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August 16, 2007

Hinterland Diary

John Stoehr

The times they are a-changin' . . .

From Tim Adams' interview with James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double-helix, the molecular form that DNA takes. He wrote this piece updating the debate first established by C.P. Snow in a classic essay about the "Two Cultures," one literary intellectual and one scientific intellectual, for the London Guardian last month.

I asked [James Watson] how he thought the climate of scientific research had changed since he made his fateful discovery of the structure of life in 1953. As ever, he came at the question from an unusual angle. He doubted, he said, that in today's world, he and Francis Crick would ever have had their Eureka moment.

'I recently went to my staircase at Clare College, Cambridge and there were women there!' he said, with an enormous measure of retrospective sexual frustration. 'There have been a lot of convincing studies recently about the loss of productivity in the Western male. It may be that entertainment culture now is so engaging that it keeps people satisfied. We didn't have that. Science was much more fun than listening to the radio. When you are 16 or 17 and in that inherently semi-lonely period when you are deciding whether to be an intellectual, many now don't bother.'

Watson raised an eyebrow, fixed me again with a look. 'What you have instead are characters out of Nick Hornby's very funny books, who channel their intellect in pop culture. The hopeless male.'

As James Watson knows perhaps more clearly than anyone alive, biology works in mysterious ways.

Posted by John Stoehr at August 16, 2007 11:19 AM