W hen The Double Helix appeared in the winter of 1968, I reviewed it for The Laureate, the literary magazine at Classical High School, in Providence, Rhode Island. I was a freshman.
It was my first effort as a science writer, and now, after four decades, I feel lucky to have started there. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson, is one of the best books ever written about science, and it happens to have been written by one of the great scientists of the 20th century. And I happened to read it at the very best age—when I still didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be.
The Double Helix is the story of a race to solve one of the central problems in science, the secret of the gene, which looked to many scientists at mid-20th century like the very heart of life itself. Biologists already knew that genes are the material through which traits are passed from generation to generation—the keys to identity, physiology, evolution. But no one knew the structure of the gene; and until scientists knew that, they couldn’t figure out how genes work. Watson went after the problem in the fall of 1951, at the age of 23, when he was still a graduate student, and he scrabbled his way to the solution before he was 25.
In telling the story, he produced a great work of literary nonfiction. Watson expanded the boundaries of science writing to include not only the formal, public face of Nobel-winning discoveries but also the day-to-day life of working scientists—both inside and outside the lab. The Double Helix rejuvenated a genre that had been largely academic or hagiographic. Its success showed that there was and is an appetite for the story of science; that the stories can be human and exciting; that scientists can be flawed characters; that the whole endeavor doesn’t collapse if you depict it with something less than reverence.
Although the book caused an international scandal that winter, I don’t think any word of the controversy reached me at Classical High School. As a freshman, I read The Double Helix as a story of pure triumph. Now, of course, I can see what I couldn’t then: an epic of the loss of innocence, writ small and large. And I can see the arc of Watson’s life since 1968, which has been another epic of triumph and hubris, ending with a fall. So now I see the darkness around the shining cup.
But those are the lessons of life itself.
I heard about “The Double Helix” from my father, a scientist, who couldn’t resist reading me the opening scene. He always had a pile of new books on the coffee table, most of them about science. When he picked up The Double Helix, he was struck by the magnitude of the discovery, and by the drama in the book’s first few lines. It opens in the Alps, in 1955, two years after Watson and his colleagues have made their breakthrough. Though he is not a mountaineer (“I panic at voids”), Watson has arranged to join a few friends who plan to scale the Rothorn. Hiking up a path at the base of a glacier, he recognizes a climber coming the other way, a biologist named Willy Seeds. “Willy soon spotted me, slowed down, and momentarily gave the impression that he might remove his rucksack and chat for a while. But all he said was, ‘How’s Honest Jim?’ and quickly increasing his pace was soon below me on the path.”
These days we sometimes say that a book’s DNA can be found in its opening passages. By opening his memoir with the story of that snub, Watson tells his readers exactly how he plans to bring the book to life.
First of all, it will be filled with scenes, and stories. For readers in 1968, that was a surprise in itself. Most of the other science books on Dad’s coffee table were reverential biographies of great scientists, aimed at specialists—all plaster busts and technical analysis. That’s not the kind of thing Watson promises on his first page. Instead, he intends to reveal the behind-the-headlines story of the race, because “as one of the winners, I knew the tale was not simple and certainly not as the newspapers reported.”