Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
The Double Helix is neither a grand piece of literature nor an important contribution to scholarship in the history of science. It did, however, greatly change the way the work of scientists is perceived by the general public. For the first time, the public was provided with a candid picture of the scientific endeavor. Scientists were neither as dull nor as pure as the stereotypes had suggested.
Watson’s book appeared at the same time that the history of science was undergoing a major transformation. Scholars were turning away from the study of the history of scientific ideas to the study of the scientist in his or her cultural and social context. The techniques of sociology were being utilized increasingly. Many of the issues and questions raised by The Double Helix were those coming to the fore among historians of science, but Watson reached an audience much larger than that of the sociologists and historians.
Other scientists have followed Watson’s example with candid memoirs of their work. Journalists and historians have produced accounts of scientific discovery which attempt to provide immediacy and the sense of the excitement of being first. Whatever the factual inaccuracies of The Double Helix, whatever the biases and blind spots of the author, Watson has helped break down the barriers between the two cultures. After his book, science as an activity was no longer mysterious.