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TOP 500 REVIEWERon January 27, 2004
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In this book (first published in 1968), "Honest Jim" (as a scientist friend called him) or Dr. James Watson (born: 1928) has explained his "version of how the structure of DNA was discovered" and "this account represents the way [he] saw things then, in [the fall of] 1951 - [spring of] 1953." (The discovery was announced in April 1953.) That is, he has "attempted to re-create [his] first impressions of the relevant events and personalities" that he encountered along the way to making the discovery. Thus, understand this is not a book of historical facts.

Also, because of the personal nature of this book Watson states that "many of the comments [that he makes] may seem one-sided and unfair, but this is often the case in the incomplete and hurried way in which human beings decide to like or dislike a new idea or [a new] acquaintance."

This book revolves around five main people: Dr. Francis Crick (born: 1916) & Watson (both of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge); Dr. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) & Dr. Maurice Wilkins (born: 1916) (both of King's College, a divison of the University of London); and Dr. Linus Pauling (1901-1994)(of the California Institute of Technology). However, along the way the reader meets many other people, both scientists and non-scientists.

As Watson explains, the above five people are in a "race" to discover DNA's structure. However, I got the impression that neither Franklin nor Wilkins knew they were in a race. By the end of the race, Watson was "one of the winners" who shared the Nobel Prize in 1962 with Crick and Wilkins.

This 29-chapter (with epilogue) book is a fast read (but only if you gloss over the science parts). As Watson proceeds in this story, you'll find that he is quite sociable and takes us to such places as pubs, restaurants, and "smashing" parties.

As you read this book, you'll find that there is considerable tension between Watson and Franklin (who was an expert in X-ray diffraction crystallography) as well as between Wilkins and Franklin.

For me, this book imparts four major things:

(1) THE THRILL OF DISCOVERY. That is, this book effectively conveys, especially in the latter chapters, the struggle to find the correct answer. With each chapter, the anticipation mounts toward the final climax: the discovery of the helical structure of DNA.

(2) HOW SCIENCE IS DONE. For example, both Watson & Crick and Pauling used molecular models while Franklin & Wilkins used X-ray crystallography. However, all science is not done as it is conveyed in this book. As Watson states, "styles of scientific research vary almost as much as human personalities."

(3) THE QUESTION OF ETHICS IN SCIENCE. For example, Wilkins told Watson secretly that Franklin "had evidence for a new three-dimensional form of DNA." When Watson "asked what the pattern [of this new form] was like, [Wilkins] went into the adjacent room to pick up an [X-ray diffraction] print [or photograph] of [this] new form [called the 'B' form]" and showed it to Watson. This was done without Franklin's permission. It turns out that this X-ray photo was critical and "gave several...vital helical parameters."

(4) WATSON'S HONESTY. In all of this book, Franklin is portrayed as an unattractive, unapproachable, and angry person whose scientific work is questionable. However, in the book's epilogue Watson devotes the last two paragraphs to her and her achievements. He admits that "my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal...were often wrong" and that she was a person of "personal honesty and generosity" as well as "intelligence."

Two good features of this book are that it has photographs (a total of 19) and diagrams (a total of 11) throughout. My favorite photo is the one entitled "X-ray diffraction photograph of DNA, B form" taken by Franklin in late 1952. My favorite diagram is entitled "Schematic illustration of the double helix."

This book was written for a general audience so they could experience the thrill of this revolutionary discovery. Thus, I was surprised that it had no chapter table of contents (but the photos and diagrams each have one), no chapter headings, and no index. I feel these would have made the book more user friendly.

Also, I feel what was needed was a science glossary and name index/page. The former is needed because the reader encounters many scientific terms (especially those related to DNA) and thus a glossay would make the science more accessible to the general reader. The latter is needed because Watson encounters many people and a name index/page would have helped the reader keep track of these names. Besides Watson talked with other scientists to clarify ideas, and in a way they indirectly contributed to the discovery. Thus, a name index/page would have acknowledged their indirect contribution.

Finally, in the epilogue Watson states, "All of [the major] people [in this book], should they desire, can indicate events and details they remember differently." Thus, I recommend these books:

(1) "Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker" (2001). In this book, refer to the science article entitled "The Triple Helix" which describes the race to discover DNA's structure. Note Pauling's observations throughout the article.
(2) "Rosalind Franklin and DNA" (first published in 1975) by Anne Sayre. This book clears up Watson's misconceptions about Franklin who died in 1958.
(3) "The Third Man of the Double Helix" (November 2003) by Maurice Wilkins. Wilkins finally speaks out on what really happened from his perspective.

