Skip to main content

The Double Helix – James D. Watson *****

This is the daddy of them all. There have been attempts at popularising science for many a year, but James Watson’s very personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA started the trend for popular science bestsellers, books on science that would be read by “ordinary people” not just science enthusiasts.
In some quarters it is popular to denigrate Watson’s book – but this entirely misses the point. Yes it has sexist elements, yes it supports a particular version of history that puts a Watson and Crick’s efforts in a good light – but that’s hardly surprising given that it was written in the 1950s by one of the protagonists.
But if you can see past the inevitable fact that the book doesn’t have a 21st century outlook, it’s wonderful. Firstly, it really doesn’t show its age, thanks to Watson’s excellent, personal narrative style, featuring none of the stiffness of most of the writing of the period. Secondly, Watson may give us a biased picture, but it gives a feel for the reality of scientific endeavour, as opposed to the glossy Hollywood view. Thirdly, Watson is honest about his relative ignorance of much of science, and a certain laziness in not wanting to put too much effort into reading things up that will reassure and delight anyone who enjoys science but finds some of the detailed work boring. Scientists in Watson’s world – including himself – aren’t geniuses who immediately understand what other scientists are saying. Instead they have very limited understanding outside their own little sphere of knowledge. Finally, Watson doesn’t stint from giving us some detail that a modern popularizer would shy away from. The information on molecular structures might be too much for some readers, but it’s easy enough to skip over without losing the flow.
Perhaps the biggest potential criticism of the book is over Watson’s treatment of the crystalographer Rosalind Franklin, whose case for being more prominent in the discovery of DNA has been well argued and is generally taken for granted today. (Franklin didn’t share in the Nobel Prize, which some complain about, but to be fair it was awarded after her death, and the Nobel Prize is never awarded posthumously.) It’s certainly true that Watson is, for most of the book, patronising towards Franklin, and he plays down the rather dubious way the Cambridge team obtained her X-ray photographs that would inspire them to come up with the familiar double helix structure. Nonetheless, it would be revisionist not to accept that Franklin was a prickly character and difficult to work with – very probably because of the way women were treated at the time – and Watson’s response to her was unfortunate but honest. He does at the end of the book, written a few years later after Franklin’s death, reassess her contribution and paints a more positive picture of her work.
Overall, though this is a gem of a popular science book that has stayed in print for many years for a reason. It’s a great read, plain and simple.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …