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

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

by James D. Watson Ph.D.

Paperback(Reprint)

$15.29 $16.99 Save 10% Current price is $15.29, Original price is $16.99. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, February 20

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743216302
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: 06/12/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 60,361
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.60(d)
Lexile: 1210L (what's this?)

About the Author

James D. Watson, together with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is Chancellor Emeritus of the Watson School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood. Perhaps in other company he is that way, but I have never had reason so to judge him. It has nothing to do with his present fame. Already he is much talked about, usually with reverence, and someday he may be considered in the category of Rutherford or Bohr. But this was not true when, in the fall of 1951, I came to the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University to join a small group of physicists and chemists working on the three-dimensional structures of proteins. At that time he was thirty-five, yet almost totally unknown. Although some of his closest colleagues realized the value of his quick, penetrating mind and frequently sought his advice, he was often not appreciated, and most people thought he talked too much.

Leading the unit to which Francis belonged was Max Perutz, an Austrian-born chemist who came to England in 1936. He had been collecting X-ray diffraction data from hemoglobin crystals for over ten years and was just beginning to get somewhere. Helping him was Sir Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish. For almost forty years Bragg, a Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of crystallography, had been watching X-ray diffraction methods solve structures of ever-increasing difficulty. The more complex the molecule, the happier Bragg became when a new method allowed its elucidation. Thus in the immediate postwar years he was especially keen about the possibility of solving the structures of proteins, the most complicated of all molecules. Often, when administrative duties permitted, he visited Perutz' office to discuss recently accumulated X-ray data. Then he would return home to see if he could interpret them.

Somewhere between Bragg the theorist and Perutz the experimentalist was Francis, who occasionally did experiments but more often was immersed in the theories for solving protein structures. Often he came up with something novel, would become enormously excited, and immediately tell it to anyone who would listen. A day or so later he would often realize that his theory did not work and return to experiments, until boredom generated a new attack on theory.

There was much drama connected with these ideas. They did a great deal to liven up the atmosphere of the lab, where experiments usually lasted several months to years. This came partly from the volume of Crick's voice: he talked louder and faster than anyone else and, when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious. Almost everyone enjoyed these manic moments, especially when we had the time to listen attentively and to tell him bluntly when we lost the train of his argument. But there was one notable exception. Conversations with Crick frequently upset Sir Lawrence Bragg, and the sound of his voice was often sufficient to make Bragg move to a safer room. Only infrequently would he come to tea in the Cavendish, since it meant enduring Crick's booming over the tea room. Even then Bragg was not completely safe. On two occasions the corridor outside his office was flooded with water pouring out of a laboratory in which Crick was working. Francis, with his interest in theory, had neglected to fasten securely the rubber tubing around his suction pump.

At the time of my arrival, Francis' theories spread far beyond the confines of protein crystallography. Anything important would attract him, and he frequently visited other labs to see which new experiments had been done. Though he was generally polite and considerate of colleagues who did not realize the real meaning of their latest experiments, he would never hide this fact from them. Almost immediately he would suggest a rash of new experiments that should confirm his interpretation. Moreover, he could not refrain from subsequently telling all who would listen how his clever new idea might set science ahead.

As a result, there existed an unspoken yet real fear of Crick, especially among his contemporaries who had yet to establish their reputations. The quick manner in which he seized their facts and tried to reduce them to coherent patterns frequently made his friends' stomachs sink with the apprehension that, all too often in the near future, he would succeed, and expose to the world the fuzziness of minds hidden from direct view by the considerate, well-spoken manners of the Cambridge colleges.

Though he had dining rights for one meal a week at Caius College, he was not yet a fellow of any college. Partly this was his own choice. Clearly he did not want to be burdened by the unnecessary sight of undergraduate tutees. Also a factor was his laugh, against which many dons would most certainly rebel if subjected to its shattering bang more than once a week. I am sure this occasionally bothered Francis, even though he obviously knew that most High Table life is dominated by pedantic, middle-aged men incapable of either amusing or educating him in anything worthwhile. There always existed King's College, opulently nonconformist and clearly capable of absorbing him without any loss of his or its character. But despite much effort on the part of his friends, who knew he was a delightful dinner companion, they were never able to hide the fact that a stray remark over sherry might bring Francis smack into your life.