In conclusion, Dr. James Watson tells us honestly his version of how the structure of DNA was discovered. He effectively conveys the struggle to find the right answer and the thrill of discovery. Don't deny yourself from reading this exciting book but be sure to read the recommended books to get the full story.

*** 1/2

***** ADDENDUM: April 23, 2013 regarding "The Annotated and Illustrated" edition of "The Double Helix" (published in 2012) *****

All the problems I noted above for the above original 1968 edition of this book have been corrected with the new 2012 edition.

Instead of simply listing the names of the numerous other people involved in the discovery (as I suggested in my review for the original edition), there are actual photographs of them. Other photographs (many published for the first time) are also included.

Many other documents not included in the original edition have also been included in this one.

There are wonderful annotations (explanatory notes) in boldface type on each page of the new edition. One annotation I found especially interesting was an explanation of where the nickname "Rosy" or "Rosie" came from.

Included is James Watson's account of winning the Nobel Prize (first published in 2007).

There are also five appendices. Included in these appendices are reproduced letters written by Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins of why they DID NOT want Watson to publish his book.

Lastly, there is a good index. (The 1968 edition did not have an index.)

Finally, I want to stress that Watson's original 1968 text is left UNCHANGED.

In conclusion, in my opinion this 2012 edition of Watson's 1968 book will provide the potential reader with a more fuller reading experience with regard to this major scientific event. Also, in my opinion, this 2012 EDITION DESERVES 5 STARS.

