May 14, 2012

Book: The Double Helix by James D Watson

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:30 pm

The full title, to give it its due, is “The Double Helix: Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA”.

It is an unusual science story. James tries to tell almost in a chatty way, as if you are sitting in his living room sipping a cup of coffee with him, the story of the times and personalities in the race to discover the structure of DNA. Partly it works but it reveals the author in a poor light at the same time, in my opinion. Why? Read on.

The personalities are definitely interesting. Francis Crick, who was a co-author of Watson and shared the Nobel Prize with him, comes across as a loud, opinionated, man with a booming voice, who made people dive for cover sometimes when he came their way. He is also recognized as a genius.

Watson’s own journey was in a different direction, until he came to Maurice Wilkins of King’s College, where he was into X-Ray Crystallography as a means of decyphering the structure of the DNA. Rosalind Frankin, the bright young genius of X-Ray crystallography, invokes an immediate dislike in Watson and his comments like, `if she only paid a bit of attention to make up, she may have more success in getting men’ sound a bit tasteless. Though in the last few pages, almost as an afterthought, he tries to make amends, the residual distaste in the mouth lingers for the readers. In this light, the later racial comment that James made which cost him the job he had held for 30 odd years is not so surprising.

That aside, Watson’s own story is interesting enough. He goes to Herman Kalcker in Copenhagen to learn bio chemistry but slacks off and does unauthorized DNA research on the side. Kalcker does not pay much attention due to a personal marital issue. He is in the middle of what seems to be a messy divorce.

When Linus Pauling, who is also in the race claims to have almost solved the structure of DNA, and also is building models to get to it, Watson and others almost give up, disheartened. When they learn that the proof did not fully hold up to verification, they dare to dream again of beating Linus to it.

This is when Watson moves to the Cambridge lab and meets Francis Crick, starting an association that was to see them through the discovery of the structure eventually.

Other colourful characters are Watson’s pretty sister and his resulting access to Maurice to get some important  information; the house where a lot of pretty French girls were eating and the young scientists’ desperation to get invited to lunches and parties; the idea that DNA was a triple helix in the beginning; the effort to hide the information from rivals (like Linus Pauling) even when almost directly asked;

It does not have complex technical explanations – OK, just three pages worth in the whole book, but reads like an anecdotal story and that way it is interesting. The irreverent tone and the author’s views on things is supposed to be a frank discussion of how Watson felt at that time when he was young but ends up bringing out his own character in a fairly unfavourable light.

But for all that, I think in projecting the research atmosphere of the time and bringing to light the rat race for fame and fortune, it does a decent job.

I would say a 5/10

— Krishna


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