Thursday, 18 October 2007

Avoid Boring People – James D. Watson ***

An autobiography by as big a name in science as James Watson, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, is one of those rare moments that perhaps can be over-anticipated to the point of disappointment when it arrives. Sadly, this was the case with Avoid Boring People.
It covers the period from his birth to the mid 1970s, but does so in a strangely detached, rather affected style. You never get the feeling that you are seeing the real person, but rather a dim view into the past through fogged lenses. As is often the case the early family history is a bit dull, but things liven up when Watson gets to school – but rather than soaring from here, it’s only certain little areas, such as political battles at Harvard, that shine through with any great brilliance.
Perhaps most surprising is the almost summary approach to the DNA work. One suspects that Watson thinks it has all been done before – not least in his own The Double Helix, written when he was much younger, and with huge vigour. It’s easy to imagine that it seemed sensible to deal with this episode in a summary fashion – but then you’ve taken the heart out of why this isn’t a book about just any scientist – and the result is inevitably disappointment.
Watson’s social life is also skipped over rather – before meeting his wife, he mentions quite a few young women, but without giving any idea what their relationships were. A more detached biographer would probably have seen fit to point out that as Watson went from an undergraduate to the 40-year-old he was when he married, he mostly seemed interested in women around the undergraduate age, and perhaps to draw some conclusions.
Worst of all, though, is the approach to the science. There is no attempt to make this interesting to the general reader. There’s not enough explanation, and too much ready throwing in of jargon. In the end it provides little more than a teenage ‘we did this, they did that’ account of the scientific work he is describing. This is not how popular science should be undertaken.
The whole structure is not helped by ending each chapter with a series of trite aphorisms as ‘lessons from life’. One of these is the title of the book. Unfortunately, this is more a case of “avoid boring book.”
Hardback (US is Paperback):  
Review by Brian Clegg

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