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For most people, the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA is the kind of ninth grade science fact you forgot as soon as the final was over. But the real story behind the breakthrough is a lot more interesting than trying to remember which of the bases pair up – and in The Double Helix, DNA-discoverer James D. Watson shares his memories of the find that earned him and his research partner, Francis Crick, a Nobel Prize.
The book, narrated almost entirely by Grover Gardner, traces the team's work on DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory in England in 1953, when Watson was in his early 20s. He and Crick raced frantically against other researchers – most notably Linus Pauling – in an effort to illuminate the structure of DNA, and thereby shed light on the genetics of all life. Watson doesn't shy away from using scientific terms, but Gardner's straightforward reading makes even the most complicated experiments easy to follow. And while the book's original release inspired controversy from scientists who didn't agree with Watson's version of events, Gardner gives Watson's voice all the excitement, passion, and dedication you'd expect from a young scientist on the verge of one of the world's greatest discoveries.
Roger Clark lends his elegant tenor to the book's afterward, written by Sir Lawrence Bragg --the youngest Nobel winner in history - who offers a scientist's take on Watson's memories. Bragg points out that The Double Helix is a record of "impressions, not facts" but he gets to the heart of what makes this memoir so appealing when he reminds us that few scientific books are as fresh and direct as Watson's – which is something your ninth grade science teacher would no doubt agree with. Blythe Copeland
By identifying the structure of DNA, the molecule of life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionized biochemistry and won themselves a Nobel Prize. At the time, Watson was only 24, a young scientist hungry to make his mark. His uncompromisingly honest account of the heady days of their thrilling sprint against other world-class researchers to solve one of science's greatest mysteries gives a dazzlingly clear picture of a world of brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions, and bitter rivalries.
With humility unspoiled by false modesty, Watson relates his and Crick's desperate efforts to beat Linus Pauling to the Holy Grail of life sciences: the identification of the basic building block of life. Never has a scientist been so truthful in capturing in words the flavor of his work.
I have always been fascinated by the story of the discovery of DNA, but this book far exceeded my expectations. Although I am not a scienctist, this book presented the key scientific aspects of the research in a way that I easily understood them. More importantly, though, I enjoyed hearing about the various personalities that were involved in one way or another with the scientists. The narration was outstanding! It was a perfect match to the subject matter. I am so grateful that Watson wrote this book. It's a great contribution to science and the world.
10 of 10 people found this review helpful
I was a biochem major in college and loved genetics so I thought this would be a nice history lesson, which it was. It was also a very good story, with very funny stories and comments by the younger member of the team to discover the double helix structure of DNA. It details the rivalries, trials and frustrations over a 2 year period and is well worth the 4 hour listen. Enjoy!!!
9 of 9 people found this review helpful
What did you love best about The Double Helix?
good history; good science; good human elements
Any additional comments?
This is a worthwhile piece of history, written without having to infer what the historical figure was thinking, since he tells it. Biases are acknowledged, as befits something that purports to deal with facts but must confront human sentiments. The description of the technical details is remarkably effective, even for an audible delivery.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
Watson is an engaging writer, and this memoir was notable when published for its frankness about scientists scrabbling to beat each other to major discoveries. They are like horse race jockeys who aren't above sticking a pebble under a competitor's saddle.
Even given the book was published in 1968, Watson's sexism is breathtaking, especially in regard to fellow scientist Rosaline Franklin. Admirably, he wrote an afterward at a later date (included here) apologizing for his crass dismissal of a woman who's work he felt no hesitations to borrow from when it suited him, which he also acknowledged. I know sexism in science is no longer so overt, but I'd like to think the situation has fundamentally changed for the better.
I don't know if it has, not being a scientist, and that brings up one of the book's chief pleasures: Watson writes so well and clearly about the topic that those with little science background can easily follow him.
Justice is not an interest of Watson's. He's quite frank about that, and he seems to find those who are motivated by it funny. Maybe that's why his account of Linus Pauling's troubles with the U.S. government for his peace activism is so good. Watson is not on Pauling's side. In the 1950s, the U.S. was deep into a red-baiting witch hunt, and Pauling's anti-nuke advocacy caused his government to deny him a passport to travel to Europe to receive a science honor. Watson's casual attitude throws the incident into high relief, oddly, more than a sympathetic telling would have.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
This is Watson's personal remembrance's of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. It also covers the race Watson and Click felt they were under to beat Linus Pauling to the discovery. After reading this story it would give one even more insight if you also read the biography of Rosalind Franklin. This is a nice short story that gives some personalization to the discovery. Gardner and Clark did a good job with the narration.
