Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648
Watson, in his preface to The Double Helix, indicates that his goal in writing the book was to re-create the atmosphere of the early 1950’s Cambridge, to describe the characters of the involved scientists, and to demonstrate that science rarely progresses in “straightforward logical manner.” He mentions that his views will seem biased to those scientists who participated in the discovery of the structure of DNA. This latter viewpoint was correct, for several participants were outraged by its publication. Yet Bragg, in writing the foreword to The Double Helix, stresses the impor-tance of the author’s personal impressions of how the structure of DNA was discovered.
Watson’s goals in writing the book were reached. His account helps the reader to feel the actual excitement of scientific discovery. He clearly demonstrates the haphazard scientific process, in which scientists stumble their way to a breakthrough. Such an account is of great importance to young readers, most of whom have been taught the clean, orderly scientific method in public schools. Watson presents science in all of its beauty—and in its ugliness as well. He shows the human side of science, including how politics permeates the scientific establishment. At the same time, he describes how he and Crick resisted the system and used considerable creativity in making a tremendous discovery.
Scientific creativity is a major attractive feature of this book for young readers. Watson and Crick did not perform years of laborious experiments en route to their discovery. Instead, they capitalized upon an open opportunity. Wilkins and Franklin had some important evidence for the correct DNA structure, but they could not get along with each other. Pauling, a brilliant molecular biochemist and eventual double Nobel laureate, came very close to the correct DNA structure; however, he was missing some important data, as the United States State Department would not allow him to travel abroad because of his protests against nuclear weapons. By chance, Watson and Crick met the American biochemist Irwin Chargaff, who had discovered that, in all living organisms, the DNA nucleotides adenine and thymine exist in equal quantities, as do the DNA nucleotides guanine and cytosine. Watson and Crick put together these seemingly unrelated pieces of information and assembled a Tinkertoy-like three-dimensional model of deoxyribonucleic acid that obeyed all known physical and chemical laws. They performed verification experiments only after producing a model that appeared to be correct.
Such an account is exciting and demonstrates to the young reader how clear thinking and careful observation can produce tremendous discoveries. Watson’s account is an important and readable history of a great achievement. He shows the human side of science and how scientists are very much like average people. In this respect, he addresses several important points. He describes sexism in science, particularly with reference to Rosalind Franklin. “Rosy” suffered much discrimination from the scientific establishment of the 1950’s, a situation that probably contributed to her independence and to her conflicts with Wilkins and other male scientists. Franklin, who played a very important role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, died of cancer in 1958 at the age of thirty-seven. By contrast, Wilkins, Watson, and Crick shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of DNA structure, and Max Perutz and his associate John Kendrew shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Much of Watson’s book focuses upon the players in the race for DNA’s structure, but he also devotes many chapters to off-campus activities, such as parties, vacations, and films. He discusses the families of his colleagues, including Crick’s second wife, Odile. He also describes the activities of his sister Elizabeth, who was touring Europe and going through several boyfriends in the process. With the exception of Franklin, most of the women in the book appear to be mindless, fashion-conscious objects. Watson clearly shows society’s attitude toward women during the 1950’s.