The eminent geneticist Steve Jones considers one of the great thrillers of modern science and places it in its social and scientific contextby Steve Jones / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Science, in the public mind, is detached from the people who practise it. Everyone knows about viruses, or the background radiation of the big bang, but almost nobody could name the individuals who discovered them. DNA is different and this book is the reason why. From its first sentence (“I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood”) it combines the facts of science with the rattling tale of how they were unveiled. To re-read it after nearly 30 years, is to affirm the genius of those who did the job. It is also a reminder of how much science has changed in the decades since Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper which began modern genetics.
In that year science in Britain was still, in the worst sense, British. It was a vocation of the upper middle class, largely male, and remained concentrated in the older provincial universities. Since then, and in spite of determined rearguard action, it has become much more open. For genetics, the meeting in 1951 of James Watson (then only 23) and the 35-year-old Francis Crick was the first step. Although its excitement comes from the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix is as much an account of the sociology of science as of science itself. Sir Lawrence Bragg, a senior figure in the story, describes it in his foreword to the first edition as a drama of the highest order; but in rather a pained tone adds that “those who figure in the book must read it in a very forgiving spirit.” One can see what he meant.
It is almost obligatory for great scientists to claim that their genius comes from standing on the shoulders of giants. Watson and Crick preferred to stand on their toes. The Double Helix is full of gleeful humour at the expense of those grander than themselves. Sometimes it goes beyond wit: there are whole paragraphs of bile aimed at targets whose identity was clear to those in the know. Watson’s discussion (somewhat redeemed in the postscript) of the role of Rosalind Franklin in the work (“The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab”) is particularly offensive to the modern reader.
It is worth placing DNA into context. Genetics is a science without a past. Before Mendel, less than 150 years ago, there was nothing.…