Read Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science Online

Authors: James D. Watson

Tags: #General, #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Self-Help, #Life Sciences, #Science, #Scientists, #Molecular biologists, #Biology, #Molecular Biology, #Science & Technology

Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science (9 page)

BOOK: Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science
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Soon after becoming director, Demerec moved into Airslie, the early-eighteenth-century wooden farmhouse at the northern end of the grounds that until 1942 had been part of a grand estate of more than one hundred acres, belonging to Henry deForest, whose main house, Nethermuir, dated from the 1850s. The estate included a large stable as well as a very beautiful English-style garden that won many accolades for the Olmsted brothers, who designed it. Early in the century, deForest's talents as a lawyer representing J. P. Morgan's railroads helped him multiply an already hefty family inheritance. As a director of the Southern Pacific Railroad, he had his own private rail coach. But by the time he died, in 1938, time and the Depression had taken a toll and his assets, once exceeding $70 million, ultimately were reduced to only $8 million. Also soon gone was the once grand Nethermuir, said to have mysteriously burned down on a winter's night in 1945 after Mrs. deForest had moved permanently to her New York City apartment on Park Avenue.

With air-conditioning nonexistent outside a few lab rooms, the best way to beat Cold Spring Harbor's summer heat was to go swimming at high tide off the dock in front of Jones. When time permitted, we would swim off the sand spit, the body of land about a half mile long that almost closed off the inner harbor from the outer. At the Jones dock, there was a lab canoe that we used to paddle past the posh Moorings Restaurant on the eastern shore on our way to the village library, or the ice cream parlor, only three minutes away, which served super hot-fudge sundaes. There was also a tub-like boat owned by Sophie, the rotund blond fourteen-year-old daughter of the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. She was spending the summer helping Barbara McClintock cultivate her cornfield. Frequently she saw reason to join the baseball games in the field to the east of the Carnegie main lab, fielding balls that careened toward McClintock's prized corn.

The Lab did not then own much of the land on the way to the sand spit. A large parcel still belonged to Rosalie Gardiner Jones, who lived in a mansion about a mile up the road to the Syosset train station. Born in 1885, the product of marriage between local estate-owning families, Rosalie had a long career as an activist suffragette and lawyer. Early in a life of more than ninety-five years, she was married off in a high-society wedding to Clarence Dill, a United States senator from Washington. But it was a brief union, as Rosalie soon found that she was not treated as an equal partner and the senator was dismayed to find his wife an untidy sort who buried garbage on the grounds of their home. Later Rosalie's most dependable companions were her white tennis shoes and the herd of goats that accompanied her on inspection tours of her various properties that dotted the shores of Cold Spring Harbor.

I first saw Rosalie when she drove her goat-bearing truck to the ramshackle mid-nineteenth-century wooden house she owned just north of the Firehouse. Without warning the Lab, she had rented it to migrant Jamaican farmworkers who had come to Long Island to help harvest vegetables on nearby farms. Quickly Demerec went to the police, telling them that the house, which we called Rosy's Cozy, was not fit for human inhabitants. Within days he obtained a court injunction ordering her tenants removed. Rosalie responded by bringing in the NAACP and claiming that the migrant workers would not have been asked to leave if they had not been “colored.” But as soon as the NAACP representative saw the state of Rosy's Cozy, he too concluded that no one should live in such filth.

On Long Island some four hundred grand landed properties existed at the peak of the Gold Coast era in the 1920s. To better see what they had been like, one Friday night I walked north several miles along the western shore of Cold Spring Harbor. After passing a large abandoned boathouse from those roaring years, I was soon at the base of the 150-foot Cooper's Bluff, which looked out over Center Island to the Connecticut shore six miles away. Across the half-mile channel that led into Oyster Bay, the sounds of dance music drifted from the posh Sea-wanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club, a world I would never enter that summer. A paved estate road led up from the shore to a village road that took me to the Cove Neck police booth. There I was given directions for the two-and-a-half-mile walk back to the Lab. Later I was to learn I had been trespassing on the property of the children of Theodore Roosevelt, whose nearby summer home, Sagamore Hill, was then still inhabited by his second wife.