Copyright renewed © 1996 by James D. Watson

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Robert K. Merton The New York Times Book Review A fascinating case history...Describes the events that led up to one of the great biological discoveries of our time.

Jacob Bronowski The Nation No one could miss the excitement in this story of a great and beautiful discovery....The book communicates the spirit of science as no formal account has ever done....the sense of the future, the high spirits, and the rivalry and the guesses right and wrong, the surge of imagination and the test of fact.

Peter B. Medewar The New York Review of Books An enormous success...a classic.

Andre Lwoff Scientific American The history of a scientific endeavor, a true detective story that leaves the reader breathless from beginning to end.

Richard Feynman He has described admirably how it feels to have that frightening and beautiful experience of making a scientific discovery.

Philip Morrison Life Lively, wholly brash, full of sharp and sudden opinion, often at the edge of scandal.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Double Helix 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
These physicists made history but they were not the only people whom were working on finding out what the structure of the DNA molecule looked like. In fact they used data that was discovered by other physicists in order to structure data that they collected. Rosalind Franklin whom was an 'assistant' had once written in her journal which was published in the book 'Rosalind Franklin: The dark lady of DNA' stated that when on her own time she had collected data by using tools, belonging to Kings College, with permission, was forced to hand over the data by and to Wilson. I would not recommend this book to anyone to read for fun unless you like the explanation of the structure. I also would not recommend it because it was just James Watson¿s perspective on the events.
jasonlf on LibraryThing 7 months ago
I cannot believe that I had not read this before. I had been carrying around my father's copy for twenty-five years but only just read it. It is a fascinating, exciting and sometimes even funny account of the race to unravel the structure of DNA. It is unflinchingly honest in describing not only the thrill of scientific discovery but also the more ordinary impulses including scientific rivlaries and everything from the desire to win the Nobel Prize to the desire to win over girls. It is also a great account of collaboration, not only with Francis Crick but also with Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, and Linus Pauling -- in the case of the later three the collaboration was mixed with a fervent desire that they not beat Watson and Crick to the discovery of the strucure of DNA. Finally, it is also an excellent detective story as Watson and Crick follow fragmenatory and contradictory evidence along several false leads but eventually stumble on the extremely elegant answer.The Double Helix is at the opposite extreme of Einstein's book Relativity which presents the pure science, derived from first principles, and explained to the lay reader. Instead in The Double Helix, the extensive descriptions of the science are all subsurvient to moving the story of the discovery forward. None of these scientific discsussions are derived from first principles or includes any explanation for the reader (and I, for one, started the book with no knowledge of x-ray crystallography or stereoscopic chemistry and only pieced together a dim understanding of them over the course of the book). And there is virtually no discussion of the implications of the discovery, what followed, or really much in the way of context. But it is hard to hold any of that against The Double Helix, especially when many, many other books have handled all of those topics, while this book uniquely and superlatively describes the process of discovery itself.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing 7 months ago
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.
jlelliott on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I remember upon first reading The Double Helix I was delighted with the fact that Watson was a slacker and still managed to make one of the most important discoveries in biology. There was hope for me too! It is a pleasure to read a book about scientific discovery where the researchers are not mercilessly driven type-A personalities confined to their labs. A well-written account of the personalities and community behind a major scientific discovery, of the molding of disparate facts into a new theory that changed the field.
kendrak on LibraryThing 10 months ago
An interesting read, but I came out of disliking Watson. He seemed something of a dilettante.
dr_zirk on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This is the sort of book that should be required reading in high school chemistry classes. Not because it's a detailed scientific text, but rather because it acutely captures the adventure of science, and presents just enough high-level technical information to whet the reader's appetite for learning more. While the book is full of Watson's personal prejudices, and some of those have not weathered so well after forty years of feminism, there is no denying that this is a powerful account of an important journey through the world of big-stakes science, and the type of story that reveals the intellects, the egos, and the considerable hard work that goes into achieving scientific greatness - if chemistry had been taught this way when I was younger, I might not have concluded that it was a discipline fit only for dullards!
