Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Double Helix Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Honesty in Reporting
When Watson set out to record the events that led to the discovery of DNA’s structure, he did not plan to offend, malign, or publicly humiliate the people who would be a part of his book. His intention was to present an honest, accurate account that would naturally include the bad along with the good aspects of how science gets done. As he claims in the preface to The Double Helix, ‘‘science seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles.’’ Watson admits that his perception of some colleagues and events had changed in the years between 1953, when the discovery was made, and the mid-to-late 1960s, when he was writing the book. However, he defends his decision to compile material based on first impressions by claiming that doing otherwise ‘‘would fail to convey the spirit of an adventure characterized both by youthful arrogance and by the belief that the truth, once found, would be simple as well as pretty.’’

As with most ‘‘adventures,’’ the race to be the first to make a major scientific discovery provides multiple opportunities for human pride and ‘‘youthful arrogance’’ to override pure process and fair play. Watson is so up-front about his own follies and conniving that it is difficult to condemn him for exposing the same faults in others. His attempt in The Double Helix to come clean about common scientific research practices retains an air of innocence throughout the account. Even in his blunt reporting of the problems he and his male colleagues face with female scientist Rosalind Franklin, the candor is naïve and childlike: ‘‘There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents.’’ Watson does not explain what a scientist’s lips and clothing have to do with the discovery of a gene’s makeup, nor does he apologize for the odd, offhand comments. He simply records his first impression of ‘‘Rosy’’ as he remembers it, all in keeping with his goal of presenting the whole picture.

While Franklin and Watson exhibit no sign of friendship between 1951 and 1953, Watson does not show his closest comrade, Francis Crick, any greater mercy in regard to personal exposure in the book. In addition to noting Crick’s quick wit and scientific prowess, Watson also portrays him as a loud-mouthed, impulsive womanizer who likes to drink and attend parties. One story recounts a mistake Crick made in attending a costume party dressed as the red-bearded Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: ‘‘As soon as he entered he realized that it was a ghastly error, since not one of the young women enjoyed being tickled by the wet, scraggly hairs when he came within kissing distance.’’

Cultural differences fare no better in Watson’s recollections. He despises English food but appreciates the ‘‘English sense of fair play’’ in regard to one scientist’s respect for another’s first crack at solving a problem. France, however, is a place ‘‘where fair play obviously did not exist,’’ and in the United States, ‘‘One would not expect someone at Berkeley to ignore a first-rate problem merely because someone at Cal Tech had started first.’’ Again, Watson charges ahead with accusations— founded or unfounded—all in the spirit of youthful arrogance and simple truth.

Scientific Discovery
While the theme of scientific discovery may seem obvious in a book about just that, the topic is somewhat clouded by the saucy manner in which it is described. Nonetheless, Watson’s account is foremost a celebration of science—an earnest recognition of its possibilities in spite of naysayers who often warn against the results of research that overstep certain boundaries. While The Double Helix does not address this concern at length, one need only read later material written by Watson to understand his mission, then and now, to keep science moving forward. In a Time article entitled ‘‘The Double Helix Revisited,’’ Watson discusses his work with the Human Genome Project (which normally brings ‘‘cloning’’ to mind for the general public), saying that ‘‘no other big science project . . . has been carried out with such zeal for the common good.’’ Citing possibilities for cures for diseases that are often hereditary, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, Watson’s zest for supporting research is unmistakable—and the obvious force behind his discovery of the structure of DNA.

Previous

Summary

Next

Characters