There was much tension in the air whenever Luria talked science with the slightly younger biochemist Seymour Cohen, who lived with his wife in an adjacent Williams House flat. Having taken the phage course two years earlier, Seymour had subsequently switched from studying typhus to investigating phage replication as a chemical phenomenon. He had come for the summer from the University of Pennsylvania to do experiments in Gus Doermann's lab measuring the time course of phage DNA synthesis during phage multiplication. While his wife and Luria's could be civil to each other, Seymour sensed all too clearly that, as a chemist, he would never be more than an outsider among the Delbruck-led phage group.

The phage course ended in late July with the juvenile antics of its graduation ceremony, the first without Delbrück, who had not yet returned from Europe. Draped in a white sheet over my shorts, I was given the role of his ghost. I was almost as tall as Max and wanted to move about like him, befitting the godlike way his spirit dominated the occasion. Beer was an integral part of the evening, and the resulting mayhem provided the perfect pretext for younger scientists to become better acquainted with the female Carnegie assistants, individuals of both groups doubtless knowing that life would get lonelier once the summer had ended. The course had brought together Günther Stent and Nao Okuda, a liaison that lasted all summer despite one unfortunate rendezvous in a field full of poison ivy. I spent the later part of the evening playing ping-pong under the Blackford porch with Sophie Dobzhansky or Nancy Collins, whose thick-rimmed glasses reflected the disdain she showed for girls who primped but had nothing going on between their ears. Nancy, a product of Vassar, was out for the summer from New York University to assist her thesis adviser, Mark Adams, with the phage course. She knew all too well that most men had only short-term objectives; like me, she was biding her time until the right person came along.

I played his ghost in 1948, but when Max Delbriick was present he took care of the phage graduation party himself. Here he is, standing, with a flotation device around his neck and his hand on a bottle of beer.

Frequently on the tennis court in front of Jones Lab was the physicai anthropologist William H. Sheldon hitting with his much, much younger third wife. Sheldon, connected to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, was putting finishing touches on his about-to-be-published book
Variations of Delinquent Youth.
He also was at work on his newest opus, an
Atlas of Men,
and he gave a Thursday evening lecture about it in late July. He presented his thesis that human bodies should be viewed as composites of three qualities, ectomorphy (linearness), mesomorphy (muscle), and endomorphy (roundness), each derived from a different embryonic germ layer. The proportion of different tissue types dictated not only somatotype (kind of body) but also individual temperament. The lecture, profusely illustrated with photos of nude men, might easily have been regarded as a front for deviant sexuality but for the laughable extremes that predominated: torturously thin ectomorphs as well as an equal number of blubbery endomorphs. By Sheldon's scheme, which assigned numerical values to indicate proportion of tissue types, the ideal bodies were designated 3-4-3 physiques, derived from all three germ layers with a modest excess of muscles. Luria was not in the audience, not wanting to dignify Sheldon's obvious crap. Afterward Sheldon let me know I was a 6-1-1, an ectomorph having only minimal muscles to accompany my skin and nervous system. He did not mention the part of his theory holding that, overall, ectomorphs were relatively likelier to wind up in mental institutions.

