James Watson, who discovered the DNA double helix, Nobel Prize winner, and Honoured Doctor of SPbU, tells us about his life in science and gives advice to those who are beginning career in academia.


Few people have a chance to spend “70 Unboring Years in Science”—  for this is the name of James Watson’s lecture. In his 89, he is generous to share a life’s wisdom and plans for future — to see the time when we will win against pancreatic cancer, and this, as the patriarch of science thinks, can happen within five years

In “Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science” he describes his “rules of life”: “In this book, I describe the rules I have collected during all my life. They look like 10 commandments I have created for myself, as I do not inherit them from my parents. I have been cultivating them all my life. I hope you will follow them and invent your own ones”, — so he began his lecture

— Follow advice that is based on experience, rather than revelation. I was brought up without religion. Although our way of life was Christian-like, and I don’t reject the key Christian ideas. The thing is I do not believe in God.

— Hypocrisy, claims to please everyone, can destroy your sense of self-respect. Never tell anything that is a lie, follow the truth. It is not easy, especially if politicians or, as in previous times, clergy impose the way how you should think. Take Galileo Galilei who was condemned by the Roman Catholic church, or the science of genetics which Stalin tried to destroy by promoting Lysenko who invented numerous lies.

— Don’t be surprised to find out that young scientists are thought to be bold. It is not their fault. When George Gamow told me that I had reminded him Landau, it is the highest compliment for me. Of course, I became a little bit bold, and I could do nothing about it. I started to tell what I thought, and if you are in America, you are not supposed to tell a fool that he is a fool. Even in science, there are many fools.

— Ideas are more important than facts. The main thing I learnt at university is to think and extract ideas from the facts. Mendeleev did the same: he made a system out of the facts. It is the most important thing in my life — my life should be dedicated to the idea.

— When you are young, you don’t come up with lots of ideas, as you don’t have enough knowledge. That is why you should get to know other people’s ideas. One of the most important event in my university life is Erwin_Schrödinger’s “What is Life?” that tells that information transmission is an important part of life. Having read the book, I realized that it is more interesting than bird migration, which I had wanted to study before.


— Choose a young scientific supervisor, he is more likely to develop something new, rather than already known. Then you have a chance to study something new from the very beginning. It is better to  originate ideas, than catch them up.

— Never do trifle things. Always try to choose something important. Search gold, fight for gold, not silver. When I was looking forward and thinking what would be my gold, I realized that it would be genetics and DNA. So, I set my mind that once I would have finished my thesis, I would delve into the DNA.

— You should enter good universities. There you can meet clever people. Once you entered an ordinary one, you are exposed to ordinary people. 

— Discuss your ideas with other people when you are developing it. Rosalind Franklin must have won our race and discovered DNA, but, unfortunately, she didn’t communicate with anyone. She had an idea that DNA was not a helix, and she thought that she knew everything. The-then outstanding chemist Linus Pauling made a grave mistake in chemistry. He thought that DNA had a triple structure, which it didn’t. The case was that Pauling didn’t’ communicate with anyone, except his wife, and his wife didn’t know a thing in chemistry. We communicate with each other, and what is more important, with other people.

— Max Delbrück (American bio- physicist, 1969 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine) told me that the essence of the book should be written in the first paragraph. The first paragraph must catch the reader, which is more important than the first sentence. In the first sentence of the “The Double Helix” you can know Francis Crick: “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood».

— If you need help, try to get it as soon as possible. Many people think that if you studied, you must get everything in life by yourself. But if you are at the forefront, you need help. If you are at the forefront of science, find help as soon as possible.


For reference:

In 1962, James Dewey Watson (April 6, 1925; Chicago), Francis Crick and Morris Wilkinson were awarded Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”.  In 2004, he was awarded Honoured Professor of SPbU. The ceremony was held on July 24, 2017 in St Petersburg.