I recently reread The Double Helix because I am interested in understanding why people began thinking that the structure of DNA was an important problem. Watson and Crick are the most famous 20th century biologists – if you ask a random person on the street to name a 20th century biologist, the most likely response is a blank stare, but the second most likely response is Watson and Crick. Why? Why did the structure of DNA turn out to be so enlightening, and why did people think it was an important problem in the early 50’s?
I first read this book in the 90’s before I became a scientist, and so I missed much of Watson’s insight into how scientists sniff out and pursue a good problem. Watson argues that only a few key people were thinking of DNA as being the key to heredity, but things clearly weren’t going to stay that way for long – DNA’s significance would soon be recognized, and so those hoping to solve the problem had to work fast before more competitors arrived.
The key to understanding The Double Helix is to figure out when Watson is accurately describing the quirky way in which scientific personalities interact in the process of pursuing hot science, and when Watson is being an asshole. Continue reading “On reading The Double Helix”