Monday, May 26, 2008

The Double Helix

Watson, James D. The Double Helix. New York: New American Library, 1968.

(Woo-hoo! I actually finished a book for the science book challenge.)


“I was twenty-five and too old to be unusual.” (p. 143)

That’s the last line of the book (I’m taking poetic license here, because there’s an epilogue I’m ignoring.) It’s a beautiful sentence, because it so clearly focuses the fact that Watson was so young when he and Francis Crick (with the help of others) solved the mystery of DNA, building on the work of Linus Pauling’s alpha helix to expose the double helix. Don’t worry if you don’t understand that last sentence. One of the most refreshing aspects of Watson’s book is that he clearly admits his own scientific weaknesses, something that completely endeared him to me. If you don’t believe me, here’s a quote that might convince you:

…it was my hope that the gene might be solved without my learning chemistry. This wish partially arose from laziness since, as an undergraduate at The University of Chicago, I was principally interested in birds and managed to avoid taking any chemistry or physics courses which looked of even medium difficulty.”
(p. 22)

If that hasn’t convinced you, try this one (here, Watson is referring to an article on tobacco mosaic virus – the project he was ostensibly working on at Cambridge, when what he was really doing was puzzling over the problem of what makes a gene – written by J.D. Bernal and I. Frankuchen):

I was even unable to understand large sections of their classic paper published just after the start of the war…
(p. 75)

All of this is to say that many of my life-long assumptions found themselves standing on their heads while I read this book. I would’ve thought that a scientist who managed to crack the genetic code would have been well-versed in all things science and would have had no trouble deciphering even the most complicated of scientific articles. I’m realizing now how absurd that notion is. Let’s take literature rather than science as an example. Does everyone “get,” or even want to “get” all the literary criticism floating around out there?

But even more important, in my eyes, is the whole age factor. I don’t know about you, but when I was 25, I was wandering around with an asymmetrical haircut, flitting from job to job the minute I got bored, fighting with boyfriends, and wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life. To be “unusual” was my number-one priority (as long as I could still earn money). I certainly wasn’t busy solving a mystery that might one day land me a Nobel Prize. My guess is that most in their twenties today would be more like me than like Watson, which leads me to wonder what’s happened. I often think about this, because Bob’s mother, at age 23, was the editor of the women’s section of the Dayton, OH newspaper (sitting across from Erma Bombeck, no less). Today’s 23-year-old college graduates would most likely be working as an assistant editor or receptionist or something at such a paper, hoping to work her way up the ladder, but certainly wouldn’t be given the title of Editor for an entire section.


The other thing I found amazing is how relatively quickly (well, with the noted exception of evolution, but we won’t go there) scientific knowledge becomes accepted. When I was in school studying the structure of DNA, I had no idea that when my father and mother were in school, this topic would not have been on any of their tests. I thought we were studying boring ancient knowledge and had no idea how exciting this information was and why. I wish I’d had a biology teacher who had given us the background story, who may even have had us read this book as an example of what scientists do and what an exciting field science can be. Because “exciting” is exactly what Watson and Crick’s story was.


Bob has always described this book to me as reading like a thriller, and it does. Scientists from all over the world were in a race to solve this mystery. They fought with each other, sneaked around each others’ backs, gossiped, and derided each other for “stupid” mistakes and blunders. Ultimately, though, when the race came to an end, probably awed by the beauty of the science, they were extremely gracious to Watson and Crick.


I enjoyed reading the book immensely, but a piece of it bothered me. One of the key players in the human genome project was a woman named Rosalind (“Rosy”) Franklin. The way Watson writes about her is extremely sexist and disturbing. For instance, imagine describing a male colleague in this way:

By choice, she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she even taken a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one, her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents.
(p. 20)

I would hope that no 21st-century editor would allow an author to get away with such a quote. I guess that means we’ve made some progress since 1968. The book stands as a perfect example of how difficult life could be for bright female scientists in the late forties and early fifties (and, it goes without saying, earlier decades). The men don’t like her and are very dismissive of her. What an extraordinarily strong woman she must have been, and now I want to read more about her. Granted, by the time Watson gets to the epilogue, he has realized how wrong he was about Rosy and even concedes that her life among them must have been very difficult, but that doesn’t really make up for the way he’s described her. His sexist nature can’t be denied.


Still, every work must be put in its time and place. Sexist, white, male scientists were the rule rather than the exception in 1968, I’m sure. My guess (again, being hopeful) is that a bright man like Watson changed his attitudes over the years as more and more women entered his field, but maybe not. The sexism only serves as a minor distraction, though, in what is, ultimately, a very captivating read.

15 comments:

stefanie said...

Sounds like a fascinating read. I'm with you though, I want to know more about Rosy. She didn't happen to write a book did she?

Eva said...

This sounds interesting, but that sexist part at the end is uncool. I bought a pair of blue (well, aquamarine) tights this past winter, just so I could be a bluestocking! They made me giggle whenever I wore them. :)

And yep, as a 22 year old with lots of 23 year old friends, none of us have jobs with a ton of responsibility. In fact, it's really, really difficult as a fresh BA to find any kind of job related to what we're interested in. Which is why I'm going to grad school. I guess it's called 'paying the dues,' but it's kind of weird! In high school, it seems like we're constantly told "Go to college and then you'll get a good job." I don't think that's true anymore.

