Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Double Helix Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850

The Double Helix is concerned with being a scientist and how scientific research is actually conducted, not the results of research. Watson’s motivation in writing the book was to combat what he perceived to be the ignorance of the general public regarding the process of scientific research and the life of the scientist. He claims not that the discovery of the structure of DNA constituted an examplar of how science is done, but that it was not atypical. In The Double Helix, Watson attempts to demonstrate that the factors that influence scientific discovery are more than genius and hard work; friendships, personality clashes, and luck all play a part, and so do aesthetic considerations. Watson was convinced that the double helix was the right answer because “the structure was too pretty not to be true.” Curiosity is an important driving force in scientific discovery, but perhaps most important is personal ambition. Science is a profession with relatively little in the way of material prizes. Its principal rewards are acclaim by fellow practitioners and the immortality provided by the eternal linkage of a scientist with his or her discovery. Ultimately, scientific research is a race, with tremendous rewards for the winner and few, if any, consolations for the losers. There is no second prize; the system rewards victory only.

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Watson’s self-portrait, like the portraits he draws of his fellow scientists, is not entirely complimentary. Ambition appears to be his dominant characteristic. As a scientist, he is a successful synthesizer of the ideas and data of other researchers, skilled at exploiting opportunities provided by friends, colleagues, or luck.

Watson also pictures himself as a member of an active social circle. The Double Helix humanizes the scientist, showing that he (the scientist was primarily a male in Watson’s world) had a life outside the laboratory. Parties, dating, films, and tennis were important aspects of their lives. Thus Watson strikes a blow against the mass-media stereotype of the scientist as an unworldly experimenter or theoretician, wholly absorbed in his research, unable to function in the everyday world.

The Double Helix quickly became controversial. Perhaps the most intensive negative reaction resulted from the conviction that Watson was teaching the wrong ethical lessons to the new generation of graduate students. One of the themes of the book is the conflict between fair play and ambition, with the latter seemingly winning. Watson was so determined to come out first that he ultimately used the work of other scientists without their knowledge. Success, Watson was interpreted as saying, was justification enough for whatever actions were taken. Some members of the scientific community vocally rejected what they believed to be the implicit message of the book: The most important consideration is winning the race, not how one runs it.

Other readers were more sympathetic to Watson, or at least found the picture he drew of the competitiveness in science less disturbing. They focused less on whether Watson played completely fair and more on whether his behavior was within the norms of scientific research. In playing to win, Watson was not necessarily acting in an unethical way. Historians and sociologists of science in particular saw Watson’s exposition as simply an additional confirmation of their belief in the centrality of competitiveness to the scientific...

(The entire section contains 850 words.)

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