Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Double Helix

I don’t normally enjoy thrillers. They are generally so artificial, with thrill piled randomly on top of thrill, red herrings bucking up against unexpected plot twists, mostly intended only to excite the reader rather than give them anything solid to think about. Of course, there are exceptions to almost everything, and one thriller so enthralled me that I stole five minutes of valuable teaching time in both my Calculus classes to highly recommend it to my students: James D. Watson’s The Double Helix. This is the true story of the race between Watson and his collaborator Francis Crick on the European side of the Atlantic, and Linus Pauling on the American side, to determine the true structure of DNA. The action took place during 1951-1952 when Pauling was already an acclaimed genius whom every other research scientist assumed would determine the structure first. Crick was a loose cannon, a creative genius who rarely carried through on his ideas, so much so that in his early 30s he still had not earned a PhD. Watson was a more solid, hardworking scientist in his mid-20s with a PhD in hand.

Watson and Crick were an unlikely pair to crack the code first, especially since they had more hindrance than assistance from their establishment. So what ensues is truly a thriller. Much of the book is the array of ideas generated by Watson and Crick, about their analysis of the ideas, and ultimate rejection of most of them. About the clues they discover along the way which eventually guides the solid Watson—not the genius Crick—to the actual solution (keeping in mind, of course, that Watson wrote the book, so there was always the shadow of “winners writing the history” to consider in allocating credit for the discovery). The cast of characters includes Maurice Wilkins, an introverted, insecure researcher whose years of dedication and hard work proved invaluable to Watson and Crick, and who eventually shared in the Nobel Prize with them; Rosy Franklin, Wilkin’s assistant who proved a major source of irritation to him and to Watson and Crick as well; Sir Lawrence Bragg, who had the ultimate authority to determine the direction Watson and Crick’s research took, and who was also a major hindrance to them, although ultimately he wrote the glowing introduction to the book.

And, of course, although he only appears in the last chapter, the presence of Linus Pauling was a major character in the book, perhaps the major character after Watson and Crick themselves. The book’s most exciting semi-climax came when Pauling publishes a paper announcing his discovery of the true nature of DNA. Watson senses despair and failure until he reads the paper and discovers a glaring error in Pauling’s theory.

Anybody interested in science, particularly research science, should find this book incredibly exciting. I am not a scientist at all but I enjoyed this book immensely. It kind of makes me wish that I were interested in science just a little bit more! ☺


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home