Recorded: 08 Mar 2006
Jim Watson as a writer has a lot of really great qualities. Let’s start with this book The Double Helix. When The Double Helix first came out it caused a tremendous controversy, in fact to his discredit the then-president of Harvard decided not to publish the book which they were going to at Harvard Press because of some letters they got from Francis Crick and people and so on. If you go back and read that book now by today’s standards it’s so innocuous you can’t imagine why there was ever a controversy. But the reason that the double helix not only became a bestseller but also is still a great book, OK, is because in addition to telling a great story, what Jim did when he wrote was unlike what most people do which is when you write about yourself, just like when you testify in court or something, you always put yourself in the best light. It’s an unconscious thing that people do. Whereas Jim wrote this book from the standpoint of this is what I actually felt and thought at the time. I’m not necessarily saying that I’m now proud of all of those things, but it really was the way I thought at the time.
Very few people can do that. The only other book in science that approaches that kind of doing is Francois Jacob’s The Statue Within. Most of the other books even though they’re written by great scientists can’t do that. That, I think, is the real reason The Double Helix caught on so much. Jim was writing about things that...he doesn’t necessarily come out as the most favorable character in parts of that book. So, he wrote it honestly. In fact, it’s my understanding that the original title of the book was called Honest Jim. I don’t know if it’s for that reason or another one. But, now with regard to his textbook writing or his non-autobiographical writing, the reason that The Molecular Biology of the Gene became an instant hit was that Jim has this ability to get to the core of the matter quickly. There were a lot of other books and many of the other texts are really brilliantly written but the problem is they take every exception and they followup every trail and you just can’t get the central story. Jim will go right to the central story. The Molecular Biology of the Gene is really, and I’m going on memory now, it’s very straightforward, it cut to the chase, it just gave clear statements and that’s why it became very, very popular.
It’s true of all the books he’s written, so his most recent book, which we’re using in a course that I do at UCLA this year, the DNA: The Secret of Life, it’s just so clearly written and it cuts right into the heart of the matter and he deals with the history of eugenics, he deals with the human genome project, where it’s going, nature vs. nurture, genetically modified foods and it has aspects of both of his two successful early books, in the sense that he writes in the first person in a lot of the book. He talks about his family and their genetics. He’s just very unabashed in giving his personal views.
And so, he gives his personal views on some of these controversial topics and he lays it right out there for that. And then with regard to The Molecular Biology of the Gene, you can see that aspect in this book. Because it’s all so clear. I’m using that book in a course that has many non-science majors in it. They can read and understand everything because he doesn’t weigh people down with all the little false trails. So I think he’s a wonderful writer. Virtually every book he writes is very, very successful. But his latest book is crisp and fresh as any of the best books he’s ever written, and that’s really extraordinary. So I have enormous admiration for him as a writer.
Jeffrey H. Miller, Ph.D., is the Distinguished Professor of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles. After receiving his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Rochester, he did graduate work in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard in the department that included Jim Watson and Walter Gilbert, doing his thesis work under Jonathan Beckwith at Harvard Medical School. His postdoctoral work was pursued under Benno Müller-Hill at the Institute for Genetics of the University of Cologne in Germany, followed by 11 years on the faculty at the University of Geneva's Department of Molecular Biology, which was then headed by Alfred Tissières. In 1983 he joined the faculty at UCLA, where his scientific focus has been large-scale DNA sequencing and genomic analysis, the enzymology of DNA repair, protein structure, and the role of DNA repair enzymes in human cancer. He received the 2007 Career Award for Research from the Environmental Mutagen Society.
Miller has been a frequent participant at Cold Spring Harbor Symposia, a course lecturer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and a co-organizer of two meetings at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Banbury Center. He has been a consultant and principal in various biotechnology companies since the 1980s. In 1994 he co-founded Diversa Corporation, which has merged to become Verenium, a publicly owned biofuel company. He is the author of several books and laboratory manuals published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, including "Experiments in Molecular Genetics" (1972), "A Short Course in Bacterial Genetics" (1992), and "Discovering Molecular Genetics" (1996).