Book review: The Double Helix

The Double Helix, book coverI recently came across a copy of “The Double Helix” by James Watson and will put forth some highlights in this post.

The book became quite famous for giving a glimpse of how science was done in the ’50. However it also generated a fair amount of controversy because of the harsh personal attacks especially towards Rosalind Franklin, who made essential contributions but was never acknowledged to the extend of Watson and Crick.

First of all the book describes the events through the eyes of James Watson and he explicitly states that it denotes his experience and should not be confused with dry objective historical fact dropping. This paves the way for a lot of outspoken statements but also creates a very easy and pleasantly readable book. Although the book contains some very prehistorical comments about the position of women in general “The best place for a feminist is in someone else his lab” it, at least, gives the impression Watson is trying to honestly write down his thoughts. Another quite remarkable comment involves the intelligence level of fellow scientists:

“Of course there were scientists who thought the evidence favoring DNA was inconclusive and preferred to believe that genes were protein molecules. [..] Many were cantankerous fools who unfailingly backed the wrong horses. One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow- minded and dull, but also just stupid.”

It’s just another example he is not trying to mince the matter. On the other hand, when describing a conference where the bottles of Champagne were abundant,  he concludes the life of a scientist is not that bad after all:

“An important truth was slowly entering my head: a scientist’s life might be interesting socially as well as intellectually. I went off to England in excellent spirits.”

Giants and Shoulders

The whole discovery of the double helix actually got kick started by the Noble prize winning research of Linus Pauling on the α-helix in proteins1. In the spring of 1951 Pauling published a series of articles1,2 describing the peptide bond is a planar one and predicts proteins partly fold up as α-helices. The main helix article, Watson also refers to in his book, can be found here and the article he jealously refers to that has the opening line “Collagen is a very interesting protein” can be found here.

Without explicitly stating, Watson admires Linus Pauling his achievements of the α-helix. It becomes apparent throughout the whole book the elegant α-helical shape, but also the model building method Pauling used, were a major inspirational source for the construction of the double helix in DNA.

Crick and Watson drinking copius amounts of tea

Crick and Watson drinking copius amounts of tea

Scientific mistakes

Watson also gives a very interesting insight in the scientific progress and all the failed theories that are developed along the way. Luckily some remnants are still visible and Watson is also not ashamed to admit the mistakes but also greedily points out the error of others (Pauling for example). One big misstep by Watson and Crick is the hypothesis the two strand of DNA are hold together by a salt bridge of Mg2+ in the middle and the negative phosphate groups pointing inward (see Figure 1). Franklin is the first one to point out the crucial reflections in the X-ray photos for the magnesium ions are missing and the model is thus one big joke.


Figure 1: A premature hypothesis by Watson and Crick of the structure of DNA. The  phosphate groups are pointing inwards and the bases outwards. (Adopted from: The Double Helix, by J. Watson)

Without giving too much away of the book there is also a very compassionately written chapter that deals with the almost-scoop of Pauling on the structure of DNA. Unfortunately for Pauling he is totally wrong because he postulates in the spring of 1953 (about two years after his discovery of the α-helix in proteins) that DNA is buildup of 3 intertwining helixes with the phosphate groups pointing inwards (see Figure 2), with a chemistry trick he made sure there was no negative net charge on the phosphate groups. However this trick was not part of good-chemistry-practice and soon the whole world (to Watson’s delight) knows the great Pauling is wrong. It is particularly interesting that this fundamentally wrong article3 of Pauling can still be read on the website of PNAS, history really comes alive here.

Figure 2: Wrong Pauling

Figure 2: Linus Pauling’s incorrect model of the DNA fiber, showing DNA consists of three strands with the bases on the outside. (Adopted from reference 3)

Further Reading

If you are planning on reading the book and are not totally confident with the historical context give the readers guide of Miller from Brown University a shot. Some other background information I found particularly helpful is a short clip where Watson and Crick interview themselves about their discovery that start of with the line

“Francis, do you think we were lucky to have solved it? Or was it real brain work on our part?”

As I already mentioned the whole manuscript is written from Watson’s viewpoint, to get a small peak on the thoughts of Francis Crick check out this small autobiographical article of Crick6. The original DNA paper4 can be found here and a follow up published a couple of weeks later about the biological implications5 can be found here.

In conclusion I can really recommend the book, it is entertaining, form time to time hilarious, gives new insights in history and as Sir Lawrence Bragg states in his foreword it should be read with a “very forgiving spirit”.

Luckily Watson also has some reassuring words for PhD students working in Denmark: “The $3,000 fellowship stipend that I had received for being in Copenhagen was three times that required to live like a well-off Danish student”.

References (all articles are freely accessible)

1. Pauling, L., Corey, R. B. & Branson, H. R. The structure of proteins: Two hydrogen-bonded helical configurations of the polypeptide chain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 37, 205–211 (1951).

2. Pauling, L. & Corey, R. B. The Structure of Fibrous Proteins of the Collagen-Gelatin Group. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 37, 272–281 (1951).

3. Pauling, L. & Corey, R. A Proposed Structure For The Nucleic Acids. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 39, 84–97 (1953).

4. Watson, J. & Crick, F. Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid. Nature 171, 737–738 (1953).

5. Watson, J. & Crick, F. Genetical implications of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid. Nature 171, 964–967 (1953).

6. Crick, F. The Double Helix: A personal view. Nature 248, 766–769 (1974).

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