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Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Jerks

Like Nobel Prize winners James Watson and William Shockley.
December 2, 2014, 2:31pm
​James Watson: self-described unconventional racist. Image: Cold Spring Laboratory

​Over the weekend, disgraced geneticist James Watson, who helped discover the double helix structure of DNA, announced that he would be auctioning off his 1962 Nobel Prize medal this Thursday, ​December 4.

He was pretty upfront about the auction essentially be​ing a publicity stunt to salvage what is left of his academic reputation, which has suffered since everyone realized that he is a sexist, racist jerk. In 2007, he told Th​e Sunday Times that when it comes to Africa, "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really."

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He initially apologized for the quote, but then over this past weekend, he told The Financial Times that he is not a racist in the "conventional way," whatever that means, and that the Sunday Times journalist "somehow wrote that I worried about the people in Africa because of their low IQ, and you're not supposed to say that."

There you have it. Lesson emphatically unlearned.

But Watson's last ditch attempt to redeem himself has a silver lining: it inspired a new Motherboard series called Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Jerks.

As Watson has so graciously proven, scientists can be brilliant thought leaders at the same time as being oblivious bigots. That cognitive dissonance is as fascinating as it is discouraging, and Watson is far from the only one to fall victim to it. Enter: the next Giant Jerk of this series, William Shockley.

Shockley was such a massive asshole it is really hard to know where to start. He is most famous as the inventor of the point-contact transistor that would d​efine modern electronics. The achievement led to the establishment of Silicon Valley, and also won him the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics.

But according to his partners John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain, with whom he shared the Nobel, Shockley​ was a total fraud. They claimed that they had created the first working transistor without him, and only tacked his name on it after he threw a tantrum. According to Brattain, this photo from a publicity shoot for the transistor was "the first and last time William Shockley ever laid hands on it."

It's no surprise, then, that Shockley's collaborators kept fleeing him to found​ their own companies (one of ​which was Intel). It was simply impossible to tolerate Shockley's unbearable jerkness of being. He would publicly fire e​mployees, humiliate them with demotions, or try to take credit for their ideas.

Even so, this behavior was actually just Shockley-lite, a warm-up round for when he really exposed the true extent of his awfulness. That revelation came on November 22, 1965, when Shockley was interviewed for an article called "Is th​e Quality of U.S. Population Declining?" in the US News & World Report.

It's not often you can say a person is more racist than James Watson but with this interview, Shockley proved he was that man. It's an infuriating read full of speculation about the genetic inferiority of non-white races. By the end of the 1960s, Shockley had decided these racial ramblings were his most important scientific work, and swiftly went about alienating everyone he had ever met by forcing his delusions on them.

His personal life wasn't any better. Naturally, he left his first wife wh​ile she had cancer—that's just part of the jerk checklist—and he had a rocky relationship with his children. The latter was probably because he told Playboy​ that "in terms of my own capacities [my children] represent a very significant regression. My first wife—their mother—had not as high an academic-achievement standing as I had."

Shockley was such a caricature of a jerk that it's hard to believe he ever existed. In case you're wondering, he doesn't anymore—he died of prostate cancer in 1989. The last sentence of his obituary was: "Stanford University said no services are planned."

You know you've led a messed-up life when your own obituary writes you off as not worth mourning. Watson's latest media misadventures are a reminder that Nobel Prizes can be handed out to hopeless bigots, but Shockley is one of many who set the precedent before him. And that is what this series is all about.