Friday, October 26, 2007
In a pub near Cavendish Lab in 1953 Francis Crick raised his glass and
announced to all present, "we have discovered the secret of life." And
they had. The world would never be the same. James Watson, 79, is best
known to the public for his book, The Double Helix, that recounts the
discovery of the structure of DNA. He resigned yesterday as head of Cold
Spring Harbor Laboratory, which he built into a great research institute.
Controversy endures over Rosalind Franklin's role in DNA, for which Watson
gave her scant credit. She died before the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine
was awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins. There was controversy again
when Watson resigned as head of the human genome project in a dispute with
NIH director Bernadine Healy, who wanted to patent gene sequences. Those
controversies were tame compared to the one that erupted last week; he was
quoted in the Times of London as suggesting people of African descent are
less intelligent than Europeans. I don't know what he was thinking. An
abject apology won't undo it.
According to a story in the New York Times this morning, a report issued
by the United Nations yesterday in Paris is so frightening that French
President Nicolas Sarkozy immediately put $1.4 billion into new energy
sources and biodiversity. Unsustainable consumption of resources and
population growth is taking Earth beyond the point of no return. As an
example, the report says, two and a half times as many fish are being
caught as the oceans can produce in a sustainable manner. No word yet
from Washington on the U.S. response. No steps taken to protect the
environment will help in the long run if population continues to grow.
Earlier this month there was a remarkable reunion at Fort Hunt, VA of
surviving members of the group responsible for interrogating Nazi
prisoners of war. All in their 80s and 90s, they are shocked at the
methods reportedly used today. Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist, told
Petula Dvorak of the Washington Post that he had been assigned to play
chess with Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess. They took prisoners out to steak
dinners and played ping-pong with them - and got information out of them.
During WWII when the news carried reports of torture by the Nazis, people
would shake their heads and say "you couldn't get American boys to do
that." Now we know you could. The President insists "we don't torture."
The only way he could be sure would be to submit to "waterboarding."