So begins the famous Nature paper by James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA in 1953. Their discovery revolutionized biology and won them both the Nobel Prize.
I just finished reading Watson’s book The Double Helix, and as a layman I found the inside view of the process of scientific discovery intriguing. What struck me most was the importance of collaboration.
We are used to thinking of scientists as lone geniuses hunched over a lab bench until they exclaim “Eureka!” But Watson’s book makes clear how important the many scientists surrounding him at the University of Cambridge were to his discovery. He repeatedly checks his findings with others more experienced than he in a particular area, like structural chemistry. And without the long conversations with Crick, the discovery would never have happened in the first place.
Being in the right environment was so important to Watson that he left the University of Copenhagen, against the terms of his fellowship, when he realized he needed the expertise of the Cambridge circle to make a real breakthrough. He did what was necessary and asked for permission later. What would’ve happened had he sat around waiting for permission?
The casual sexism with which Watson treats Rosalind Franklin, the expert in X-ray photography that wound up playing a major part in the discovery of the double helix, was striking to me reading the book in 2021. Watson tends to characterize her opinions and insights as obstinancy or rudeness. He doesn’t view his male colleagues the same way.
If cooperation is so critical to science, I can’t help but wonder what Watson could’ve achieved with a more collaborative attitude toward Franklin. Would the breakthrough have come even sooner? Would they have been able to make even more discoveries together if Watson had been more open to her expertise?
I loved getting a view of what is in a scientist’s mind as they make a major breakthrough. Watson was by no means certain he was right at first, but he worked methodically to prove what he suspected. That even such a genius has doubt in his ideas can cheer the rest of us!
The great chemist Linus Pauling had suggested a different structure of DNA, which turned out to be incorrect. But when he saw the elegance of Watson and Crick’s double helix, he was in awe and thrilled, rather than upset at being proven wrong.
I find that attitude to be one of the great things about science. There is both collaboration and competition, but in the end, everyone is working toward one goal: understanding.
In all, I found Watson’s book interesting and instructive. Since it was written in 1968, I’m not sure how many people are still reading it, but it’s worth a look. Check it out!
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