10 of 11 people found this review helpful
Where does The Double Helix rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?
This is a pretty good listen. It helps if you know what they are talking about in order to visualize the scenes, an X-ray crystallography for example. I have had a good look at all the research spoken of hear and seen "The Race for the Double Helix" so I could imagine the interiors very well.
What did you like best about this story?
The story reads like a good mystery and it is suspenseful.
Any additional comments?
It is very interesting about the abrupt end to James Watson's career and very intigueing how a possible (note possible) racist would be involved in DNA research.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
I gave it three stars last night (DNA night), but that just didn't seem right. The structure wasn't stable, and I felt this scientific memoir probably deserved four stars (one for A, one for T, one for G, one for C; also one for Watson, one for Crick, one for Wilkins, and yes one for Franklin).
Short, interesting, personal and important but also sexist, biased, & according to Crick "a violation of friendship". Watson's attitudes towards Rosalind Franklin today seem so maligned that Watson eventually had to clarify that these were his attitudes and views at the time of the discovery and not when he wrote the book. He added an epilogue that softened his views and gave Franklin more credit.
Despite, this major and very real issue, the book (along with Watson, Crick & Wilkins contributions) cannot be undersold. The discovery of DNA's structure changed biology and the book catapulted Watson & Crick into that pantheon of fame that is seldom reached by even Nobel-level scientists.
13 of 17 people found this review helpful
Autobiographical account of how the structure of DNA was discovered in 1950's. Watson's frank and honest revelation coupled with effortless prose and plot gives us a rare glimpse into the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of academic basic science research.
4 of 5 people found this review helpful
I enjoyed this book and was able to follow along, but did get a little lost in some of the scientific terms.
I especially enjoyed Watson's epilogue about Rosie. That almost made me cry.
I would definitely recommend this book. I like to read some good non-fiction, especially after I've read/listened to a 'guilty-pleasure' book. Hope it keeps me in balance.
So glad this is available.
6 of 8 people found this review helpful
What is the color of the wool that Watson is trying to pull over here? It is not of a sort that I have encountered before in autobiographical science writing. If this book is self-aggrandizing--which I am not entirely sure it is not--then the mythologizing that is occurring is that of a peculiar sort. Watson show's, by fits and start, how he and Crick stumbled unto the structure of the DNA while utilizing others work and doing little bench work of their own. He is (mostly) unapologetic. Candid. Funny. A little bit Ruthless. The candor is welcome. Science is more often composed of the likes of J. Craig Ventner than Francis Collins. It is nice to read a history of science that is light on over-emphasizing altruism and selflessness. They are young men trying to establish themselves. Having fun. Chasing Girls. It is reassuring how many times Watson admits to have little understanding about various aspects of his field.
Nature, on the 50th anniversary of the paper re-issued it. It is stunningly readable, coherent, and insightful. At the moment of discovery all of the implications of the structure are correctly interpreted and relayed. Nothing is missed in the article and little has been corrected in the subsequent 60 years. This book is great in that you get all that happens in Watson's, and to a lesser degree Crick's, life that was not on the pages of that nature article.
8 of 11 people found this review helpful
Interesting as much for its depiction of the scientific life and culture of the times, as for the multi faceted nature of scientific discovery. You don’t really need to understand the science as long as the words molecule or helix aren’t baffling.
What made the experience of listening to The Double Helix the most enjoyable?
This is such a funny, honest (or too modest) recollection of how a major scientific achievement was conceived in the early 50s. It is a rare glimpse into the real world of scientific struggle. For once with the most happy ending :)
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
Yes! And being quite a short book, I almost managed :) I normally listen during my commute (2 hrs per day), but didn't want to turn this off so kept making up tasks at work where I could listen and still work :)
Any additional comments?
Not sure how this would hold up for someone without a research background themselves. The facts are probably well enough explained to understand without a degree in chemistry/biology. But do have a listen and see if it enchants you anyway! If nothing else, you will have a quite good idea of what personalities exists in academic research (independent of research topic I would imagine) and how the everyday struggles of science and then the realisation you are onto something cool impact the researcher's life.
The real life story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. Much more entertainingly written than might be expected of your average scientist, showing the all too human side of scientists with their range of foibles and character clashes.