Tuesday, 5 October 2004

The Third Man of the Double Helix – Maurice Wilkins ****

This is a stunningly powerful insight into the workings of real science, and particularly of the discovery of the structure of DNA – the only reason it doesn’t have our ultimate five star accolade is that Wilkins is at best a pedestrian writer, and would have benefited hugely from a co-author.
If you ignore the preface, the worst written part of the book, and skip quickly through Wilkins early life, which has little in the way of useful insights and has all the stilted lack of humanity of a 1950s newsreel (for example “Their gramophone filled their home with humorous songs, such as George Formby, with his banjo, singing (with amusing innuendo) When I’m Cleaning Windows.”), you have a chance to see the very gradual, mistake-ridden, back-biting ride that is the reality of scientific discovery.
Inevitably most fascinating is the relationship between Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, the less lionised half of the DNA quartet. Mention the discovery of the structure of DNA and two names immediately spring to mind – Crick and Watson. This is forgetting (hence the title of the book) the fact that Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize, and made the essential that would lead to that famous double helix first.
After Crick and Watson, the next name likely to occur to anyone is that Rosalind Franklin. She has in recent years been picked out as the victim of the male-dominated world’s attempts to suppress the work of a female scientist. As Wilkins says himself: “one side effect was that Rosalind’s male colleagues were to some extent demonised.” It certainly is unfortunate that the Nobel rules only allow a maximum of three recipients for the prize – showing it to be totally out-of-date when applied to modern science – and Franklin would have made a worthy fourth, but it seems quite likely that fourth is the correct position to put her in, and given the rules there was little other choice.
Wilkins’ book exposes a flawed three-way relationship that almost inevitably brought about confusion and resentment. Wilkins’ boss, Professor John Randall loomed over much of his career, helping Wilkins ahead, but at the same time often seeming jealous of any possibility that Wilkins could succeed independently. When Randall brought Franklin in, he told her that Wilkins was going to stop X-ray diffraction work (X-ray photography was Franklin’s speciality) and go back to using microscopes – only no one seems to have told Wilkins this. This set Wilkins and Franklin off on the wrong foot, as she felt that he was trespassing on her territory (never mind that he had made a significant discovery using X-rays before she even started work on DNA). Add to this Wilkins’ obvious difficulty with interacting with women and Franklin’s unusually strong sense of individual ownership in what should have been a shared project and the inevitable outcome was a human conflict that makes the story of DNA so much more entertaining and gripping.
We’ve had this story from about every direction now. It’s good that Maurice Wilkins has weighed in with his version, if only to balance the one-sidedness of some of the books that take Rosalind Franklin’s side. As much as Feynman writing about the atomic bomb project, this is an essential piece of first person observation from the heart of one of the greatest scientific discoveries ever. Hopefully it’s less fictional than Feynman’s tales, even if lacking his prose style – either way it is history from the coal face.
Review by Brian Clegg

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