The Double Helix by James Watson

helixThis is the account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, penned by one of the main protagonists in this history-making tale. It is an account from his perspective only, and is perfused by the arrogance and self-confidence that I believe was integral in James Watson’s ability to persevere and make, along with Frances Crick and the other scientists involved, this earth shatteringly important scientific breakthrough. It is a picture of a man clearly rooted in the academic cliques and prejudices of the time, an invaluable record of a pivotal moment in our scientific history and a flashback to a time when academic science was firmly rooted in the field of thought and ideas, less polluted with the commercial world that now governs much of the research carried out in the scientific community.

Whilst he is not a writer, Watson’s text is quite readable and far less stilted than many accounts by scientists. His personality comes through with avengeance and the reader is left with an overwhelming sense of Watson’s confidence in his own superiority. I was amazed at how his questing mind skipped from research topic to research topic, whatever inspired him, from major issues to minutiae in the work of others that set his mind working on a tangent. You are left in no doubt that Watson viewed himself as an ideas man, the scientific graft necessary to make things work something he relegates to lesser scientists, in his words ‘minor minds’. Condescension oozes from every page. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this combination of phrenetic bursts of activity and the ability to see the wider picture, sets a genius apart; or whether you see Watson as a scientist who built his reputation on the backs of those who have the diligence and patience to work at an idea and amass the data necessary to prove or disprove an hypothesis, swooping in at the endgame to steal the glory. I would suggest that great discoveries require both components in equal measure. One thing shines through for me, that discovery is not solely genius at work but a meeting between genius, luck and hard work.

Attitudes towards women at that time seem appallingly dated, but in the context of its historical setting, this account certainly shows that it was endemic in the academic world rather than purely James Watson’s personal view. Not least in this is the diabolical treatment that Rosalind Franklin received, revealing of attitudes at that time in the academic community. In an odd addendum at the rear of the book, Watson tries to ameliorate this, although whether from personal or public necessity, we shall never know. For me it was too little, too late, too far to the back of the book – that in itself shows that he ranked her treatment as something less important than the discovery he himself was a part of making. His attitude towards women throughout the book is one that screams ‘lesser class citizen’; they are there to amuse him, to date but never in a serious level as intellectual equals. Even in his description of Rosalind Franklin, he mentally corrects her physical appearance before giving cursory attention to her ideas. His superior attitude to his sister and her choice of partner is, quite frankly, nauseating in the extreme. At all times, it is Maurice Wilkins’ feelings that he tries to spare, Franklin’s not being worth consideration. Even his acknowledgement of Franklin in the addendum seems to count her as an exception to the rule of womanhood!

He certainly comes across as harsh, arrogant and lacking in scruples. His fierce efforts to beat Pauling to the finish-line raised the question in my mind of whether you can be a great scientist without being self-serving and competitive – I like to think so. It moves the reader to ask what is more important, the discovery being made or being the one to make it. Something I think often gets blurred in academia today. If this account shows anything, it is that scientific discovery is a combination of the dogged hard work of many and moments of inspiration, often from outside the problem – it may be both impossible and undesirable to disentangle the two.

The book, albeit from a singular perspective, is a great study and record of the interaction between a cast of strong characters. It is an invaluable window onto one aspect of the scientific process and a character study of a single great mind of our time. I would recommend it. Don’t expect to like Watson, but appreciate his achievement.

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