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Review: The Double Helix by James Watson

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA - James D. Watson

James Watson and Francis Crick made arguably the greatest discovery of the 20th century: proving that DNA is the building block of life and providing a solid structure for it. This short autobiographical account written by Watson provides an in depth - and biased - look into the discovery and also reveals the world of science, where fair play isn't always adhered to. 

I remember my mother talking about Crick and Watson when I was a kid learning about DNA in school and telling me how these two men stole a woman named Rosalind Franklin's idea and research and then got all the credit for it, including a Nobel Prize. Well, my ten year old (or so) self was appalled by this. She did all the work and they got all the credit? The injustice! Reading this was eye-opening for me, because yes, Franklin did not get nearly as much credit as she deserved during the time of there discovery (this was later remedied as best as it could be), but I would not necessarily say that they stole anything from her. Although, I suppose when it comes to her X-Ray of the B Form, that's pretty debatable.

Because this was written by Watson, this is simply his perception of how things went during this time of his life. I think that he didn't aim for objectivity in portraying the people around him, but rather tried to give his opinion and point of view. I do not think his portrait of Maurice Wilkins or Linus Pauling were particularly appealing, but they were his greatest rivals in the world of DNA, so he had to villianize them to make himself the hero. As my professor said, he turned Pauling into Goliath so that he and Crick could become the Davids.

It is extremely readable, but I am not its target audience. I have to admit that had I not read this for class, I may have never picked it up. Although my career is in the science field, it is in the world of computers, not biology and genetics. I greatly appreciate the work that Crick and Watson did, as well as Pauling, Franklin, Bragg, Wilkins, Perutz, Kendrew, etc. but I did not truly understand all of the science in this. On the surface level, it is understandable and I don't think any readers will ever feel lost. That's not what I mean. But on a deeper level, understanding the impact that each scientist had on each other, the impact of each step forward, each failed experiment and each successful experiment: I think someone who has a background in this type of science will really appreciate those aspects.

Overall, I'm quite happy to have read this. It provided a detailed account of one of the most monumental moments of modern history. Recommended.