Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Double Helix

Watson and Crick
James Watson's memoir, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1st ed. 1969; reprint 2001), has been described by Sylvia Nasar as "unique in the annals of science writing." The Double Helix describes a "discovery . . . of a magnitude comparable, in terms of scientific and social significance, to the breakthroughs that led to the splitting of the atom and the invention of the computer." Perhaps even more remarkable, "[i]t is also a wonderfully readable human drama that lets nonscientists share some of the intellectual excitement, high emotion, and incredible suspense."

Watson's own words speak for themselves:
The Double Helix[S]cience 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. To this end 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.

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