Books · Science

Book review: The Double Helix

I’m lucky enough to have a very beautiful, Folio Society edition of The Double Helix, packed with photographs and diagrams, as well as an introduction by Steve Jones and a forward by Sir Lawrence Bragg. This is enough to delight any nerd (and incidentally pushes the page count just above 150, making it an acceptable choice for my current reading challenge). But what about the book itself?

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The Double Helix by James D Watson

How to review The Double Helix? As a scientist who also happens to be a woman, I’m already biased against James Watson and Francis Crick, the two scientists credited with the discovery of DNA, because I’m aware of Rosalind Franklin. It’s not very many pages into the book before Franklin appears and Watson’s description of her makes me cross, but he’s already failed to endear himself to me long before I get even that far.

I’m not sure how tongue in cheek he’s being, but he comes across as lazy and ruthless. He doesn’t want to do the hard work; he avoids understanding x-ray crystallography, anything about biology, difficult mathematics and anything too far removed from what he already knows. He even acknowledges that during his PhD he was dangerous enough to be kept from the lab, meaning he got an easy ride on the way to collecting his degree. He avoids following the rules that are set for his fellowships and the funding that comes with them because he doesn’t want to work on the difficult tasks he has been set. Even so, he wants to work with brilliant people enough to claim the prizes for their hard work. Doesn’t he just sound like a joy?

So when we get to Franklin and she’s criticised for wanting credit for her own work and for not wearing lipstick, I’m already out of patience. Fine, so the book was first published in 1968, at a time when a lot of people held ideas that now feel very backwards, but science had always tried (and almost always failed) to be a meritocracy – to so openly criticise a scientist for their appearance over their work is infuriating. No wonder Franklin didn’t like them.

In some later editions, including the beautiful Folio Society copy that I hold, Watson has added a note, admitting that he was unfair to Franklin and that she didn’t deserve the treatment she received. This goes some way to fixing the problems, but not far enough.

In terms of the science, it’s fascinating. The x-ray crystallography field was still pretty new at the time and the work needed to find the structure of DNA was extensive. The importance of the results cannot be understated and, even if it’s hard to like the scientists who did the work, the results are beautiful and elegant. Interestingly, this book is presented as something between a diary and a piece of pop-sci, except the science is pitched at someone who already has a decent background in chemistry. Very little is introduced at a layperson’s level and someone who really wanted to understand, without a science background, would probably need to read it with a couple of Wikipedia tabs open.

So it’s a strange book. The science is cool, the characters are mostly awful and the pitch is all over the place. If you’re going to read books about science then this is an obvious one to choose, but that doesn’t have to mean that it’s a good one.

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