Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

Book Review: Thoughts on The Double Helix by J.D. Watson

The Double Helix is not a science book; rather, it is a literary book about scientists—a fascinating account of one of the most important discoveries of the 20th-century.

Sir Lawrence Bragg advises the reader of this important fact in the Forward when he outlines what he believes are the three salient themes that surface in Watson’s book: the scientific interest, the researcher’s dilemma, and the human interest aspect.

Of the first, Bragg states,

There is in the first place its scientific interest. The discovery of the structure by Crick and Watson, with all its biological implications, have been one of the major scientific events of this century. The number of researches which it has inspired is amazing; it has caused and explosion in biochemistry which has transformed the science. (Watson vii)

Of the second, the researcher’s dilemma, Bragg insightfully explains the complexities of research in the scientific community, highlighting the subtler aspects of the task that often escape the public’s view. On this point, he writes, “The story is a poignant example of a dilemma which may confront an investigator…This dilemma comes out clearly in the DNA story” (Watson viii).

And of the last, Bragg notes,

Finally, there is the human interest story—the impression made by Europe and England in particular upon a young man from the States…One must remember this book is not a history, but an autobiographical contribution to the history which will someday be written. As the author himself says, the book is a record of impressions rather than historical facts. (Watson ix)

In loose adherence to Bragg’s delightful summary, it will be the intention of this paper to analyze Watson’s autobiographical account of his “unbridled lust for fame” (Watson xvii) as he searches for the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA.

Watson’s discovery of DNA carries with it an obvious scientific interest, as it has facilitated exponential progress in the research of genetics and other biochemistries. However, given the complexity of the various research that took place in labs relevant to his discovery, Watson notes it would be difficult to give a comprehensive detailed picture of such, stating in the Preface: “No one will ever be able to write a definitive history of how the structure was established,” but “an incomplete version is better than none” (Watson xii). Thus, his account of the discovery comes more like a series of episodes than a chronologically accurate narrative.

When Watson arrived at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in 1951 to join Francis Crick and a few other physicists and chemists to study the structures of proteins under the leadership of Max Perutz and Sir Lawrence Bragg, little was known about DNA or its role in heredity.

Previously, in 1946, theoretical physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, had “propounded that genes were the key components of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must know how genes act” (Watson 13). This, and the fact that the bacteriologist, O.T. Avery, had completed experiments showing how “hereditary traits could be transmitted from one bacterial cell to another by purified DNA molecules” (Watson 14), had led Crick to suspect that it was DNA and not proteins that would determine the various specific traits unique to each individual.

Over in the King’s College lab in London, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, experimenting with X-ray diffraction, were able to photograph DNA, similar to the manner in which Max Perutz photographed certain proteins to confirm Linus Pauling’s prediction about the α-helix. In the spring of 1951, Pauling constructed a molecular model of “a single polypeptide chain” that folded up “into a helical arrangement held together by hydrogen bonds between groups on the same chain” (Watson 51-52). His research of  Pauling’s α-helix led Wilkins to suspect the DNA molecule was also a helix, but some sort of “compound helix composed of several polynucleotide chains twisted about each other” (Watson 52).

It would be difficult at this point to unravel the intricate details of how the double helix was finally confirmed, but after a couple of tense and highly competitive years of pseudo-cooperation between labs at Cambridge, King’s, and CalTech, and because of advancements made by the study of TMV and RNA, Watson was able to ascertain the molecular structure of the life-giving acid. Watson explains that Erwin Charguff’s discovery of the relative proportions in DNA “suddenly stood out as a consequence of a double-helical structure for DNA” (Watson 196). Soon enough, he and Crick were able to arrange a model of the DNA “which satisfied both the X-ray data and the laws of stereochemistry” (Watson 200). He was fully aware his discovery would shake the world.

Yet, intriguing as the summary sounds, the research that led to the discovery was much more complicated and messy, grinding to revelation in awkward starts and fits. Watson notes in his Preface, “There remains general ignorance about how science is ‘done’” (Watson xii), which leads to Bragg’s second insight into the book: the dilemmas of scientific research.

Amidst the thinking of the broader public, there is often the notion that science is conducted in a meticulously accurate and painstakingly exact manner. But Watson’s account of science terrifically dispels this fallacy. He notes that they were often stumped for long periods of time because of gaps in knowledge, ill-natured colleagues, or lack of equipment. Frequently, experiments started as guessing games, or were guided by personal ambitions. For instance, when the known data didn’t narrow down whether DNA would be a two-chain or three-chain structure, Watson intuited two-chain structures, mainly because he thought it would be too complicated to work with three-chain structures (Watson 171).

Sometimes biases led scientists in the wrong direction, like when Crick and Watson “dismissed the possibility that bases formed regular hydrogen bonds” (Watson 183).

Research can be self-defeating, such as when Pauling miscalculated his basic chemistry formulas, or when (Rosy) Franklin, bent on advancing her feminist agenda, hindered progress with the X-ray research.

Even at first, due to associated costs of preparing a lab for crystalline research, the matter that there were many scientists who were unconvinced DNA was the key to genetics, and the fact that Crick had put so much time and resources into proteins, the Cavendish lab delayed jumping on the DNA research wagon.

Fortunately, in some cases, progress came unexpectedly, like when sudden technological developments occurred. One breakthrough, for example, provided Watson with the opportunity to increase the volume of X-rays he put out. He explains, “My unexpected success came from using a powerful rotating anode X-ray tube which had just been assembled in the Cavendish. This supertube permitted me to take pictures twenty times faster than with conventional equipment” (Watson 123).

In any case, scientific research is not pretty. The need to consult other researchers who might have dibs on specific research (primarily a British custom) or possess proprietary data, perform ongoing experiments, and painstakingly analyze ambiguous data makes scientific research tedious and discovery slow and messy.

Finally, there is the human element, not only in research, but the kind typified in Watson’s narrative. He confesses, “styles of scientific research vary almost as much as human personalities…I do not believe that the way DNA came out constitutes an odd exception to a scientific world complicated by the contradictory pulls of ambition and the sense of fair play” (Watson xii).

Through the whole of the narrative, Watson gives glimpses into these complicated “pulls of ambition,” citing personal tensions, selfish motivations, and institutional politics that thoroughly humanize the sterile halls of scientific research. He cites real and perceived incompetencies often impeding scientific discovery, confessing, “It was my hope that the gene might be solved without my learning any chemistry. This wish partially arose from laziness since [I]…managed to avoid taking any chemistry or physics courses which looked of even medium difficulty” (Watson 21).

He references skeptics who denied genes were composed of DNA, opining, “One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid” (Watson 14).

And, that is not to speak of the ongoing and underlying tension of who would win the prize for discovering DNA.

Whether Watson’s personal motivations make him what literary folk call a unreliable narrator, or whether his perspective is closer to something much more trustworthy, one thing can be noted for sure. Watson succeeds in demonstrating how “human” science really is, that “science seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles” (Watson xi).

Watson, James D. The double helix: a personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. New York: Scribner, 2001. Print.

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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