Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My Log 560 September 19 2017: James Watson’s The Double Helix: a book of remarkable frankness towards the world of scientists in which the author moved so effortlessly

I spent most of my weekend reading a delightful book on a subject that, intrinsically, is of absolutely no interest to me --- that is an account of the process by which the structure of DNA was discovered by two scientists working between 1951 and 1953, in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University.
The book, The Double Helix, was written in 1968 by James D Watson, an American student who was 23 years of age when he embarked on the search with a British scientist, Francis Crick, who was 12 years older, but was still a graduate student working towards his doctorate.
I found the book, published 15 years after the events, to be charming because of the remarkably frank, yet on the whole friendly, descriptions Watson gives of the scientists he worked with and against, in the process of making this epoch-making discovery, which has generally been regarded as having unveiled the secret of life (if it means anything to say that, I am not sure).
For example, in the first paragraph of the book, he writes of Crick, with whose name he has become inextricably linked by history, in this way: “Although some of his 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.”
Two pages later: “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……also a factor was his laugh against which many dons would almost 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…”
The young American was obviously being introduced to an entirely non-American way of life as he settled in to work at the Cavendish, a laboratory so much dominated by tradition that the door, to which there was only one key,  was firmly locked at 10 o'clock every night because Rutherford, who had held the post of Cavendish professor from 1919 for 18 years, and had ruled unchallenged over the laboratory and all its works during that time, had held the belief that young scientists would be better employed on the tennis courts in the evenings, rather than swotting away in the lab. And Rutherford had passed on a good 15 years before Watson ever showed up, but such was the power of tradition….
In chapter two he describes how Crick was working on other things, although he was not influenced by the sceptics among scientists who thought the evidence about DNA (whatever it was) was inconclusive, because, suggests Watson: “One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.” Another factor that prevented Crick from moving into the field was that the major work had been done by a friend, Maurice Wilkins, at King’s College, London,  and “the combination of England’s coziness --- all the important people, if not related by marriage, seemed to know one another --- plus the English sense of fair play would not allow Francis to move in on Maurice’s problem, In France, where fair play obviously did not exist, these problems would not have arisen. The States also would not have permitted such a situation to develop. One would not expect someone at Berkeley to ignore a first-rate problem merely because someone at Cal Tech had started first. In England, however, it simply would not look right.”
One can almost imagine this skinny, enthusiastic youngster, looking so much like a kid among all these older fellows, settling in among them with a series of unending chuckles at their eccentricities.  For me these  descriptions of this colleagues so much enlivened the complex stuff describing the problems they were solving, all of which are completely over my head, as to make me glad I have read the book at last, after all these years.
Their friend Maurice Wilkins --- with whom they were joined in the Nobel Prize awarded for this work in 1962, had employed a young woman named Rosalind Franklin as his assistant in London, but she turned out according to Watson, to be determined not to be anyone’s assistant, since she undertaken work as a crystallographer that was as important in the field as anything being done by anyone.  “Mere inspection suggested she would not easily bend,” comments Watson. “By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities….she might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not….at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents.” (A good deal of the book is devoted to Watson’s fascination with beautiful young women, and of how he went out of his way to meet as many as he could of continental au pair girls, of whom there were plenty in the service of Cambridge’s academics.)
 Rosy, as they called her, died at the early age of 37, and after giving her a hard time all through the book, Watson recants on the last page, saying that in the years after she died, both he and Crick came to greatly appreciate her personal honesty and generosity, “realizing years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosy’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death.”
And so he should have asked her pardon thus, because apparently he and Crick had used her crystallography, provided to them by Maurice Wilkins for whom she worked, because it turned out to provide some of the elements essential to their success  in their enterprise. Questions about the doubtful ethics of their use of her material without seeking her permission have dogged Watson through his life.
The closeness of the relationships among scientists, from all over the world, working on the same problem, provide a fascinating interest in this remarkable book (recently named in the Observer’s list of the 100 best non-fiction books ever written). In particular, the two Cavendish scientists were in competition with Linus Pauling, working on the same problem in California, who had, with a typical flourish of publicity, declared results that in England they feared might mean he would beat them to the prize. He might have done, too, because he was on his way to England when he was stopped from leaving the United States because of his interest in the World Peace movement, generally regarded in the US as a work of communism.  The English researchers feared that if Pauling had seen the direction in which they were taking their research, he might well have leapt intuitively to the solution of the problem. But he never saw it and was just pipped at the post when Crick and Watson announced their achievement, which Pauling greeted with warm generosity.
 Pauling (I had the pleasure of interviewing him once) is the only person ever to have received two unshared Nobel prizes, for chemistry, and for peace. He was the outstanding figure in US chemistry research for many years,  and a firm opponent of the Cold War with its nuclear deterrent, but at the end of his life he began to recommend megadoses of vitamins for improved health and as cures for various diseases, including at one point cancer, claims that have since been experimentally disproven.
 Just to end this, the book contains two pages that are an amusing description of a Christmas Watson spent in the home of the left-wing British writer, Naomi Mitchison, to whom his book is dedicated, along with a household full of her high-powered British intellectual family and friends. He remarks mildly at how puzzled he was that such a leftist household could have been worried about how he dressed for dinner. A remark, so mild, yet so pointed, so amusing, that I could not help myself from  laughing out loud as I was reading this book, of which more than half was a complete mystery to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment