The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA

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Watson’s publication entitled ‘The Double Helix’ is his own personal account of the events that culminated in the discovery of DNA structure, what many scientists regard as one of the greatest breakthroughs of the 20th

century. In the book, Watson has also highlighted some of the individuals that offered valuable insights which contributed immensely to the discovery of some of the missing pieces to the puzzle of the structure of DNA. Watson has also meticulously incorporated the study of human nature in his publication, as he critically examines the different characters of the individuals whom he worked with during the discovery of DNA. The paper intends to offer a preliminary insight of the nature of the scientific discovery.

             Set out in the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, the book begins by capturing Watson's fantasy of one day solving the mystery of encircling the structure of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). He realizes from the very start that he has determined competitors who are also looking to solve the puzzle: Rosy Franklin (a crystallography expert), Maurice Wilkins (an x-ray diffraction specialist), and Francis Crick (a proficient scientist). All of his competitors were experts in their respective fields, and as such, Watson was fully aware that he needed to change his tactics.

            Watson teams up with Franklin Crick when he arrives from the United States on a fellowship to join a group of scientists that had been working on the structure of the proteins. At the time, scientists around the globe had shifted their attention to solving structures of vital biological molecules, aided immensely by the discovery and the development of X-ray crystallography techniques which were discovered by William Astbury.  Although scientists then had not been convinced that DNA had a significant role to play, Linus Pauling successfully used x-ray images of proteins which helped him establish that proteins secondary structure formed an alpha-helix. It was at this point that James Watson developed a keen interest in the structure of DNA.

             In his admission in the book, Watson affirms that prior to the works of Linus Pauling, he had been wandering around Western Europe in a bid to find something interesting to do. The discovery thus played a crucial role in influencing Watson decision to develop an interest in DNA. Furthermore, Watson's Virology background; a field interconnected with the transmission of materials that take the form of DNA also played a role in influencing his decision. Upon arrival at Cambridge University, Watson and Crick immediately developed a friendship which was motivated by their shared interest in DNA.  However, they were faced with a delicate situation as two other scientists: Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins in London had initially started working on the DNA project.

            The relationship between the duo with Rosalind and Wilkins started off on a bad note. Watson together with Crick had constructed an incorrect model of DNA whereby nucleotides were placed on the exterior. They invited the London based duo, i.e., Rosalind and Wilkins to come and examine the model. Convinced that the nucleotides ought to be inside, while the sugar-phosphate on the outside of the molecule Franklin convinced her colleague that the model was faulty. Subsequently, they pointed out the faults of the model to Watson and Crick and also vented their anger and displeasure on the decision of the two to hijack a project that they had been concentrating for many years.

            The Double Helix is undoubtedly a compelling book which even without comprehending some of the scientific data processed in it, one is nevertheless likely to remain glued to it. As compared to other books in nonfiction genre, the narrator’s account of the discovery does not take the conventional retrospective view that is commonly applied by historians. Instead, Watson’s intention was to record his mind state of the events that led to the discovery. Since Watson was only 24, the book presents a young man’s perception of the world, hence his immense preoccupation of party-life and girls. Hence, the honesty of the account, which is also a major theme of the book makes the book compelling to read.

            As noted, one of the major themes of the book is honesty. When Watson set out to give out a personal account of the events that resulted in the discovery of the structure of the DNA, his aim was not to humiliate or offend some of the characters in the book. His main aim was to offer an honest and accurate account which would, of course, include the negative and positive aspect of how science is done. As he sensationally claims in the prologue “science rarely proceeds in a straight and logical manner as perceived by non-scientists. Instead, it involves non-sequential steps in most cases where different personalities and cultural traditions play an integral role. Though Watson admits that the views of some of the colleagues changed soon after the discovery, the decision to compile the book was purely based on first impressions. Hence, the book appeals to me in a logical way.

August 09, 2023



Scientific Method

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