The Double Helix ; A personal account of the discovery of the structure of the DNA by James D. Watson
New York : Atheneum, 1968. First U.S. Edition. Hardcover. 226 pages ; 21 cm. $5.95 dust jacket. Very good copy; no underlines or markings within the pages. Satisfaction guaranteed!
"It is a strange model and embodies several unusual features. However, since DNA is an unusual substance, we are not hesitant in being bold. "
Thus quietly, Jim Watson, aged twenty-four, wrote from Cambridge to a friend in the States, one month before the public announcement in April 1953 of a discovery that many scientists now call the most significant since Mendel's. DNA is the molecule of heredity, and to know its structure and method of reproduction enables science to know how genetic directions are written and transmitted, how the forms of life are ordered from one generation to the next. The search for this molecular structure is the story told here, in a book that also has its unusual features as well as a measure of boldness. The work was done between the fall of 1951 and April 1953, and the scientific paper announcing the discovery was published in Nature immediately.
In 1962 the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology was awarded to Francis H. C. Crick, James D. Watson, and Maurice H. F. Wilkins, the three men who almost a decade earlier had worked together, merging data from chemistry, physics, and biology, to solve the structure of DNA—Crick and Watson on the building of a hypothetical model that would conform in all its parts to what Wilkins' X-ray pictures had already shown of the molecule. The interplay of ideas, temperaments, and circumstances was an especially fortuitous one, since the result was something that, in Watson's words, was too pretty not to be true: the double helix. Watson shows us how this particular piece of science was worked out, but along the way he manages to tell a great deal more, something of the general creative process itself. It is his own account and, in order to recapture some of the original excitement, he has told it now as he saw it then, in the early 1950s. It is not, perhaps, wholly objective. Involved is the way a young American scientist saw the challenge of a great discovery waiting to be made, and the way he was caught up into the very air of Cambridge and the minds it nurtured; there was also the boredom of tedious experiment, and the aggressive miscalculations resulting from wrong notions stub bornly held to or facts only half understood; there were self-doubts and insecurities, both intellectual and social; there was hard competition, between men and labs as well as theories, and one had to learn tightrope walking; there were dull conferences to attend, but warm and fascinating people to talk to; there was more than work—the Backs of the colleges, beside the River Cam, to walk along, foreign girls to be puzzled by, finances to be figured, wine to be tasted, books and politics to be argued. There was much to be learned, and since science is also part of life, this is the kind of whole picture Watson gives. It is an amazing narrative.
What we have, then, is more than the "inside story" of one participant's version of a revolutionary discovery. We have a book, written on the assumption that science is a human endeavor, and important enough to be written about forthrightly.
James D. Watson, born in 1928, was graduated from the University of Chicago and took his Ph.D. in genetics at Indiana University. After the work described in The Double Helix, he spent two years at Cal Tech and then joined the faculty of Harvard, where he is Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
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