Watson’s Unusual Style of Scientific Reporting and the General Public

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1601

A set standard for science writing has long been held sacred within the scientific community, which compiles the material, writes it, reads it, and, of course, understands it. It is a standard that calls for straightforward, objective accounting with few subjective observations and no emotional outbursts or anecdotal asides. No one would argue that Watson is not a member of this community and, yet, his reporting of the discovery of DNA’s structure breaks every rule in the standard of scientific writing. As predicted, the author fielded much criticism for The Double Helix after its publication, primarily from his own colleagues and others in the field of science. But something else resulted as well. Many people outside the scientific community wanted to read it, too. Here was a book that the ‘average’ reader could enjoy—and one whose topic, after all, could have implications on the health and future of every living being.

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Curiosity is only one aspect of human nature, but it is a powerful one. People on the ‘‘outside’’ want to know what’s happening on the ‘‘inside,’’ and scientific research is one of those inside practices that arouses the general public’s eagerness to be clued in. Usually, however, the material is too complicated to be accessible and the presentation is too formal to be interesting. The Double Helix is both accessible and interesting because Watson includes the real stuff of life in his account—quirky personalities, insecurities, a bit of arrogance, and much competitive spirit. Like it or not, the story of one scientist nearly coming to blows with another in the lab holds a general reader’s attention more than a description of one molecule bonding to another.

But Watson also includes the matters of strict science. He recounts a variety of experiments that were tested and their results, and he is very technical in describing why the structure of the DNA molecule has to be double helix in shape. Even these serious, instructional passages, however, at least seem more comprehensible with a backdrop of fine English ales, highbrow parties, and dinners at the ‘‘Green Door,’’ as Crick and his wife’s apartment is fondly known. The question, then, is whether Watson goes too far in his attempt to ‘‘tell it like it was’’—whether his tale is offensive and meanspirited or simply uncharacteristically entertaining, as well as informative.

Look at Watson’s treatment of the people who make up the major cast of characters in this dramatic tale of scientific discovery. First, Crick is his closest partner during the research and also one of the loudest protesters against the book’s publication. Watson portrays Crick in light of other people’s impressions of him, but those impressions are founded on reality. Crick does have a loud voice, he is a boisterous individual, and, no, he has not yet completed his Ph.D. The latter point is a sore spot for the scientist, but in divulging the information, Watson implies that one does not necessarily need a degree on paper in order to be part of one of mankind’s greatest discoveries.

His personal descriptions of Crick do not appear malicious but fun loving and high-spirited. He claims that Crick’s excitement over a new theory— even when it turns out to be wrong—does ‘‘a great deal to liven up the atmosphere of the lab’’ and that ‘‘Almost everyone enjoyed these manic moments.’’ When discussing Crick’s fondness for English pubs and pretty women, Watson also mentions his colleague’s solid marriage to Odile, who ‘‘did not mind this predilection, seeing that it went along with, and probably helped, his emancipation from the dullness of his Northampton upbringing.’’ Yes, one can understand that Crick...

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