Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Adventure classics -- Life’s elementary, said Dr. Watson

The Double Helix

by James D. Watson


“I know of no other document in which the degradation of present-day science to a spectator sport is so clearly brought out,” snipped biochemist Erwin Chargaff in his review of The Double Helix, the short and often snarky history of how two young men who uncovered a fundamental secret of life with the help of X-ray pictures and a penchant for building models.

It didn’t help Chargaff’s opinion of either the book or its writer, Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson, whose work with fellow scientists Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins built on some of Chargaff’s own discoveries of the chemical nature of DNA, the molecule that encodes genetic information. “As one of the world’s experts on DNA,” Watson wrote in The Double Helix, “(Chargaff) was at first not amused by dark horses trying to win the race. . . He realize(d) that he was about to listen to a nut.”

In the more than sixty years since, it’s become difficult to imagine anyone not knowing DNA’s double helix structure. The spiraling stair illustration drawn by Crick’s artist wife Odile is one of the most iconic images of science. But even by the middle of the twentieth century, many biologists considered DNA too “stupid” to carry the almost infinite amount of genetic information needed to code for every living creature on our planet.

Was it really the basis of all genes? If so, the secret must be as much in its physical structure as its chemistry, because it seemed to be nothing for a long chain (or maybe multiple chains) of a single type of molecule attached to only four other types of molecules.

“Then DNA was still a mystery, up for grabs, and no one was sure who would get it. . . As I hope this book will show, science seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events. . .” Watson wrote in the preface and prologue to the first 1968 edition of The Double Helix.

It was the tale, he said, of five people: X-ray photographer Maurice Wilkins; Wilkins’ assistant, the gifted Rosalind Franklin, who died before the prize for the discovery was awarded; chemist Linus Pauling, already clarifying the physical structure of other biological molecules; fast-talking doctoral student Francis Crick; and himself, a twenty-two-year-old with a brand new PhD and a “hope that the gene might be solved without my learning any chemistry.”

That’s an admission reassuring lay readers like me. I could follow the trail Watson left without any remembrance of my own long past college chemistry courses.

Wilkins’ and Franklin’s pictures of DNA in crystal form excited Watson about chemistry. It was an excitement whetted by his sojourn in Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, known for its work on molecular structures, and “the fun of talking to Francis Crick.” And in the background was Linus Pauling, the one to beat if Watson and Crick hoped to snatch a Nobel Prize for demonstrating both DNA’s structure and its potential as the carrier of the secrets of life.

Watson arrived at the lab where Crick worked in late 1951. Wilkins’ and Franklin’s X-rays seemed to show a helical structure for DNA. Except when they didn’t. But how was it all arranged? And how did it do its work?

“The final version (of the paper) was ready to be typed on the last weekend of March (1953),” Watson wrote. “Our typist was not on hand, and the brief job was given to my sister. There was no problem persuading her to spend a Saturday afternoon this way, for we told her that she was participating in perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin’s book.”

Watson’s original Double Helix is less than 140 pages, but I enjoyed The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix edited by Alexander Gann and Jan Witkowski for its multitude of photographs and references to the people and places Watson mentions. Readily available on Amazon, or check your local library, as I did.

(Next week -- Adventure classics continues a January of true adventures with John Berendt’s tale of sex, murder and voodoo, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.)

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