The Double Helix by James D. Watson

The Double Helix
A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA
by James D. Watson

James D. Watson recounts his experience and the work behind discovering the structure of DNA.

As someone with only a basic understanding of DNA and the scientific process, I enjoyed this book. There is science in it, of course, but it’s not so science heavy that you need any background knowledge to know what’s going on. It’s much more a behind the scenes look at the science world on the path to a discovery, with pieces of the science that led to figuring out the structure of DNA.

I liked that this is focused on the process that led to the discovery and the people that made it happen. I enjoyed seeing all the guessing and cross-checking, the way scientists simultaneously compete with one another to get to the answer first while also relying on one another’s knowledge and skills to mutually progress whatever it is they’re competing over. It’s such an interesting dynamic to me, hearing about these people trying to work together with people they didn’t like personally and how science is much more niche than I would assume. They’re all hooked on solving a specific problem and even they can be reluctant to look outside of their chosen niche.

Also, Rosalind Franklin was judged harshly and treated poorly by everyone at the time. That’s something we can all agree on. I’m glad Watson addresses this at the end of the book, but I’m also glad that he didn’t retroactively correct it. He kept all the bits that showed the collaboration and collective talent of everyone who contributed to the discovery, but he also kept the bits that display the competition, the clashes, the secrecy, the sexism, and the occasional truancy in the science world without villainizing anyone.

I would recommend this if you’re curious about the science world (although things have changed quite a bit in the last 70 years) but don’t want to dive into anything too technical right off the bat.