Double trouble

Upon the official publication of the human genome last February, the project’s scientific leaders held a celebratory seminar at the National Institutes of Health. Francis Crick, whose co-discovery in 1953 of the double helix structure of DNA opened up the gates for genetic research, was unable to attend, and so addressed the audience by videotape.

In his dry English monotone with its understated lilting rhythms, Crick gave his vision statement: “For some time now we have lived this brave new world from a distance. But today we have finally arrived at its portals … I can only hope that these remarkable powers will on balance bring us more good than evil.”

With the auditorium lights back up, Crick’s partner in the double helix discovery, James Watson, was brought to the stage. Watson, the original director of the genome project, showed no desire to pontificate on the meaning of the moment. Instead, he recalled all those who had opposed the project, how the worthy enemies had been craftily co-opted and the unworthy ones crushed.

“Honest Jim,” a sobriquet that served as the working title of Watson’s memoir on the discovery of the double helix, was back. So too in a new edition is the now-classic memoir itself, The Double Helix. When first published in 1968, the book broke new ground in providing a serious glimpse into the human, all too human, competitive lust driving science. It remains a terrific read today, when the greed for glory has been compounded by the avarice arising with the commercialization of the life sciences.

Part detective story, part science as soap opera, part autobiography, The Double Helix is gripping entertainment because it is so very well written and because of its credible depiction of and commentary on the science life.

Many people assume that scientists are as a rule smarter than the rest of us. Watson wishes to disabuse us of that notion. “One could not be a successful scientist,” the author observes, “without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.”

For all their vaunted reputation for desiring to make new discoveries, most scientists work within the accepted boundaries of their time. In 1953 no one knew what a gene was, and many biologists doubted that this mechanism of inheritance was composed of DNA molecules. Even worse, from Watson’s vantage point, these scientists “wasted their efforts on useless polemics about the origin of life or how we know that a scientific fact is really correct.” Recently, Watson concisely summarized his contempt for what he calls “social science crap.”

It’s difficult to read this book and not be mindful of Watson’s attitude toward women. His derision of Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray work was crucial to the breakthrough discovery, is legendary. Not only does he note her lack of lipstick, but also, “The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab.” An epilogue provides Watson the chance to correct some of this.

“We come from chemistry,” was Watson’s insight stimulating his quest for DNA. The Double Helix compellingly describes his journey to uncover that chemistry. Ironically, despite ridiculing social science, Watson’s tale opened up science studies as no sociologist could have ever hoped.

The publisher must not have paid Sylvia Nasar very much to write the introduction, for it adds less than nothing to the experience. Readers can find a much better deal with the Norton Critical edition, with its supplementary commentaries and science papers, at nearly one-third less the price.