Coyne on Watson in the TLS

There is an excellent and, to my knowledge, fair and accurate, account of Jim Watson’s life, attitudes and achievements in the latest TLS by the excellent scientist and writer Jerry Coyne — wrapped up as a review of Watson’s latest book. If you are at all interested in this topic, do read the TLS article. I reproduce two paragraphs below.

"It would be easy to condemn Watson as arrogant and opinionated – he is – but a more nuanced look at his past reveals an infinitely more complex individual than that typically portrayed in the media. When he took a job at Harvard University, some of his colleagues found him so abrasive and lacking in inter-personal skills that one of them remarked that he wouldn’t put Watson in charge of a lemonade stand. Yet with an intuitive flair for recognizing scientific talent, he founded a department at Harvard that became a world-beater. Although Watson can seem relentlessly self-centred, he flouted scientific convention by unselfishly refusing to put his name on his students’ publications. And despite repeated statements about women that can only be viewed as sexist, he has ardently supported the work and careers of his female students."

"The book’s epilogue, though bizarre, is its most illuminating part. Despite having left Harvard over thirty years ago, Watson takes it personally that biology is, as he sees it, in decline there. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard’s local rival, has come from behind to overtake the biology programme he lovingly and successfully tended during his years as a Harvard professor. Part of the problem is Harvard’s recently deposed president, Larry Summers, who, in Watson’s opinion, combined arrogance and ignorance of matters scientific with a determination to expand Harvard biology. The result, Watson notes, is over-expansion and science done on a “B+ level”. Summers, however, was not undone by his vision for Harvard science; rather, he was hounded from office after making public comments about the possibility that women are under-represented in science because of innate differences between the sexes. It is ironic that the final chapter’s account of a public figure laid low by unwise comments about genetic differences parallels in many ways what may be the final chapter of Watson’s career."

Save that “scrap” paper

Rocket_scientist_2 From Nature this week (13 Dec issue p. 932), it seems that it might well be worth hanging on to that thesis or early draft novel you wrote all those years ago:

"A formerly top-secret document produced by controversial rocket scientist Wernher von Braun for his PhD dissertation sold for US$33,000 at auction in New York last week.The 166-page thesis, Design, Theoretical and Experimental Contributions to the Problem of the Liquid-Fuel Rocket , was classified as ‘top secret’ by the Nazi government and, although written in 1934, was not published until 1960.

After working on rockets for the Nazis during the Second World War — his exact motivations are still debated — von Braun was spirited to the United States to work on missiles. He later became the first director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. After what the auction house Bonhams describes as “heated bidding”, the thesis sold for $3,000 more than its original estimate."

In a comment to the story, Austin B. Carter writes: "Werner Von Braun spent his first years in the U.S. in my home town giving lectures at various venues, which I eagerly attended. He explained his future plans to explore space utilizing an intermediary space station in earth orbit and/or on the moon. Explained Mach number. But his most interesting talking points were about how little energy it takes to influence first conditions that then go on to control vast natural phenomenon like Atlantic Hurricanes. My reward for being a fan was an invitation to witness the last V-2 Rocket blast off from the White Sands, NM Missle Range. Even at a distance of one mile, the roar was deafening."