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

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Atheneum, 1968 - Science - 226 pages
"'It is a strange model and embodies several unusual features. However, since DNA is an unusual substance, we are not hesitant in being bold.' Thus quietly, Jim Watson, aged twenty-four, wrote from Cambridge to a friend in the States, one month before the public announcement in April 1953 of a discovery that many scientists now call the most significant since Mendel's. DNA is the molecule of heredity, and to know its structure and method of reproduction enables science to know how genetic directions are written and transmitted, how the forms of life are ordered from one generation to the next. The search for this molecular structure is the story told here, in a book that also has its unusual features as well as a measure of boldness. The work was done between the fall of 1951 and April 1953, and the scientific paper announcing the discovery was published in Nature immediately. In 1962 the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology was awarded to Francis H. C. Crick, James D. Watson, and Maurice H. E Wilkins, the three men who almost a decade earlier had worked together, merging data from chemistry, physics, and biology, to solve the structure of DNA--Crick and Watson on the building of a hypothetical model that would conform in all its parts to what Wilkins' X-ray pictures had already shown of the molecule. The interplay of ideas, temperaments, and circumstances was an especially fortuitous one, since the result was something that, in Watson's words, was too pretty not to be true: the double helix. Watson shows us how this particular piece of science was worked out, but along the way he manages to tell a great deal more, something of the general creative process itself. It is his own account and, in order to recapture some of the original excitement, he has told it now as he saw it then, in the early 1950s. It is not, perhaps, wholly objective. Involved is the way a young American scientist saw the challenge of a great discovery waiting to be made, and the way he was caught up into the very air of Cambridge and the minds it nurtured; there was also the boredom of tedious experiment, and the aggressive miscalculations resulting from wrong notions stubbornly held to or facts only half understood; there were self-doubts and insecurities, both intellectual and social; there was hard competition, between men and labs as well as theories, and one had to learn tightrope walking; there were dull conferences to attend, but warm and fascinating people to talk to; there was more than work--the Backs of the colleges, beside the River Cam, to walk along, foreign girls to be puzzled by, finances to be figured, wine to be tasted, books and politics to be argued. There was much to be learned, and since science is also part of life, this is the kind of whole picture Watson gives. It is an amazing narrative. What we have, then, is more than the 'inside story' of one participant's version of a revolutionary discovery. We have a book, written on the assumption that science is a human endeavor, and important enough to be written about forthrightly."--Dust jacket.

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About the author (1968)

James Dewey Watson James D. Watson was born on April 6, 1928. Watson was an extremely industrious student and entered the University of Chicago when he was only 15. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology four years later, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in the same subject at Indiana University. He was performing research at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, when he first learned of the biomolecular research at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University in England. Watson joined Francis Crick in this work in 1951. At the age of 25, he and colleague Crick discovered the structure of DNA, the double helix. Watson went on to become a Senior Research Fellow in Biology at the California Institute of Technology, before returning to Cambridge in 1955. The following year he moved to Harvard University, where he became Professor of Biology, a post he held until 1976. Watson and Crick won the 1962 Nobel Laureate in Medicine for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nuclear acids and its significance for information transfer in living material. In 1968, Watson published his account of the DNA discovery, "The Double Helix." The book became an international best-seller. Watson became the Director and later President of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. In 1988 he served as Director of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, a massive project to decipher the entire genetic code of the human species. Watson has received many awards and medals for his work, along with the Nobel Prize, he has also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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