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The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1969)

by James D. Watson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,997434,501 (3.79)93
Since its publication in 1968, The Double Helix has given countless readers a rare and exciting look at one highly significant piece of scientific research-Watson and Crick's race to discover the molecular structure of DNA.

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» See also 93 mentions

English (42)  Italian (1)  All languages (43)
Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
I was barely an adult when I read this memoir, believed it was history but now see it as memoir, one side of a complex story, though interesting. ( )
  mykl-s | Aug 4, 2023 |
James D. Watson was 24 years old when he and Francis Crick published their paper announcing the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. Nine years later they would be awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Maurice Wilkins. This memoir is Watson's account of his life and work in 1951-53.

I have attempted to re-create my first impressions of the relevant events and personalities rather than present an assessment which takes into account the many facts I have learned since the structure was found. Although the latter approach might be more objective, it 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. Thus many of the comments may seem one-sided and unfair, but this is often the case in the incomplete and hurried way in which human beings frequently decide to like or dislike a new idea or acquaintance. In any event, this account represents the way I saw things then, in 1951-1953: the ideas, the people, and myself.

Watson was a newly minted PhD student when he was sent to Copenhagen to learn chemistry. Having no interest in this, he ends up at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University. There he meets Francis Crick, and the two begin talking about genes. They want to work on the structure of DNA, but that area of study is already staked-out by Maurice Wilkins and his junior colleague Rosalind Wilkins of Kings College, and it was considered impolite to barge in on someone else's work. Watson and Crick are ambitious and eager to prove themselves, however. They decide to attack the problem using models, and after obtaining Franklin's x-ray crystallography data through an unofficial source, begin to make progress.

One of the things that surprised me when reading this memoir was the extent to which Watson and Crick were building on the ideas of others. Without Franklin's data and her insistence that the background of the structure had to be on the outside, rather than the inside; her measurement of water within DNA; and her discovery of A and B forms of DNA, Watson and Crick would have been up a creek. I was also surprised at how close other scientists were in making the discovery. Watson writes that he thinks Linus Pauling at Cal-Tech would have beaten them to it within a week. Certainly Pauling's discovery of the alpha helix and use of models heavily influenced Watson and Crick's own thinking.

As expected, Watson is harsh in his treatment of Rosalind Franklin. He faults her for not wearing lipstick and caring about her appearance, for her unfriendly demeanor, and for her sloppy science. In his epilogue, he offers an explanation, if not apology, for his initial impressions as represented in the book:

Since my initial impressions of her were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements...(he lists several that I mentioned above)...By then (late 50s) all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realizing years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking...

Overall, I found the book interesting as a personal look inside a 1950s lab and a colorful, if not always fair, description of the scientists working on the puzzle of DNA. ( )
1 vote labfs39 | Jan 19, 2023 |
A surprisingly easy read. The chapters are short and the writing style is breezy. It's a very personal account of James Watson's experiences studying overseas and his efforts, along with others, to discover the structure of DNA. It's surprising to find out how many other scientists at the time downplayed the importance of DNA. There is some detailed chemistry included in the book, much of which went over my head, but you can get the general gist of what was happening without having to understand the details. Since most of the book describes Watson's experiences and the race to be the first to discover the secret of DNA, higher level understanding of chemistry isn't necessary to enjoy the book. The book is very much Watson's personal viewpoint, and not a more general overview of the discovery. ( )
  atozgrl | Jan 16, 2023 |
Witty and interesting account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. ( )
  jvgravy | Apr 14, 2021 |
One of the greatest scientists of all time (co-discoverer of the form of DNA, as well as subsequent contributions) provides his personal account of the process of discovery. This isn't really a historical account, told by a neutral third party and "objectively" true, but one person's viewpoint, shortly after the discovery (and supported by contemporary notes and artifacts) of his process. What's shocking (even though I know it is near-universal) is just how serendipitous the discovery was, and how critical seemingly meaningless personal and administrative decisions were to the process.

Another interesting aspect was the "friendly" state of the (then fallen from importance) UK scientific culture. He contrasts it to the then-recent Manhattan Project and physics of the time, where the true top-tier science was happening, with all artificial impediments forced to the side -- this was instead a field where not stepping on a colleague's toes who had done previous work but wouldn't take it to completion was a serious concern (and in the end, only a US research group run by Linus Pauling put fire underneath them to complete it; without Pauling it's possible DNA wouldn't have been fully characterized for another decade). ( )
  octal | Jan 1, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
Lively, wholly brash, full of sharp and sudden opinion, often at the edge of scandal.
added by vibesandall | editLife, Philip Morrison
He has described admirably how it feels to have that frightening and beautiful experience of making a scientific discovery.
added by vibesandall | editRichard Feynman
The history of a scientific endeavor, a true detective story that leaves the reader breathless from beginning to end.
added by vibesandall | editScientific American, Andre Lwoff
An enormous success...a classic.
added by vibesandall | editThe New York Review of Books, Peter B. Medewar
No one could miss the excitement in this story of a great and beautiful discovery....The book communicates the spirit of science as no formal account has ever done....the sense of the future, the high spirits, and the rivalry and the guesses right and wrong, the surge of imagination and the test of fact.
added by vibesandall | editThe Nation, Jacob Bronowski

» Add other authors (27 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Watson, James D.Authorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bragg, LawrenceForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fölsing, Albrechtsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fritsch, WilmaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hokkala, OttoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Judd, DorothyCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lakmaker, FiekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Here I relate my version of how the structure of DNA was discovered.
I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.
One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Since its publication in 1968, The Double Helix has given countless readers a rare and exciting look at one highly significant piece of scientific research-Watson and Crick's race to discover the molecular structure of DNA.

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Book description
James Watson tells how he (and colleagues) made his Nobel-Prize winning discovery: DNA's double helix.
The book focuses on the day-to-day "life in a scientist" social and academic aspects, while also containing the "scientific-parts" of the journey.
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