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Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA
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This timely reissue of Watso's feisty memoir gives a dramatic account of how the double helix was mapped. (James Urquhart FINANCIAL TIMES)
An exhilarating memoir (John Dugdale GUARDIAN) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The story of the most significant biological breakthrough of the century - the discovery of the structure of DNA. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
The story of the double helix is interesting but it is really all the skullduggery around the edges that stands out to my mind and not least on the part of the author. He is quite nasty, and cheerfully tells lies to his granting body so he can do what he wants to do rather than what he is paid to do. We are, I think, supposed to applaud his enterprise, but actually..... there is something not nice about it, and it is consistent with a lot of other not very nice things that happen particularly with respect to Rosalind Franklin. Watson is positively insulting about her, including referring to her throughout as 'Rosy' - something nobody did in her life. Though he ends the book by claiming they became good mates, an awful lot of what he wrote about her seemed more designed to make clear she did not know what she was doing and was difficult to work with. Actually knowing just how good certain people can be at pinching ideas and forgetting the source, I rather think in the male-dominated world that she worked in, she probably had to be pretty aggressive to protect herself and not get badly exploited. I only felt sympathy for her - not Watson's aim I suspect.
The book is short, but poorly written. Had Watson been my student, I would have sent him back to rewrite whole sections of it to improve clarity and organisation of materials. Nonetheless, the self-serving rotten writing is forgivable (indeed forgettable) because of the interesting insights into Crick (who seemed to be a rather wonderful person) and also for the fascinating presentation of just how great ideas develop. I would recommend if interested in this story and the book is readable even if you don't have a scientific background.
Watson did not spare anyone, including himself, but he concentrated his attacks on one particular individual and that person happened to be the one who was holding the key that would help him and his partner Francis Crick to solve one of the the greatest mystery of Biology. Her name was Rosalind Franklin and unfortunately she was no longer around to defend herself. Normally she should have been one of the heroes of this story, but instead Watson portrayed her as the vilain. Like numerous other people I would have liked to hear her own version of the story. Many of the negative reviews actually come from readers who were incensed by Watson's treatment of Franklin. And the negative reactions had even started before the book was published. This offered Watson an opportunity to rectify his position, and indeed that's what he did. But instead of rewriting portions of the book where he made Franklin look like a second rate scientist and a despicable human being, he elected to make amend in an epilogue section that was added before going to press. So we can assume that many people who have read this book became furious with what the author was saying and probably gave up way before reaching that epilogue.
Here are some key excerpts taken from that particular section at the end of the book: "Since my initial impression of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievement." After this surprising revelation he goes on praising her scientific abilities. And then we learn what happened in the years following the discovery of the Double Helix by Watson and Crick: "By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realizing years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking." But the damage had already been done. To both Franklin and Watson himself. If he had been really sincere he would have made the corrections from the beginning, not as an afterthought.
This apparent lack of judgment may come from his determination to recount the story through the eyes of the young naive American that he was at the time. In fact what makes the charm of this book is Watson's candour and frankness. He chose to tell everything the way he experienced it at the time. He goes through all the ups and downs that led to their landmark discovery with a surprising degree of humility "unspoiled by false modesty", like the back cover says. I never had the impression he was trying to take centre stage to the detriment of others, especially Crick. On the contrary, he seemed to readily recognize the talents and contributions of most of the other scientists involved in this story. On the other hand we know that Watson's views were highly contested by the majority of the protagonists. So obviously there must be something wrong with Watson's recollection. In fact Maurice Wilkins, who shared the Nobel Prize with Watson, referred to this book as "Jim's Novel".
Fictional or not this book does indeed read like a novel. And it is as engaging and entertaining as any novel can be. It is a lively firsthand account of the discovery that led to the identification of the DNA molecular structure which is at the heart of our genes. This is certainly one of the greatest feats of modern Biology. However, it was not totally unexpected as had often been the case with previous discoveries. For DNA had already been identified, but its structure and composition remained a mystery. Like at one time in the past the scientists "knew" that the atom and its nucleus existed, but had so far never been able to pinpoint its internal components and describe its principal characteristics. Fifty years later they were facing a similar challenge for the DNA molecule, which is the basic building block of life, just like the atom is the basic building block of matter.
Even though more than ten years had already passed when Watson started to recount this story it remains surprisingly fresh. This can be explained by the fact that he made extensive use of letters written at weekly intervals to his parents. And because of the many exciting moments he was experiencing while living abroad the young man had plenty of incentives to write home to tell his parents about it. I felt exactly the same after reading this extraordinary book. Except that instead of writing to my parents I decided to write a book review on Amazon to tell the world what a wonderful experience I had.
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