Emily Barton said...

Stef, unfortunately, she died very young, but there's a biography about her that came out in 2002 that is now in the pages of my TBR tome.

Eva, I don't think the old thoughts on college have caught up with the times. It used to be that going to college pretty much guaranteed a good job, and people still think that, but it just isn't the case anymore (it wasn't the case even when I graduated over 20 years ago, so it's certainly taking an awful long time for society to accept the reality).

jns said...

Emily, that's a great note for a book that filled an important hole in our small but growing collection. Here's a link to your Double-Helix book note at Ars Hermeneutica. And while I'm here, may I encourage your readers to check out the Science-Book Challenge (link at right)? There's still plenty of time to read some great science writing.

Cam said...

There has always been lots of controversy over Watson's apparently sexist beliefs and, particulary, over Franklin being given full credit for her contributions to Watson & Crick's work. But, Watson & Franklin collaborated on other projects so there is also some support for position that her lack of co-authoriship of the double-helix paper was not due to sexist neglect or intentional belittling of her contributions. Watson as maintained that there wasn't anything unethical in his use of Franklin's work. Still, it's difficult to separate the cultural perceptions of women in the '50's -- and especially of women in the sciences -- from the known facts surrounding the discovery and the subsequent publishing of Watson and Crick's scientific paper. You should read Anne Sayre's book, Rosalind Franklin and DNA. If you're interested in the copy I have, email me & I'll send it to you.

Dorothy W. said...

I like the idea of a science book that reads like a thriller! I need to read some more science books ... perhaps sometime this summer. Thanks for the review!

Eloise said...

This sounds like a great book, I'm interested in science but understand very little of it so it would be nice to read an academic admitting this too about some things!
As for the sexism, I read an article recently about how female senior academics and University administrators are going on courses about how to maximise their careers and being told that they have to wear lipstick everyday or it looks like they aren't trying, which made me furious.

gollygee said...

I went to Emerson College, where we had science courses such as "Natural Disasters" and "Science and Society." I ended up in Science and Society (Natural Disasters was full- rats!) and was required to read The Double Helix as part of our genetics unit. I didn't expect to enjoy it at all, and rarely read all of a college reading text, but I whipped through that one and really enjoyed it. I was definitely upset by the rampant sexism though. There's also a movie based on it starring Jeff Goldblum as Watson, which we watched in class. It was pretty good, especially if you have a teensy crush on Jeff Goldblum as I do! :D

mandarine said...

I am afraid the man Watson has not changed all that much on the sexist front, at least as can be inferred from the seemingly racist positions he took only recently.

I am afraid that the probability of changing one's mind genuinely decreases exponentially with age.

Emily Barton said...

Jeff, thanks, and yes, I encourage everyone to join the science challenge. There's so much good stuff out there to read.

Cam, it does seem from the book that she was going in the wrong direction, but then again, the book was written by Watson. I'd love to read the book you have about it, so will send you my mailing address. Thanks!

Dorr, see my comment to Jeff. Join the challenge (you only need to read three science books, and you've got more than half a year to do so).

Eloise, oh that lipstick thing is very, very depressing!

GG, oh, I'll have to check out that movie. Yes, I do have a teensy crush on Jeff Goldblum (who doesn't?).

Mandarine, well, I guess you're right. It doesn't sound as though he changed much. Too bad.

Susan said...

How can you make science sound so cool??? i know the story of how the double helix was found is interesting, but you make it fun. And I hate to admit this, but I don't think men are much more different in their initial glance at us - the ones who think that way, anyway, who perceive beauty skin-deep. Luckily many men do look deeper or the human race would die out. I'm afraid I couldn't be with anyone who told me how I could better my looks to please him! In fact I left one of my boyfriends because he said just that.....Interesting that he was honest enough to put it in.

bloglily.com said...

Wow. This is a great review, and this book sound wonderful.

I think people just shot out of the gate much more quickly back then, because they didn't feel like they had all the time in the world with livings to make, and parents who didn't let you hang out and think about the living you might make.

I almost never read nonfiction, but I think I'll get this for my husband, who's an engineer, and then I'll sneak it from his night table when he's not looking.

Emily Barton said...

Susan, oh but science is cool, once you get away from all those boring textbooks and labs forced on us in school. No, I'm not very good at putting up with men who tell me how to better my looks, either.

Bloglily, I think you're right about people shooting right out of the gate back then. I suppose it has its good and bad sides, because they could get stuck doing something they really hated and have a very difficult time switching gears, huh? Meanwhile, I think it's an excellent idea for you to sneak this one off your husband's bedside table after giving it to him as a gift. It really is a fascinating read.

litlove said...

I never thought I'd hear myself say these words, but you may have just convinced me to read a book about science, Emily! Like Stefanie I'm interested in Rosy, too. I'll have to look that biography up.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, maybe we can all start a Rosie fan club. She seems like such an interesting character amongst all those men.