Equally off the wall was the talk the following Thursday by Richard Roberts, who drove up from Washington, where he was a senior member of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution. To our dismay, he had walked into Blackford with a golf bag, evidently prepared to spend much of his visit on the nearby links. A Princeton-trained nuclear physicist, in 1939 he made measurements on the number of neutrons released during uranium fission, data that were crucial to the development of the atom bomb. For this vital war research, he later received the Medal of Merit from President Truman. Wanting afterward to move into biology, Roberts had taken the 1947 phage course, whose students also included Leo Szilard and Philip Morrison, a former student of Robert Oppenheimer, who had done theoretical calculations for the first atom bomb. To everyone's surprise Roberts's first foray into biology owed nothing to the phage course of the previous year, since his subject was extrasensory perception. Though Luria again bluntly declared to everyone that he would not dignify junk, curiosity got the better of virtually everyone else at Cold Spring Harbor. The lecture focused on the already highly controversial experiments at Duke University of parapsychologist J. B. Rhine. Soon Roberts was pulling cards out of carefully shuffled decks and predicting their values. Either he or the audience clearly had gone bonkers. At the end of the talk, the Berlin-born insect geneticist Ernst Caspari, drawing on his impeccable Continental politeness, thanked Roberts for his very unique talk.

The Delbrücks were then back from Germany, and had taken up residence in the flat on the north side of Hooper House. The lounge at Blackford soon became the Lab's intellectual center, its blackboard covered with thermodynamic equations involving alternative steady states. When in Germany, Max's interest was drawn to the topic through conversations with the noted physical chemist Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer, his close friend. Karl's brother Klaus had been married to Max's sister, Emmi, before he was killed together with his other brother, Dietrich, a theologian, by the Nazis in 1945. In trying to understand how signals are propagated along nerve fibers, Bonhoeffer had developed equations that Max suspected to be applicable to the sudden changes in surface antigens on paramecia that Tracy Sonneborn was then keenly investigating at IU. Max did not like Sonneborn's own explanation, which postulated heredity determinants in the cytoplasm. Often working with Max to see if Bonhoeffer's equations were actually valid was Günther Stent, free to do as he wished now that the phage course was over. Renato Dulbecco was also brought into action, revealing mathematical abilities not ordinarily associated with an M.D. I would silently watch them bat about equations, knowing I was not up to their mathematical manipulations.

At the end of the phage course, our IU group moved across Bung-town Road to the classroom lab in the Davenport Building that Günther Stent was also making use of for the rest of the summer. My experiments were now even more closely tracking Renato's, studying progeny phages produced in bacteria simultaneously infected with genetically distinguished active and irradiated inactive phages. Happily, I found that genes from phage parents rendered inactive by X-rays, like those from UV-killed phages, were incorporated into the progeny phages. But whether this gene transfer resulted from a crossing-over process or through an independent assortment of independently replicating genes, as Luria still believed, remained unclear.

In mid-August, my parents took the train east for a two-day visit. Dad much liked being with Ernst Mayr and exchanging memories of great birds each had seen. Perhaps that inspired him to splurge and give me a glimpse inside the Moorings Restaurant, whose lofty prices effectively placed it out of bounds for the Lab's scientists. To drink beer or eat clams on the half shell, we normally went farther along the shore to the dependably seedy Neptune's Cave, whose open clam bar on Harbor Road attracted day-trippers out from the city. From Cold Spring Harbor, my parents went on to New Haven, where my father's physicist brother Bill and his family lived near Yale, and where my sister, Betty, was living for the summer.

After the Lurias returned to Indiana, Renato drove Max, Manny, and me to Cape Cod to spend several days at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole. On our way back, I was dropped off at New Haven, where my sister was working at the Winchester Repeating Arms factory. That summer Betty had come from the University of Chicago to be part of a Students in Industry program, under the auspices of the Yale Divinity School, that brought together some ten socially conscious college girls with an equal number of male Chinese students belonging to the Chinese Christian Student Organization. All went well at the large Hillside Avenue residence belonging to the Divinity School until the Chinese students learned they were making rifles destined for the “corrupt” Chiang Kai-Shek in his losing fight against the advancing communist armies. They decided they could not in good faith continue working for the enemy, though they had no qualms about letting the American girls make more rifles to obtain funds needed for the group to remain in New Haven for the rest of the summer.

BOOK: Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science
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