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The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA Paperback – June 12, 2001
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"Science seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders," writes James Watson in The Double Helix, his account of his codiscovery (along with Francis Crick) of the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick won Nobel Prizes for their work, and their names are memorized by biology students around the world. But as in all of history, the real story behind the deceptively simple outcome was messy, intense, and sometimes truly hilarious. To preserve the "real" story for the world, James Watson attempted to record his first impressions as soon after the events of 1951-1953 as possible, with all their unpleasant realities and "spirit of adventure" intact.
Watson holds nothing back when revealing the petty sniping and backbiting among his colleagues, while acknowledging that he himself was a willing participant in the melodrama. In particular, Watson reveals his mixed feelings about his famous colleague in discovery, Francis Crick, who many thought of as an arrogant man who talked too much, and whose brilliance was appreciated by few. This is the joy of The Double Helix--instead of a chronicle of stainless-steel heroes toiling away in their sparkling labs, Watson's chronicle gives readers an idea of what living science is like, warts and all. The Double Helix is a startling window into the scientific method, full of insight and wit, and packed with the kind of science anecdotes that are told and retold in the halls of universities and laboratories everywhere. It's the stuff of legends. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
First published in 1968, this classic story of the discovery of DNA has never been released as an audiobook.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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This 226 page book, first published in 1968, has gained much notoriety and rightly so for some of the statements made by the author would seem bold, innopportune and outright outrageous.
There are a lot of personalities involved and like another reviewer I'll list the most important ones and their situation in 1951
1. James Watson - A 23 year old recently-graduated molecular biologist and geneticist from Indiana University who goes to Copenhagen University as a postdoctoral fellow in 1950 at the behest of his supervisor Salvador Luria and collaborator Max Delbruck in order to learn nucleic-acid chemistry necessary for tackling DNA's structure. A year later, after hearing about X ray crystallography (XRC) from Maurice Wilkins of King's College, London, he switches to Cavendish Lab at Cambridge University to work in Max Perutz's lab with the hope of getting to learn XRC.
2. Maurice Wilkins - Of King's College, London. A Physicist turned Biologist who uses XRC to generate photographs of DNA.
3. Francis Crick - A 35 year old, loud mouthed PhD student of Max Perutz at Cavendish lab who becomes Watson's close colleague and collaborator. He makes his ambitious wish clearly known to all - to discover DNA's structure and beat the American chemist Linus Pauling at his own game. The only problem preventing him from pursuing this along with his dissertation work is that it's unethical to hijack someone else's project within England - in this case, Maurice Wilkins's in nearby King's College. Once he teams up with J.D. Watson, all concerns for ethics go down the drain.
4. Linus Pauling - The famous Caltech, Pasadena based Chemist who is fresh out of his triumph of deciphering correctly the alpha-helix structure of proteins and is on an all out mission to decode the structure of the DNA. He is more hands-on and prefers to deduce molecular structure by building trial-and-error toy models of biomolecules that satisfy experimentally measured data instead of resorting to purely XRC based approach.
5. William Lawrence Bragg - The son in the father-son duo of W.H.Bragg-W.L.Bragg who developed the technique of X-ray crystallography for probing crystal structures and after whom the Bragg's law is named. He is the director of Cavendish lab and is particularly interested in having the DNA structure figured out at Cambridge before any outsider beats them to it.
6. Rosalind Franklin - The most tragic character in this tale of intrigue. She's been hired to assist Maurice Wilkins on the DNA project and XRC is her specialization. Believes in systematically deducing DNA's structure purely from XRC instead of playing with toy models. Has a sour working relationship with Maurice Wilkins and prefers to carry out her task independently. Maurice frequently complains about her to Watson and Crick who on their part try to pump him for XRC photographs generated by Rosalind.
The whole book is a very quick read with some pages containing photographs of the people mentioned and some of the handwritten technical letters that JDW wrote back to Max Delbruck. The 2012 special annotated edition of this book has a lot more illustrations. Even though this book is aimed at a general audience there are a lot of terminologies (such as sugar-phosphate backbone, nucleotides, tautomers, etc) which are not clearly explained and may require the reader to frequently look up Wikipedia.