bexaplex on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I always begin this book in a rage about Watson's fame-seeking hubris and unsavory comments about people whom he should have regarded as colleagues ("The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab" p. 21). But I always end with an apology, reading Watson's epilogue ("Rosalind's exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all..." p.143). He plays up his youthfulness, but it's still a serious book despite all his efforts.Like all good memoirs, there's a meta-narrative here that extends the story past the individuals involved. Yes, Watson tells the story of theorizing the structure of DNA. But he also tells the story of his maturity as a scientist: finding his feet in biochemistry, benefiting from the dialog in the scientific community, learning to trust the expertise of others, and pairing experimental results with elegant theory.
parelle on LibraryThing 11 months ago
There's something amazingly amusing about this. It's like walking into a half-finished conversation, and finding - at least some of the the truth - behind the history. Truth, being, of course, subjected to the absolute crazy nature of Jim Watson.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book for a few reasons. First, the book was interesting in the way that the reader was able to see how Watson felt throughout the experience.I liked the background information given about what Watson got his degree in and also his PhD. From this I also enjoyed being able to understand what drew Watson to wanting to discover the structure of DNA. I also enjoyed being able to see how so many failures led to such a success. Along with small discoveries leading to the big picture. The only complaint about the book would be the language. Even thought this is a scientific book, some of the words used were harder to understand and can make it more of a challenging read. But, over all, I really enjoyed the book and being able to understand the discovery of the structure of DNA. -Grace K
laurenjayne More than 1 year ago
The Double Helix, A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, is a great book, which I would highly recommend. Written by James D. Watson, it is a novel about the adventures and struggles James Watson and Francis Crick went through to finally discover the double helix structure. The book is very well written and you can never put the book down. The subject is so informative and interesting that you can’t help but keep flipping through the pages. This was such an amazing discovery, which makes the book that much better to read. Watson is great at thoroughly explaining the challenges they went through. They fail many times, like all scientists sometimes do, but it all paid off in the end. He tells the story very well, and explains the different encounters he had with many different scientists. He talks about his times working with Crick in the Cavendish laboratory, and what they went through to finally discover DNA. Watson writes a lot about the scientific part of his discovery, but also writes about the adventures and vacations he went on, which make the story that much more interesting. The novel also has pictures in it, which I love. They help me follow the plot of the story, and help me form an image in my head of what he is talking about. Some of the images are also diagrams that are labeled to help you understand the scientific part of the book. I would recommend this novel to anyone, even if you are not interested in science or DNA very much. The book is well written and gives a great story of how one of the best discoveries of all time was made.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Double Helix, a Personal Account of DNA written by James Watson, is an extremely well written book. It was well organized and informative. The James Watson's book is exciting and thrilling, you feel as though you are with Watson and his partner, Francis Crick, during their failures, challenges and successes. Watson uses not only events to explain his travels, both in the lab and in the world, but through emotion. He also shoed other scientists emotion, which helped me understand the thoughts and reactions of the scientists that were associated with Watson and Crick. Watson also used illustrations throughout the novel. The captions under the pictures helped me comprehend key concepts throughout the book that were difficult to understand. The Double Helix was also presented very well. It was able to capture one's attention even if they aren't overly excited about DNA. I believe that every student should read this novel, either while studying Biology or for any student studying DNA. Although the Double Helix started off slow and somewhat confusing, it began to flow and become more comprehensible as one begins to read further. The Double Helix is true to its name; it is a true personal discovery to anyone who reads it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Double Helix is James D. Watson's personal account of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. It follows Watson and his partner Francis Crick in the years leading up to their discovery. Though there is quite a bit of science it went mostly over my head. It seemed as though he was writing the book for his science colleagues. If you were to skip the science part the story isn't that bad. The only issues I have are that that it seemed to include a lot of useless information about his vaction and how he spent his nights and not as much on the important things. All the extra stuff just made it more confusing. Though I personally didn't find it that enjoyable someone going into this field of study would probably enjoy it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Double Helix an autobiography by