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.
Even though Watson was pushing 40 when he wrote the book, he tells it all (after that first scene in the Alps) in the voice of the brash, socially awkward young man he was in his early twenties. So we get high-spirited reports on the day-to-day life of a scientist in Cambridge. We hear about the disgusting food in the dining halls (“brown soup, stringy meat, and heavy pudding”) and about “the poison put out by the local Indian and Cypriote establishments.” We hear about tennis, parties, girls, “sherry with girls.” He gets surprisingly frank. We see Watson trying to put the naked Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy out of his mind and concentrate on chemical bonds.
Watson imparts solid lessons in chemistry along the way. When you have a strong story, you can weave in a lot of science without your readers rebelling. The false starts and wrong turns in the research are all brilliantly described. The climactic scene where Watson assembles his model at the lab on Saturday morning, February 28, 1953, is one of the great eureka moments in the history of science. He fusses with some pieces of stiff cardboard, fiddling them together on his desktop, and, suddenly, there it is—the most elegant molecule he’s ever seen, a beautiful rising shape like a spiral staircase: the double helix.
And the book’s ending is almost as good as the beginning. We leave the wan young man in Paris feeling tired and a bit old. He was about to celebrate his birthday. There was a party ahead. “But now I was alone, looking at the long-haired girls near Saint-Germain-des-Prés and knowing they were not for me. I was twenty-five and too old to be unusual.”
Back in that first scene, in the Alps, he had been preparing for an ascent. Now the race was over. He had won, and he was coming down.
“Who could possibly want to read stuff like this?” Crick wondered, when Watson showed him a chapter of the work in progress in a little restaurant near Harvard Square. Since their discovery, the two men had become famous in their field. (“Rather than believe that Watson and Crick made the DNA structure, I would rather stress that the structure made Watson and Crick,” wrote Crick later on.) They had won a Nobel Prize (which they shared with Maurice Wilkins) in 1962. Now, with their careers and reputations secured, Crick didn’t think Watson’s story was an appropriate one to tell. Neither did Wilkins. Neither did the molecular biologist Gunther Stent, who, after reading an early draft of Honest Jim, predicted that nobody would ever buy it. The volumes on their coffee tables were the same as my dad’s. In most of those books, it was the science that was important; the grubby personal details were unfit to print.