Watson: The Double Helix

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James D. Watson, The Double Helix : A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New York : New American Library, 1968. 143 pages.

"I was twenty-five and too old to be unusual." [p. 143]

That's the last line of the book (I'm taking poetic license here, because there's an epilogue I'm ignoring.) It's a beautiful sentence, because it so clearly focuses the fact that Watson was so young when he and Francis Crick (with the help of others) solved the mystery of DNA, building on the work of Linus Pauling's alpha helix to expose the double helix. Don't worry if you don't understand that last sentence. One of the most refreshing aspects of Watson's book is that he clearly admits his own scientific weaknesses, something that completely endeared him to me. If you don't believe me, here's a quote that might convince you:

It was my hope that the gene might be solved without my learning chemistry. This wish partially arose from laziness since, as an undergraduate at The University of Chicago, I was principally interested in birds and managed to avoid taking any chemistry or physics courses which looked of even medium difficulty. [p. 22]

If that hasn't convinced you, try this one (here, Watson is referring to an article on tobacco mosaic virus--the project he was ostensibly working on at Cambridge, when what he was really doing was puzzling over the problem of what makes a gene--written by J.D. Bernal and I. Frankuchen):

I was even unable to understand large sections of their classic paper published just after the start of the war. [p. 75]

All of this is to say that many of my life-long assumptions found themselves standing on their heads while I read this book. I would've thought that a scientist who managed to crack the genetic code would have been well-versed in all things science and would have had no trouble deciphering even the most complicated of scientific articles. I'm realizing now how absurd that notion is. Let's take literature rather than science as an example. Does everyone "get," or even want to "get" all the literary criticism floating around out there?

But even more important, in my eyes, is the whole age factor. I don't know about you, but when I was 25, I was wandering around with an asymmetrical haircut, flitting from job to job the minute I got bored, fighting with boyfriends, and wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life. To be "unusual" was my number-one priority (as long as I could still earn money). I certainly wasn't busy solving a mystery that might one day land me a Nobel Prize. My guess is that most in their twenties today would be more like me than like Watson, which leads me to wonder what's happened. (I often think about this, because Bob's mother, at age 23, was the editor of the women's section of the Dayton, OH newspaper, sitting across from Erma Bombeck, no less). Today's 23-year-old college graduates would most likely be working as an assistant editor or receptionist or something at such a paper, hoping to work her way up the ladder, but certainly wouldn't be given the title of Editor for an entire section.

The other thing I found amazing is how relatively quickly (well, with the noted exception of evolution, but we won't go there) scientific knowledge becomes accepted. When I was in school studying the structure of DNA, I had no idea that when my father and mother were in school, this topic would not have been on any of their tests. I thought we were studying boring ancient knowledge and had no idea how exciting this information was and why. I wish I'd had a biology teacher who had given us the background story, who may even have had us read this book as an example of what scientists do and what an exciting field science can be. Because "exciting" is exactly what Watson and Crick's story was.

Bob has always described this book to me as reading like a thriller, and it does. Scientists from all over the world were in a race to solve this mystery. They fought with each other, sneaked around each others' backs, gossiped, and derided each other for "stupid" mistakes and blunders. Ultimately, though, when the race came to an end, probably awed by the beauty of the science, they were extremely gracious to Watson and Crick.

I enjoyed reading the book immensely, but a piece of it bothered me. One of the key players in the human genome project was a woman named Rosalind ("Rosy") Franklin. The way Watson writes about her is extremely sexist and disturbing. For instance, imagine describing a male colleague in this way:

By choice, she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she even taken a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. 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. [p. 20]

I would hope that no 21st-century editor would allow an author to get away with such a quote. I guess that means we've made some progress since 1968. The book stands as a perfect example of how difficult life could be for bright female scientists in the late forties and early fifties (and, it goes without saying, earlier decades). The men don't like her and are very dismissive of her. What an extraordinarily strong woman she must have been, and now I want to read more about her. Granted, by the time Watson gets to the epilogue, he has realized how wrong he was about Rosy and even concedes that her life among them must have been very difficult, but that doesn't really make up for the way he's described her. His sexist nature can't be denied.

Still, every work must be put in its time and place. Sexist, white, male scientists were the rule rather than the exception in 1968, I'm sure. My guess (again, being hopeful) is that a bright man like Watson changed his attitudes over the years as more and more women entered his field, but maybe not. The sexism only serves as a minor distraction, though, in what is, ultimately, a very captivating read.

-- Notes by EBTT

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