned it into knowledge. So it takes the reader by the hand and shows him the problem before it shows the solution as it were. Now that I think was a very important change. And I think it’s very difficult to argue that anyone did it before Jim. Perhaps Medawar did it a bit, perhaps Haldane did it a bit, perhaps even Desmond Morris, but it’s really The Double Helix that does that in a spectacular way for the first time. And a lot of us who’ve written about science since are heirs to that tradition. So I think you can’t underestimate the importance of The Double Helix in changing the way that scientists wrote about science and writers wrote about science.
And as evidence of that just look at the reaction to The Double Helix at the time, which was, you know, everyone was furious because he had shown science as it is not as it should be, not as it is in the textbooks. And yet now it’s really not a very controversial book. Sure there are some sharp remarks in there that people take exception to even now. But most of the people who were offended at the time are no longer offended. Now we live in a world where we do show people how you understand science from the beginning.
Jim has a very characteristic writing style. And it’s much less evident in The Double Helix than it is in his later books, particularly Genes, Girls and Gamow and some of his other books. I think it’s a fascinating and direct and rather wonderful style, but it’s not an easy style for people because what he tends to do is use words in a funny order. He often starts the sentence with the word you’d least expect him to start it with, you know. And in a sense it’s very postmodern. It’s very like a novelist sort of trying to catch your attention with the way he writes about. He chooses words very carefully. But it doesn’t always come off, you know. I think there are parts of Genes, Girls and Gamow where people think he doesn’t come off so well. But it’s a very unusual style and no one that I know writes in that same style. I mean, you know, you could give me a chunk of prose, three or four sentences wrong and I could always tell you whether it was Jim’s or not, I think. And that’s a remarkable thing when you think about it because you can’t say that about most people’s style.
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.