If there is anything Nobel Laureate James D. Watson does not need to worry about, it is boring people. In his autobiography, Avoid Boring People, James D. Watson takes a stab at analyzing his younger days starting from his childhood fascination with birds to his discovery of DNA’s structure and his first years as director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
Watson covers his life at a brisk, refreshing pace with extraordinary attention to detail. His charismatic personality comes across on the page and the reader is able to get a true sense of Watson’s exciting life on top of an understanding of the bustling activity within the field of molecular biology in the mid-twentieth century.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing Watson does is to immerse readers in the academic world. He covers his interactions with all of the great scientists of the time, individuals whose names now grace science textbooks: Linus Pauling, Max Perutz, Francis Crick, etc.. Watson is direct and holds nothing back, describing the politics, circumstances, and personalities of each scientist. He writes about them nonchalantly, with an easy manner that makes one think twice about what it really takes to be a good scientist. Through Watson, we see that great scientists are all still normal people just as prone to making mistakes and crossing enemies just as we are apt to. Watson manages to communicate all this while still grounding the narrative in an autobiographical framework: while we learn about the inner workings of science, we also discover how he transformed from an awkward 16 year old prodigy attending the University of Chicago into a visionary scientist making one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century.
It is clear throughout the narrative, however, that Watson sees Avoid Boring People as not just any autobiography, but also as a book of wisdom to hand down to scientists. Watson artfully fuses the two genres and exposes a flair of his personality through the form of the “remembered lessons” that he includes at the end of each chapter, lessons that detail the things he learned at various stages of his life. Watson is self-confident of his worth and unafraid to say it. He thinks of his book as “an object lesson, if not quite an exemplary history of the making of a scientist.” But Watson’s book offers more than advice: he leaves numerous traces of his scientific reasoning, complete with esoteric scientific jargon. Any reader capable of following Watson through these accounts will be in for a treat, learning about failed scientific ideas as well as the successful ones—an activity important for honing one’s own ability to discern excellent from good research ideas.
Any aspiring scientist should read James Watson’s Avoid Boring People. Though Watson’s narrative can sometimes be convoluted, i.e. dropping too many names to keep track of and rushing through science at a pace too confusing for an untrained biologist, the “remembered lessons” alone, complete with annotation and anecdotes, are worth reading. Watson tells us to keep an open mind as we pursue our research ambitions. Among his many lessons, Watson reminds us, “Science is highly social“—it is a lifestyle to be enjoyed. It is as much about advancing knowledge as about self-growth and challenging yourself, as Watson points out when he tells us to “never be the brightest person in a room.” Finally, what does Watson mean to say with his title, “Avoid Boring People?” Does he mean to stay away from bores, or not to become a bore yourself? Read this book, and you’ll surely find out!