Top critical review
"Honest Jim's" Version of a Major Scientific Event (SEE ADDENDUM BELOW)
on January 27, 2004
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.
***** 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.