‘A nice Jim Watson’: Venki Ramakrishnan on how ‘The Double Helix’ inspired him

Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan is President of the Royal Society, a Fellow of Trinity, a Group Leader at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge – and a successful author. His first book, Gene Machine – about the race to decipher the structure of the ribsosome – received rave reviews. Here Dr Ramakrishnan talks about his inspiration for writing a popular science book, his aims as Royal Society President, and still feeling like an outsider.

Photo: The Royal Society

Why did you write Gene Machine and when did the idea come to you?

Right while I was actually solving the structure of the ribosome, it occurred to me that it was such an interesting story with a colourful cast of characters that I thought it would make a good book. I thought people keep hearing about ‘genes’ without knowing what they are and know nothing about how they need this ancient, enormous molecular machine to read them and make the products they specify. There was also my own story as an outsider who did not go to top institutions for his education and had to work his way up after many dead ends to find himself in the middle of a furious race for a fundamental problem. Finally, there is the whole sociology of science and scientists, and the politics of prizes – matters which rarely get talked about in a frank way.

You’ve put a lot of work into explaining the science behind your research for lay readers. Why?

Many science books gloss over or short change the science. It is both important and satisfying for lay readers to know how people came to find out some of the most important facts we know. So I’ve tried not to patronise readers but bring them along in the story of discovery.

Not many Nobel Laureates  in the sciences have written ‘popular’ books; James Watson’s The Double Helix is one exception. To what extent did his book inspire you and/or shape Gene Machine?

The Double Helix for all its faults was a brilliant book and the first of its kind. It was the first book that showed how science is not a serene, logical process but full of mistakes, human ambition, and rivalry, and reads almost like a detective story. I used to think of biology as a boring collection of facts and it was reading Watson’s book that made me first interested in molecular biology. Jennifer Doudna, a world famous biologist and one of the inventors of Crispr-CAS for genome editing, was similarly influenced, and she wrote the foreword to my book. Unfortunately, most books tend to be too bland and whitewash history in hindsight. I was very much influenced by The Double Helix and Gene Machine tries to have that sense of a narrative and complete frankness, including being unsparing about myself and my own dead ends, blunders and feelings.

Out in paperback on 5 September 2019

In contrast to Watson and his portrayal of Crick in The Double Helix, the Venki Ramakrishnan in Gene Machine comes across as modest and self-deprecating. Does modesty or immodesty make for a better scientist?

I don’t agree with the premise of the question. People view his book through hindsight, and are coloured by some of Watson’s extreme views and general behaviour. But in fact the book describes events as seen through the eyes of an extraordinarily callow 24-year old. I think it was also to some extent a confessional, because I suspect he felt guilty that he never told Rosalind Franklin about having used her data. But it is entirely possible that without his book, she might not have become the famous feminist icon that she is today. Certainly we would not have known that her data provided important constraints to help Watson and Crick arrive at the double helical structure of DNA.

I’ve tried to be equally honest, and even though I have tried to paint frank portraits of people’s appearances and personalities, I have tried to avoid being gratuitously insulting about them. Perhaps this is why Richard Dawkins refers to me as a ‘nice’ Jim Watson.

Is it amazing or galling when technological advances transform scientific research and techniques you have used – such as when advances in electron microscopy obviate the need for crystallography?

That is simply the nature of science. We were among the first to use electron microscopy to solve a brand new structure. The goal is always to solve a problem and tools that make it easier are always a good thing. However, nobody can take away the discovery of the structure of the ribosome – once you discover it, it is there forever.

You don’t seem to pull any punches in Gene Machine. Have you offended anyone? Have any relationships changed as a result of the book?

When you write a book, you owe it both to yourself and the reader to be as absolutely honest as you can. If you are worried about offending people, you shouldn’t bother writing a book in the first place – an anodyne book written to avoid offending anyone would not be of any use at all. Moreover, to some extent you’re writing for history and want subsequent generations to know what it was actually like.

The feeling of being an outsider permeates your book. Do you feel more of an insider now and if so, where?

It is odd for someone who is a Group Leader at the LMB, a Fellow of Trinity College and President of the Royal Society to feel like an outsider, but the feeling never quite leaves you. I’ve felt like an outsider since the age of three, when my parents moved from South India to Gujarat where I didn’t speak the local language. I spent 1960-61 in Australia, then moved to the USA at the age of 19 initially to get a PhD in physics but then switching to graduate school again. After moving many times all over the USA, I moved to England in 1999. I also didn’t go to elite institutions and was somewhat outside the orbit of high-profile science for a lot of my life.

The British scientific world that Watson wrote about seems a very different era. How much have things really changed?

Britain in the first few decades after the Second World War was a unique period both culturally and scientifically. It is amazing that a country that was recovering from the war had so many original thinkers and launched two very new fields, molecular biology and radio astronomy. But in some ways, the intellectual tradition of Britain lives on, and certainly the way we do science today at the LMB is directly descended from the style of Max Perutz, the protein crystallographer who came to England as a refugee before the Second World War, and his colleagues (Watson worked in their unit which was the forerunner of the LMB). That itself was a result of [Cavendish Professor] Lawrence Bragg’s style of science. So there is continuity.

Venki is the 61st President of the Royal Society

In interviews you have talked about the many issues facing scientists and science in the UK and Europe today. What are the three most important things you hope to achieve during your Presidency of the Royal Society?

Three things I was hoping to achieve were to make science – a great triumph of human achievement – more central in the public’s imagination; to make the case for broadening the curriculum and including both science and humanities right through secondary school; and to engage with other countries, especially developing countries. However, the urgent matter of Brexit has overtaken these goals and a lot of our focus now is on preserving our scientific links with the rest of the EU after Brexit.

What does Trinity mean to you? 

I was fascinated by Trinity for a long time, because of its tradition of meritocracy and also its connection with Indian scientists. Nehru studied at Trinity. But more importantly, Trinity welcomed Ramanujan, the self-taught mathematician from South India, when he was completely unknown and elected him to a Fellowship. It later elected astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar a Fellow even after his theories – which turned out to be correct and for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 – were dismissed scathingly by Sir Arthur Eddington, the foremost astronomer of his time. Both Chandrasekhar and Ramanujan were welcomed at Trinity when it was hard for a dark-skinned individual even to rent a room in English society.

So I was thrilled to be elected a Fellow of Trinity in 2008. My big regret has been that because I work at the LMB, I spend so little time in the College. I was hoping that once I stepped down as Head of Division and Deputy Director at the LMB, I’d have more time, but that coincided with my being elected President of the Royal Society. Still, I hope that I will be able to contribute in some way to Trinity when I step down, especially with international students or international relations, and with science students. I also hope that Trinity continues its tradition of meritocracy despite any prevailing ideological pressures against it.

Gene Machine is published by Oneworld and is out in paperback from 5 September 2019. You can hear Venki’s Desert Island Discs in 2018, in conversation with the BBC’s Adam Rutherford at the Hay Festival 2019 and on Inside Science about the Nobel Prize experience.

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