Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …