Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Double Helix

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.

9 comments:

dipali said...

I had read this a very long time ago, and have forgotten my impressions of the book entirely.
I do remember being entirely fascinated by the discovery itself!

Rayna M. said...

The structure of the DNA is something else, dipali - so elegant, you can't but fall in love with it, and stay in love with it.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Isn't it terrible to be disappointed by a book you were looking forward to? Sigh...

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Rayna M. said...

Nothing worse, Elizabeth. Nothing worse :-(

Galen Kindley--Author said...

I just wish I could find the designer of my DNA structure…Ug! But, Like the book, it can’t be just tossed aside forever. I gotta live within my skin…so to speak.

Yeah, that’s one of the problems about buying a book sight unseen, no chance to sit down and flip through it to see if the inside *might* match your expectations. Sometime, it’s even hard to tell then.

Best Regards, Galen
Imagineering Fiction Blog

LABANAN said...

arggh! I hate being disappointed by a book. On the other hand I adore being surprised by one. I can't wait until the next one does that! Yay!

Rayna M. said...

Galen, this particular book I have heard so much about, I would have bought it unseen even if I bought it in a store.But was it a disappointment.
And I would not change your DNA if I were you - you are a most wonderful person as you are.


Jane, a lot of it is to do with expectations, I guess. Many of the most hyped books tend to disappoint, don't they?

Patricia Stoltey said...

You've made me realize the only non-fiction I've read in the last couple of years has been on finance and economics. Nothing to recommend there except gloom and doom. Under the circumstances, The Double Helix might strike me as light and entertaining.

Rayna M. said...

@ Patricia - if light and entertaining is what you are looking for, this book definitely qualifies. What I did not quite like about the book was the almost casual approach it took to science.
And I just picked up Feakanomics - should I return that?

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