The dullest problem imaginable


by Anna Kaja Hoeyer | Trinity College Dublin

17 June 2016 14:59 | 17 June 2016 15:10

watson & crickdnatrinity college dublin

From left to right: Watson and Crick with their 3D model of the DNA double helix (dataphys.org), painting of Dr Watson displayed in Trinity College Dublin and Dr Watson giving his lecture on the 13.06.16 (Anindita Lahiri).

From left to right: Watson and Crick with their 3D model of the DNA double helix (dataphys.org), painting of Dr Watson displayed in Trinity College Dublin and Dr Watson giving his lecture on the 13.06.16 (Anindita Lahiri).  

I have been in the same room as Dr James D. Watson! I cannot help feeling completely star struck after spending one and a half hours in his presence, at his lecture. I was not alone – the lecture theatre was bursting with people. After the first polite request from the organisers to the audience to squeeze together – I got a seat on one of the top benches. And after the second request we could fit two more people on to my bench. It was packed.

James Watson had been invited by the School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin, to give a lecture entitled “Personal reflections on Francis Crick (8 June 1916 - 28 July 2004): a revolutionary in genetics and neuroscience” on the occasion of Mr Crick turning a 100 years old, 8th of June 2016, had he still been alive. The lecture was about Francis Crick’s life, Watson and Crick’s professional relationship and their discovery of the structure of DNA.

The link between Watson and Crick and Trinity College Dublin became clear to me during the lecture. I learned that Dr Watson very early got fascinated by the question “what is life”. He became inspired by Erwin Schroedinger, who was Director of the School of Theoretical Physics 1940-1957 at Trinity College Dublin. In 1944 Schoedinger had written a book called “What is life” which contained a hypothesis stating that a molecule might contain the genetic code.

Crick came from a shoemaking family and had a bachelor degree in Physics from University College London. For his PhD he studied the viscosity of water at high pressure which he later described as “the dullest problem imaginable”. Watson described Crick as a man with a big physical presence, very intelligent and with a powerful voice. Watson and Crick worked together at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Crick apparently had such a powerful voice that their superior, William Bragg, could not stand listening to it – so he had placed Crick far away from his own office. Luckily there was room for Watson in this office – and being far away from their superior they could work on whatever they wanted. Dr Watson explained that his first impression of his superior Sir William Bragg (the youngest Nobel Prize winner in physics) was that “He was sixty. He was dead! You put up with sixty year old people.” The lecture was very entertaining and Dr Watson had his audience giggling at many occasions.

I did not mind having to put up with this 88 year old Nobel Prize awardee. 

Anna Kaja is originally from Denmark and is now working at Trinity College Dublin as an Early Stage Researcher on a project entitled "Isolation and characterisation of novel fungal root endophytes from wild relatives of barley and wheat for resistance to Fusarium and Gaeumannomyces"