James Watson tells us how he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. At first Crick was not very interested in DNA because he was trying to unlock the answer to where are the genes and how do they act? The two men struggled to discover the bacteriophage¿s structure but they just danced around it and another scientist made the discovery before they did. They traveled across the country to meetings and to hear reviews and the observe many of the new discoveries. Although they had trouble finding out that had their hearts in its clutches this made they even more determined to be the first people to discover the DNA structure. They used x ray photographs to look at the strands of DNA, this process took a long time to develop and would take a long time to get a series of good data. They teamed up with a women, Rosalind Franklin who was a huge help to their cause but did not liked being disturbed with the little things that Crick brought up every now and again. The story was good packed with facts took me a little longer than I thought to read but it was new to me and I enjoyed reading it. If your new to DNA and RNA you should read it. Just shows you how much technology has improved from then and what they had to do to find the structure. The review part of the book I thought was unnecessary, they just restated what everyone thought about the discovery, and don¿t take this wrong finding out the structure of DNA was very important but they didn¿t need to ramble on about it for 100 pages. I would rate this book 6 out of 10, rich with knowledge, lacked some explanation but was overall very good, definitely read it if your going into this field.
Guest More than 1 year ago
James D. Watson¿s personal account of the discovery of DNA is summed up in his book, The Double Helix. This novel was a good recreational read. The scientific discoveries did not make the book boring, but rather allowed the story to flow and continue. Understanding one discovery led to the reasoning behind the next part of discovering the structure of DNA. The scientific accuracy allows this book to not only be a good recreational book, but also makes a great study tool. In the beginning of the novel, many names and people and scientific concepts are thrown at you. This is a lot of information to absorb, understand, and comprehend. I myself had a little bit of difficulty absorbing, understanding, and comprehending the information that Watson presents to you. I was not able to get a good grip on the information around chapter five or so. This novel presents a few pictures that help the reader understand the characters and the scientific concepts. This book contains two hundred and twenty six pages that are separated into twenty-nine chapters plus an epilogue. The first four chapters describe the situations that each character is in. The next twenty-two chapters tell the reader about the many discoveries that led the scientists to come to the conclusion that DNA is a double helix. The last three chapters depict the joyful feeling that Watson and Crick share when they are awarded the Nobel Prize for cracking the code of DNA. The Double Helix allows you to feel as if you are actually making the discoveries that led to understanding the structure of DNA. James D. Watson uses a sinfully great approach to the astounding discovery of the structure of DNA that puts you right in the middle of the book. Watson and Francis Crick¿s work on DNA won them a Noble Prize. This novel inspires those lazy college students that believe that they will never accomplish anything to get up and make a new discovery because that is exactly what Watson and Crick did.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Before one sits down to read this novel, you must first understand that it is the personal account of James Watson, one of two Nobel Prize laureates who won the race in the discovery of DNA. As a result of his singular perspective, certain aspects will be biased to a given degree, an example being his views on Rosalind Franklin (an individual whom many believe Watson stole research material from). In this novel Watson actively reflects his trials and tribulations in his struggle to research the biochemical deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). As he unravels his tales and discoveries leading up to his ultimate success, Watson, humorously adds his own sense of style and wit in the telling of his personal encounters as well as Crick¿s (his partner). He is also able to balance the pros and the cons of his tedious scientific exploration. At times thoroughly illustrating his frustration in his attempts to understand DNA. Reading this novel allows a reader to easily identify Watson¿s passion and drive in his analyzes of DNA in correlation to other ¿building blocks¿ of life (e.g. RNA). These characteristics provide an explanation why he is so willing to further investigate DNA even after its discovery as a unique structure, unlike other scientists within the same field of research. Although this is not a difficult novel to peruse through, ¿What is all the hype about?¿ is a question that may resurface several times within the reader¿s mind. Thus, one must remember the time frame in which this discovery was made. Unlike our current scientific advances in the field of genetics, Watson and Crick were pioneers (along with a handful of others) in this field and prompted a new branch of biology as well as biochemistry to evolve as a result of their findings. Without this discovery many questions regarding medical and health issues would still be left unanswered. More importantly our current understanding of genetics would not be where it is today. Let alone the discoveries made within the Human Genome Project.