What’s more, the story will be personal, emotional, even confessional. And it will involve the highest stakes. Watson intends to explain how he scaled the heights, and how he earned contempt along the way. We know this because he puts it all right there at the top, in the scene with Seeds. A peculiar sense of mingled pride and sin was central to his book. In the course of his research he had arguably violated several unwritten rules of professional conduct, and had made enemies of some colleagues who found his behavior at best unbecoming and at worst unethical. Years afterward, Watson told the historian Horace Freeland Judson that he’d first thought of writing his story for The New Yorker under the header “Annals of Crime.”

Watson’s working title for the book was Honest Jim.

After his prologue in the alps, Watson begins at the beginning, with Francis Crick, his partner in crime. Watson was 23 and Crick was 35 when they met at the University of Cambridge, where Watson, an American, had come for post-doctoral study after receiving his PhD from Indiana University. The two men were colorful and cocky, not to mention arrogant. (The first line of Chapter One is famous: “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.”) They bonded instantly over their sense that the secret of the gene was the most important problem in biology.

From the work of a little team of biologists at the Rockefeller Institute, in New York, they knew that genes are made of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. To the two young scientists, the problem of the gene seemed incredibly, almost impossibly alluring. Watson calls it “the Rosetta Stone for unraveling the true secret of life.” He thinks DNA will prove the key to figuring out how genes determine, among other things, “the color of our hair, our eyes, most likely our comparative intelligence, and maybe even our potential to amuse others.”

But nobody knew how DNA is put together. You can’t figure out how a heart pumps until you anatomize its chambers, and you can’t know how DNA works until you model its chemical structure. To Watson, this point seemed obvious. And yet most geneticists were not very interested in learning the chemical nature of the gene—which, to Watson, only proved that those geneticists were fools. He and Crick shared a contempt for many of their senior colleagues. Most old professors, Watson writes, are “not only narrowminded and dull, but also just stupid.” He was convinced that building a model of the structure of DNA would do spectacular things for both biology and his own career.

There were, of course, obstacles. For one thing, their research plans were hampered by “an awkward personal situation.” The only biologist in England working on the molecular structure of DNA was a friend of Crick’s, a shy, somewhat slow-moving scientist named Maurice Wilkins. For all practical purposes, DNA was Wilkins’s personal property, at least by the English rules of fair play, Watson writes, and “it would have looked very bad if Francis had jumped in on a problem that Maurice had worked over for several years.” Wilkins’s research was hobbled because he didn’t get along with his assistant, Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was making the world’s best X-ray pictures of DNA, but Wilkins couldn’t stand her, and neither could Watson and Crick.


Meanwhile, Linus Pauling, whom Watson describes as the “world’s greatest chemist,” was also working on the problem of the structure of DNA. Being an American at Cal Tech, Pauling “was not subject to the confines of British fair play,” writes Watson, who was terrified that Pauling would get there first. So young Watson and Crick raced for the gold. And Watson the narrator tells the story so adroitly that we enjoy watching them work together, like Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men. We root for them even when they do the slightly shady things that will later make a colleague snub Watson in the Alps. Watson and Crick go around Franklin’s back by conniving a bit with Wilkins. They keep tabs on Pauling’s progress by buddying up with his son Peter, a young biologist who is visiting Cambridge. When the elder Pauling makes a silly mistake that slows his research, Watson and Crick toast his failure.

Jonathan Weiner Is the Maxwell M. Geffen Professor of Medical and Science Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of several books, including The Beak of the Finch, which won the Pulitzer Prize.