The discovery in 1953 by James D. Watson and Francis Crick of the double helix structure of DNA – the molecular basis of all organic matter – has been called the most important scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. It has touched almost every aspect of modern life, from medicine and forensics to agriculture. Watson’s provocative insider account of how this discovery came about, The Double Helix, is a thrilling story of professional obsession and cut-throat rivalry; a battle of wits which not only revealed how genetic material could replicate itself but pushed modern science in an unprecedented direction.
In 1951, the young American, Watson, joined a team researching protein crystallography at Cambridge University. There he met the brash, opinionated British scientist, Crick, and this odd couple soon found itself in a nail-biting race against the formidable Linus Pauling of Cal Tech to unravel the secrets of DNA. That they emerged victorious – and were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize – is a testament to their own tenacity, brilliance and occasional ruthlessness, and to the considerable research done by Dr Rosalind Franklin.
Watson can be disarmingly candid (‘A goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull but also just stupid’); equally entertaining is his fish-out-of-water view of austerity Britain, not an obvious hotbed of scientific progress (‘Back in my rooms I lit the coal fire, knowing there was no chance that the sight of my breath would disappear before I was ready for bed’). The Double Helix is a supreme drama, infused with humour and tinged with tragedy, played out in the basement labs and smoky pubs of a distinctly parochial post-war Cambridge. Ultimately, though, it is the exhilarating outcome – no less than the revelation of the secret of life – which makes The Double Helix a unique account of the extraordinary power of the human mind.