Did Watson and Crick deserve the prize?{8}

I realize this is not a novel topic. Books have even been written on the subject. Much of the controversy tends to revolve around the fact that Rosalind Franklin provided the crystallographic evidence that grounded Watson and Crick’s model for the structure of DNA. Not to mention the questionable way these data may have come into W and C’s possession, not to mention, the treatment Franklin received as a woman in science. These issues remain important even today, but I do not think I have anything new to add to that discussion.

My current deliberation about whether or not W & C deserved the Nobel Prize focuses on a much simpler question: did they work hard enough to earn the Nobel Prize? Many accounts, including Watson’s own Double Helix, paint a charming picture of gentlemen who spent leisurely days in conversation with colleagues at King’s College, roaming the halls until happy hour, when they would hit the pub and talk some more. In every picture I have ever seen of Watson and Crick, they look so relaxed, almost languid. Which is why I am questioning their right to the prize. Did Watson and Crick work hard enough to deserve the prize? Did they suffer?

I realize that I am an experimentalist, a bench scientist who produces tangible stuff as evidence of a productive day’s work in the lab. Gels, mutant embryos, proteins that took blood, sweat and tears to generate in microgram quantities. As a scientist, I have suffered. Watson and Crick were theoreticians. I collaborate with theoreticians. They do not get their hands dirty or handle radioactivity. They tend to dress better than I do. However, they also tend to spend 48 consecutive hours without leaving their computer terminals, subsisting on coffee and stale donuts, and spinning out reams of parameter sets, bifurcations graphs, and code. In other words, they suffer.

In my high school year book, I wrote of three things to which I aspired. One was to win the Nobel Prize. I am pretty sure that is not going to happen. For years, I berated myself for not working harder. Another experiment, another paper, another grant. I matured enough to no longer covet the prize, but I still had my heart set on doing something BIG in science. No matter how much data I produced, I vowed to double my effort and produce even more the next week. I loved my work, but I also suffered.

Looking back, I now wonder if I should have learned something more from W & C than just the fundamentals of semi-conservative replication. Maybe I should not have worked harder, but possibly just a little less “hard”.

The creative process requires sufficient space and ATP. I am not sure the present scientific culture in the US and many other industrialized nations fosters the sort of thought and collaboration that Watson and Crick brought to bear on one of the most challenging problems of the 20th century. In a world of “publish or perish” there is little time for wandering the halls to chat with colleagues let alone for drinking beer.