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on May 14, 2004
Ok. I'm giving this book a 4 because of the importance of the discover of the structure of DNA. In terms of actual reading material, however, I'd probably give it a 2 or 3. I do believe that James Watson is a great scientist, but he is not writer. His writing style is only adequete and far from interesting and he really doesn't do a great job of putting interest into the subject matter. Someone who does not have at least a little background in the general concepts or biology/organic chemistry/physics will probably not get much out of this book.
Now on to the science side of the book. Watson describes the various events that took place while he, Franscis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin worked on discovering the structure of DNA. Again, Watson does not really put much vigor into these events but does describe them realistically (science can't always do interesting). He focuses on his relationship with Crick, battles with Franklin, and competetion with Linus Pauling--the Nobel prize winning chemist who ironically get the structure of DNA wrong. Through his writing, Watson at times reveals his pompousness and his ignorance of certain scientific concepts, but overall shows his devout eagerness of discovery.
I would say that this is an important book to read if you are at all interested in science. However, it is probably too boring for just a fun read.
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on October 24, 2001
This book is a personal account from one of the discovers of the DNA structure. I read it because I was interested in how scientific discoveries are made.
It's a good book. I like it because it illustrates how intense the competition is in research, and also gave me some ideas in how to do research.
Some ideas I got from the book are:
1. I must have a good sense of what's important. In the book, Watson and Crick were very sure that DNA is the important pursuit, whereas many others didn't realize that.
2. I needs to be very confident in my own judgements. In the book, Watson went against his home institution (where his grant was coming from) and left wherever he was and went to Cambridge, because he had no interest and saw no big developments in what he was told to do.
If you are a student, and are interested in going into research, you should read this book (it's quite short). It might give you just the right ideas of what personal traits are needed in a good researcher. I suspect little has changed since in academia since the discovery of the DNA structure.
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on May 13, 2000
I read this book for the first time when i took undergraduate biochemistry in college. I could not put it down. Now, ten years later, i found it at a second-hand store and re-read it, and once again read it in two sittings. This book reads like a thriller. You definitively catch a sense of the urgency of their research. I was flipping pages nervously, like i didn't know Watson and Crick were the ones who won the race.
In the edition i have, Watson is very thankful about the contributions that Rosalind Franklin made to their discovery. He is crystal clear about how she was the one convinced that the backbone was on the outside, and had not he followed her advice, it would have taken him even longer to figure out the structure, and who knows?, Pauling might have gotten there first. In the epilogue, Watson is all praise about Rosalind, acknowledges how his opinions about her were often wrong, how excellent the quality of her work was, and ponders about the obstacles that she encountered in her career in science for being a woman.
I wonder if these comments were missing in other people's books, because according to their critiques, one comes out with the idea that Watson and the male-dominated scientific establishment gave Rosalind the cancer that killed her.
This is an excellent, honest account of an event that took place when the author was 25 years old. I could not believe my eyes when i read that sentence. Twenty-five, worrying about girls and tennis and the structure of the most important molecule in the universe. These facts might count for something. This is a must-read book, for everybody, whether you understand science or not.
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on December 23, 2003
For those who are interested in a future with genetics, reading The Double Helix, by James Watson, is highly recommended. This books tracts the research and scientific journey of, specifically James Watson, but soon to join him as a main character was Francis Crick. This book is excellent pre-reading for a to-be geneticist because it starts at the very beginning, even before DNA was completely understood. The reader follows Watson and Crick, step by step, through the discovery of the structure of the basis of life. The downfall of the book is that it is very bias towards who had the most impact on the discovered of DNA.
The perspective in the story does not portray the complete truth in reference to the importance of others in the groundbreaking discovery. Two other people who eventually were in the party that received the Nobel Prize for the structure of DNA were Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, the latter never officially receiving her prize for she died from radiation before the Nobel was issued. Although Watson gives some credit to the two scientists who did virtually all of the research he and Crick used for their structural model, he certainly did not attribute enough. Franklin was scorned to be cold and unsocial where she really only was trying to hold her own in a scientific world dominated by men. She was the scientist who produced the sealing picture that DNA in the B form was a helix. Watson and Crick may have been able to, possibly, figure out the structure of DNA without, affectionately called "Rosy's" X-ray photographs, but the journey would have taken much longer. Quite probably, without Franklin's research, the two men would have arrived at the right answer too late, being outdone by either Pauling or Linus.
The Double Helix, by James Watson, is a very informational and fundamental book in the science of genetics yet beware of the bias point of view.
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on September 21, 2000
I recently reread The Double Helix and greatly enjoyed it, because (a) Watson conveys vividly (but perhaps not completely) events leading to the discovery of the structure of DNA, one of the great discoveries of the century and (b) he gives a warts and all description and shows that science is not a glorious straightline progression.
What distinguishes him from most of the other participants, and explains his passion, is that (as a biologist) he was investigating the structure of DNA to gain insights into genetics. Therefore he saw elucidating the structure as a step to bigger things (e.g. Human Genome Project), not as an end in itself. Most of the other participants as biophysicists were content to find the structure. One of the beauties of the double helix is that the structure itself gave a very immediate indication as to the mechanism of genetic replication.
I have been intrigued by the strongly polarised reactions to the book reflected in the reviews on this site. I think that some of the criticims of the book are unfair. Watson makes it clear that it is a personal account and reflects his own perceptions of the events at the time. From reading other accounts (e.g. The Path to the Double Helix by Olby) it is clear that his memories of some events are not shared by other participants in those events, including Crick and Wilkins.
