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Review: The Double Helix – A Personal Account of the Discovery of The Structure of DNA November 9, 2010

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Science.
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I recently finished The Double Helix – A Personal Account of the Discovery of The Structure of DNA by James D. Watson.

This book has already been thoroughly reviewed on Amazon, but I figured that I would add my two cents to the ongoing discussion.

In this book, the author presents his recollection of the events that culminated in the discovery of the structure of DNA. In particular, he describes his tenure as a researcher at Cambridge and discusses the fine points of working with his most famous collaborator, Francis Crick. Besides Crick, the reader is introduced to other prominent post-World War II DNA researchers, including Linus Pauling, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.

I enjoyed the fact that the author pulled off the difficult balancing act of 1) continuously referring to concepts from biochemistry while 2) keeping the book accessible to non-scientists. I hadn’t taken any biology courses since my freshman year of college, so it was helpful to get a refresher on DNA biochemistry. I also enjoyed how the author described the various misguided approaches that he and Crick pursued, especially their hypothesis that the nitrogenous base pairs resided on the exterior of the DNA structure while the sugar-phosphate backbone resided on its interior. Based on my experiences, I can attest to the fact that every research breakthrough is accompanied by a litany of failures. In addition, the descriptions of the “rivalry” between the Crick-Watson collaboration at Cambridge and 1) the Wilkins-Franklin group at King’s College London and 2) the Pauling group at Caltech were enlightening. As expected, I had never heard these stories in my biology courses.

In terms of quibbles, the author’s depiction of Rosalind Franklin left me wishing that she had not passed away before writing her own perspective on the discovery of DNA. In this book, Franklin comes across as a brilliant yet stubborn, prideful, closed-minded researcher. The author attempts to paint a more agreeable picture of Franklin in the epilogue, but this fails to compensate for the picture that has been painted in the first 29 chapters of the book. It would have been interesting and enlightening to read Franklin’s thoughts on arguably the most significant scientific breakthrough of the 20th Century, especially if sexism influenced the portrayal of her actions towards Watson, Crick and Wilkins.

Overall, I would recommend this book to those who are interested in a blow-by-blow account of the discovery of the structure of DNA and desire 1) a refresher on the underlying concepts from biochemistry and 2) an expose of the interpersonal dynamics among researchers that is typically avoided in biology curricula.

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