What's a Nobel Prize worth?

James Watson puts his Nobel Prize up for auction

Update: Just days before James Watson auctioned off his 1962 Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure, TechKnow producer Stephanie Becker wondered how much a Nobel is worth. Now we know. The medal sold for $4.1 million to a anonymous buyer. But, as Becker reports, meeting the groundbreaker was priceless.

How much is a Nobel Prize in science worth? Double helix discoverer, James Watson is hoping it’s worth a couple of cool millions.  He’s putting his 1962 Nobel Prize on the auction block. He won it for figuring out the structure of DNA. The octogenarian says he’s fallen on hard times since making some rather incendiary remarks back in 2007. So he’s looking to cash out on his 200 grams of 23-carat gold. Melted down it’s worth about $7200. But Watson is hoping its cache bumps up the price to $3 million.

In an odd twist of the phrase “putting your money where your mouth is”, back in 2007 Watson told the Sunday Times of London that he was “gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.” Since then, Watson says he’s a person non-grata: his speaking engagements have all dried up, he’s been fired from all the company boards he sat on and was forced to retire from the renown research center at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab after some 40 years.  

James Watson, American molecular biologist

Now, let’s just let go for a moment what he said and why no one apparently wants him around. He was 79 years old then. He’s 86 now.  I know when I’m 79, or 80 or 86 years old the only board I plan on being on is a shuffleboard or if I’m really lucky a chessboard. Did he not save for the future? Did he squander his money like a newly minted NBA rookie? Maybe he should have hooked up with the 1962 Nobel Prize winner in economics. Oh wait, they didn’t give that out for another seven years, when gas was 35-cents a gallon.

He wants you to know he’s not totally destitute. The truth is, Watson says if he gets the expected millions for the medal he’s going to give some away to a couple of universities and maybe pick up a painting by modern artist David Hockney. This is no surprise to me. I’ve actually been to James Watson’s high-rise apartment right beside the United Nations, near the African delegations.

Dr. Watson’s apartment building must be filled with type of people who don’t want the type of people I am. Journalists. Security had us cooling our heels in a space the size of a small shower. Then we waited and waited and waited until Dr. Watson’s wife, who was out shopping, gave us the all clear. Seems he forgot we were coming and for 45 minutes didn’t answer his intercom or his doorbell or his phone. The first thing he said was we had to hurry up, he had work to do. Do Nobel winners not understand the concept of time? (And no, Einstein got his for photoelectrics.)

While the crew set up, Watson gave me a tour of his apartment.  I wish I’d taken inventory. Paintings and sketches hung everywhere: bedrooms, hallways, bathrooms and stairway. He took me upstairs and we stopped in his son’s room. He made a point of telling me that his son, Rufus, struggles with schizophrenia. That was what he planned to talk about during the speech he was to give that night. He was writing that speech when he wasn’t answering the door.  

Then we headed back downstairs and he parked me in the kitchen. And here’s one of the most vivid memories I have of my time there. There were about five cheap wine bottles encrusted with frozen red candle wax drippings. Yeah, just like I did when I was in college taking Genetics for Liberal Arts Majors. Back then we thought we were being so sophisticated. And here was one of the scientific geniuses of my lifetime with a kitchen stocked with the same dust catchers. Woe is me for throwing mine away when I graduated. Maybe I could have been a contender to the Nobel.

I was giddy about meeting Dr. Watson. I had read about him at seventh grade when Mr. Foreman made us read his book, “The Double Helix.”  It’s what sparked my interest in science. Watson and his partner Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the 1953 discovery of the DNA’s double helix. Nine years later, they all got the Nobel Prize.

Almost lost to history was the woman who made it all possible. Rosalind Franklin. She’s the scientist who took the crystallographic photographs of the molecular structure of the DNA. But, she was very tight with access to her images, didn’t want to give them out, so Watson and Crick snuck a peek, despite her efforts. Without her photos the Nobel trio would have been just a bunch of good guessers. And in fact, until they saw her “Photograph 51” they’d been guessing wrong. (Seems the backbone of the DNA is on the outside the helix.) She probably should have gotten the Nobel along with the men, but they don’t give Nobel Prizes to people who have died. Dr. Franklin made her images with x-ray equipment using none of those protective aprons technicians are entombed in now. Back then no one knew how toxic those rays could be. Franklin died at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer. No one can say for sure, but it may be have been caused by her extensive exposure to radiation.

For too long a time, Watson and those connected to her photos did not, to my mind, adequately acknowledge Franklin’s contribution. And while she may still be a bit of a trivia question to anyone who is not scientifically curious, Dr. Watson’s latest life turn could be seen as some what of that karma thing. 

Dr. Watson’s Nobel is not the first to be sold. Watson’s partner in science, Francis Crick’s Nobel sold for just over $2 million in 2013, seven years after his widow passed away. Some of that money went to build a medical institute. But, I don’t expect another Nobel Prize that is connected to Watson to be sold any time soon.

I went to Dr. Watson’s apartment to do a story about the recipient of that prize, one of his former students, Mario Capecchi. He won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2007 for genetically engineering mice for cancer research. An Italian refugee street urchin as a child during World War Two, he came to the United States without speaking a lick of English. And now he’s busy running his lab on Mario Capecchi Lane at the University of Utah. Just to keep him grounded his wife makes him muck out their horse barn. But, it’s not that he doesn’t revere the Nobel’s symbolism. It’s just that the physical presence of the Nobel isn’t something he reveres. In fact, Dr. Capecchi had a little bit of a brain cramp trying to remember which dresser drawer his Nobel was hidden. Was it the sock drawer or the underwear drawer or the pants drawer? Mercifully for us: pants.

 I did get to hold Dr. Capecchi's Nobel Prize after he fished it out. It's about the size of my palm and weighs just over 6 ounces. It's like picking up a container of yogurt — regular, not whipped. It was lighter than I thought. But given what it represents for its winner and for everyone who has had cancer touch their lives, it's the weight of the world. Thanks for letting me hold it, Dr. Capecchi. I’d say it’s worth much more than 3-million bucks.

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