I can certainly understand why many readers (and in particular women) object to the characterisation of Rosalind Franklin, particularly the repeated derogatory references to "feminists". On the other hand Watson acknowledges in the epilogue that his perceptions of her at the time of the events described were wildly wrong. Even in the body of the book, he never denies that she contributed key information (although he doesn't explain why they did not acknowledge that contribution more explicitly at the time - Sayre could be right that Watson is trying to put his spin on events to obscure this aspect). As I read the book his perceptions and comments about Franklin were almost entirely reporting or based on Maurice Wilkins complaints about her. Notwithstanding Anne Sayres' defence of Franklin in Rosalind Franklin and DNA (which I recommend to balance Watson's account) it does appear that Franklin was far from blameless in the bad relationship which developed between Franklin and Wilkins.
It is also clear, even from Watson's account, that Franklin (and others such as Chargraff) had good reason for believing that Watson and Crick were not serious scientists. So her reserve when dealing with them is understandable.
As well as the objectionable personal description of Franklin, Anne Sayre also criticises Watson for the suggestion in the Double Helix that Franklin rejected the suggestion that DNA was a helix. Franklin's private papers disclose that she thought that there was clear evidence that the B form was a helix, and Crick thought that she was not far away from demonstrating the double helical structure through her X-ray crystallography work. However, for most of the period that the events in the Double Helix unfolded in 1952 her work focussed on the A form of DNA which was not clearly helical on X-ray evidence. Both Watson and Wilkins are clear that when the possibility of a helical structure was discussed with Franklin on various occasions during 1952 she reacted negatively (and very strongly). Only in early 1953 did she begin to actively work on the B form and to turn her mind seriously to the detail of helical structures. This reflects either rigorous scientific standards or an overcautious approach depending on which side of the fence you are on. Either way, if she had been prepared to indulge the idle speculations of Wilkins, Watson and Crick earlier she may have found her name on the paper announcing the structure of DNA to the world either alone or with Wilkins, or Crick and Watson.
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on December 23, 2003
For those who are interested in a future with genetics, reading The Double Helix, by James Watson, is highly recommended. This books tracts the research and scientific journey of, specifically James Watson, but soon to join him as a main character was Francis Crick. This book is excellent pre-reading for a to-be geneticist because it starts at the very beginning, even before DNA was completely understood. The reader follows Watson and Crick, step by step, through the discovery of the structure of the basis of life. The downfall of the book is that it is very bias towards who had the most impact on the discovered of DNA.
The perspective in the story does not portray the complete truth in reference to the importance of others in the groundbreaking discovery. Two other people who eventually were in the party that received the Nobel Prize for the structure of DNA were Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, the latter never officially receiving her prize for she died from radiation before the Nobel was issued. Although Watson gives some credit to the two scientists who did virtually all of the research he and Crick used for their structural model, he certainly did not attribute enough. Franklin was scorned to be cold and unsocial where she really only was trying to hold her own in a scientific world dominated by men. She was the scientist who produced the sealing picture that DNA in the B form was a helix. Watson and Crick may have been able to, possibly, figure out the structure of DNA without, affectionately called "Rosy's" X-ray photographs, but the journey would have taken much longer. Quite probably, without Franklin's research, the two men would have arrived at the right answer too late, being outdone by either Pauling or Linus.
The Double Helix, by James Watson, is a very informational and fundamental book in the science of genetics yet beware of the bias point of view.
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on December 15, 2000
I am a college student in Northern California and an extra credit oppertunity was presented if we read this book. In college we read many books some of which are very boring to read and this sounded like one to me. It was imperitive that I did all I could for my Biology class so I went out and purchased the story of James Watson and Francis Crick. I love to read adventure stories and this book (Double Helix) was a great adventure novel. I had no idea that a scientist has the ability to write a story of discovering DNA in adventure format. James Watson was much like myself, and I could relate to him real well when he went on to write about how he wanted to avoid different aspects of science just like myself. All he was interested in was genetics and DNA extraction and he would do all it takes to put himself in the position of discovering the Double Helix. Through some luck and alot of knowledge Watson and Crick meet up with each other and went on to eventually decoding DNA. I recommmend this book to all that are interested in reading a great adventure story about Watson and his travels through Europe and what eventually brought him to meet one of the worlds greatest scientist ever. This is a book I finished and really, really enjoyed.
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on March 28, 2000
James Watson and Francis Crick were both brillian scientists, there is no doubt about that. Although they are given more credit than they are due, they did make a monumental discovery. Rosalind Franklin first interprete the B form of DNA as having a helical structure, and later, in a private, unpublished notebook, as having "interchangability." Although Rosalind Franklin contributed equally to the discovery of DNA, Watson and Crick made the final, crucial step. However, Watson's portrayal of Rosalind Franklin as "Rosy" is inaccurate an inexcusable. Even Maurice Wilkins, another scientist involved with the discovery of DNA and was honored with the Nobel Prize, states this clearly. Although the personality clashes between Wilkins and Franklin caused a lack of communication which may have ultimately impeded the discovery, he says, referring to a ridulous Double Helix passage in which "Rosy" nearly physically attacks Watson, "Jim wrote a novel." I advise any readers of this book to be wary of such departures from the truth, and to read Rosalind Franklin and DNA (widely recognized among educated readers as the clear and balanced account of the discovery of the structure of DNA.)
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on January 11, 2004
Many of us who read further than the words written by a single author, gossipy, but holding back in this book very much for self-serving reasons can only find this book distressing in its misrepresentations about how the science of DNA developed. They should have heard the PBS special on what was left out of this "just so" story, the chronology behind the discovery, the meaness and dishonesty of Watson and Crick to other co-scientists not only Franklin but also an Eastern European from whom they cribbed the core ideas which they later developed. Perhaps this is how science is done, if so it is tragic as the Scientific American review states science would then be merely an excercise in Hobbsian ethics and worse where the villains write the definitive "just so" story. Basically Watson lies here, but tells something closer to the truth on the PBS tape, proud that he had such a good memory as to steal other peoples work and ideas! Disgusting! He and Crick from what Watson says on tape "discovered the secret of life" after Watson stole into Franklins lab and also misrepresented why they pumped key ideas from still another scientis. An undergradute would have been expelled for such activies. I grant that later, and they were originally expelled having gotten the idea they did make contributions, but before these activities zero. See the PBC take the ABC's of DNA. Also read beyond what Watson writes here to get the whole plot, read others.
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