I’ve been wanting to read John Watson’s “The Double Helix” for a very long time, but have never been able to get my hands on a copy. The few bookstores that had heard about it, never seemed to have it in stock, and all efforts to get them to order the book for me proved equally futile. And then, I found the book online and immediately ordered myself a copy.
I could barely wait to tear the packaging off before digging into the book. And then, I was almost immediately disappointed – disappointed enough to throw the book aside for over a week. To me, “Surely you must be joking, Mr. Feynman” sets the bar for popular autobiographical works by a scientist, and “The Double Helix” did not even come close either in terms of description of science, or personality of the author.
When I returned to the book with diminished expectations, it was not so bad. But even after making allowances for the self-depreciating style employed by Watson, their approach seemed almost cavalier. Crick and Watson seemed more concerned about beating others to the discovery than making the discovery themselves, and to achieve that end they were willing to grab data from anywhere with or without the other person’s knowledge. Worse, they did not even seem to do that well, with Watson not even being sure about the order of magnitude of a particular result when reporting back on it.
It was only in the final stages that they seemed to be doing something that sounded like ‘real science’, and even then, one could never find out if they used the less popular tautomeric structure of the ketones because they were convinced those were better representations, or if they did so only because they better suited the results.
Overall, a book that left me feeling quite disappointed, which may or may not have something to do with my expectations from the book.
But it was wonderful to get reacquainted with the structure of the DNA molecule, and to experience anew the thrill of seeing something so beautiful and elegant. And for that alone, I will cheerfully re-read the book selectively.