Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Double Helix

The Beauty of Science
                          The Double Helix by James D. Watson

"Science moves with the spirit of an adventure characterized both by youthful arrogance and by the belief that the truth, once found, would be simple as well as pretty."  - James D. Watson

This is a memoir of a Nobel prize-winning Scientist that reads like a cross between a personal autobiography and a detective story. Add the insights into the imagination of one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century and you have a unique book. I read the book with wonder, delight and puzzlement alternatively as I encountered different aspects of the life of James Watson. He is unafraid to compliment his colleagues and competitors yet is also uncompromising in his criticism of those scientists (Linus Pauling, for example) who are either on the wrong track or just wrong-headed in their ideas or both. I was impressed with his methods which involved serious study combined with leisure activities, tennis being a favorite, that did not seem to detract from his scientific thinking and probably helped his imagination achieve more than it might otherwise have.

The book describes a different time, the 1950s, when the "Red scare" was predominant in the United States and Europe (not without reason) to the detriment of the free exchange of scientific ideas (again Linus Pauling is a prominent example in his sufferings at the hand of the United States government). But more importantly it describes the collaboration of two colleagues (James Watson and Francis Crick) with very different personal styles of scientific endeavor in their pursuit of the goal of identifying the essential nature of DNA. This includes giving credit to those who provided helpful details that made their discovery possible. Written with a lucid style that put this reader at ease this is one of the best memoirs of any kind that I have read. While there are a number of scientific details and references, they are not terribly difficult to digest and I would particularly recommend this memoir to readers who might otherwise shy away from scientific tomes - Watson makes scientific endeavor the most interesting if not exciting thing in the world.

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