As for my views on how the events unfolded, I consider it a tragic irony that the structure of the DNA was ultimately decoded not by the experienced and righteous Linus Pauling but instead by two youthful, relatively unknown braggarts at Cavendish Lab that were trying to imitate Pauling's model-building tactics. Also JDW's occasional gibes at Rosalind Franklin (or "Rosy" as he called her mockingly) seem annoying and though he does try to patch up his professional relationship with her by giving her full credit for generating the excellent XRC photographs, it feels half-hearted and too late. The what-if question remains that she might have perhaps beaten them all to the solution only if she and Maurice had been aware that JDW and FC were closing in on the answer. But then again she might have also suffered the same fate as Lise Meitner and Jocelyn Bell did. Perhaps her own memoir on the events that transpired might have thrown light on what was happening at that time. All this is left for the reader to speculate upon.
My only complaint about this book is that it ends in a very anti-climactic fashion. After leading the reader through the neck and neck race that went on, JDW finishes the memoir in a mundane fashion. All along he makes it very clear that glory is all he cares about. To each his/her own, I suppose. After all not everyone can be like Grigori Perelman. What JDW manages to successfully capture in this book and convey to the readers are - the sense of urgency that prevailed at that time among DNA researchers, the styles and techniques adopted to infer molecular structure and the ultimate thrill of discovery. For this sake alone, this book deserves to be read. (And also because it features on Library of Congress' "Books that Shaped America" list)
Lastly, here are some excerpts that will demonstrate why this book is considered scandalous
1. The opening line of Chapter 1 begins memorably as such - "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood." One can only imagine what FC's first reaction could have been when he read that line.
2. On the sticky "Why-only-me?" situation that Maurice Wilkins found himself in - "All this was most unsettling to Maurice. He had not escaped into biology only to find it personally as objectionable as physics, with its atomic consequences. The combination of both Linus and Francis breathing down his neck often made it very difficult to sleep. But at least Pauling was 6000 miles away and even Francis was separated by a 2 hour rail journey. The real problem, then, was Rosy. The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab."
3. On W.L.Bragg - "For too long he had lived under the shadow of his famous father, with most people falsely thinking that his father, not he, was responsible for the sharp insight behind Bragg's law." This is awkward considering that the foreword to this book was written by W.L.Bragg and on his part W.L.Bragg states gracefully "Those who figure in this book must read it in a very forgiving spirit."
All in all a good read, though not the spectacular one I thought it would be.
Written by Dr. James D. Watson in 1968, reprinted several times, this is one of the most intriguing, personal stories of scientific endeavors written to unravel the molecular basis of heredity and the genetic code of life itself, the DNA molecule - deservingly referenced as the Holy Grail of scientific inqiry. With an explanatory apology, Watson describes his maturation from an initial lazy undergraduate at Univ. of Chicago having primary interest in ornithology and avoiding chemistry and physics courses,to doing post-doctoral research abroad, first in Copenhagen and subsequently in Cambridge where he began serious research with Francis Crick that culminated in elucidating the molecular structure of the double helix DNA molecule with base-pairing of A-T and G-C, allowing a model construct possessing correspondence to its X-ray crystalline lattice structure. Much of the time it appeared to a 'Mission Impossible'. Success came in 1953, Watson was then 25 years old.
The author's prose and pace of relating this story reveals the passion of his quest to establish his mark in science - and he relates intimate anecdotes of his cohorts, teachers and the scientific cult of divisions enjoyed by the scholarly, erudite academicians in England and elsewhere. In the end, he shared along with his associate Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, the Nobel Prize in 1962. The future of medicine was forever changed. The book is a compelling, refrehing read for anyone with a modicum of curiosity - a science background is not essential.
Watson is honest in his introduction that his account is just that, the story told through his own point of view, complete with possible faulty memories and personal prejudices. I was intrigued by the portrayals of the personalities of so many famous figures that I've been learning about for years in my biology and genetics classes - Francis Crick, of course, along with Maurice Wilikins, Rosalind Franklin, Linus Pauling, and many more. I was touched by Watson's admission at the end of the book that his unfavorable impressions of Rosalind Franklin stemmed from the fact that she was a woman trying to make a name for herself in the male-dominated world of scientific research in the 1950s.
There is quite a bit of biological jargon in this book, and though it could probably be read by someone without any knowledge of genetics, it will be appreciated more by readers with some background. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in genetics and science.