The Double Helix (I)

By James Watson. It’s a classic which I’ve long felt that I had to read at some point. I’m roughly half way through – and so far I really enjoy it. The book may be said to be a lot of things, but it is most certainly not boring.

Some quotes:

“One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.”

“Clearly Rosy [Rosalind Franklin – US] had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable […] Unfortunately, Maurice could not see any decent way to give Rosy the boot. […] The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab.”

“I was principally interested in birds and managed to avoid taking any chemistry or physics courses which looked of even medium difficulty. Briefly the Indiana biochemists encouraged me to learn organic chemistry, but after I used a bunsen burner to warm up some benzene, I was relieved from further true chemistry. It was safer to turn out an uneducated Ph.D. than to risk another explosion.”

“I was especially interested to hear the talk on nucleic acids to be given by Randall. At that time almost nothing was published about the possible three-dimensional configurations of a nucleic acid molecule. […] The odds, however, were against any real revelation then. Much of the talk about the three-dimensional structure of proteins and nucleic acids was hot air. Though this work had been going on for over fifteen years, most if not all of the facts were soft. Ideas put forward with conviction were likely to be the products of wild crystallographers who delighted in being in a field where their ideas could not be easily disproved.”

“By the time I was back in Copenhagen, the journal containing Linus’s article had arrived from the States. I quickly read it and immediately reread it. Most of the language was above me, and so I could only get a general impression of his argument. I had no way of judging whether it made sense. The only thing I was sure of was that it was written with style.”

“He had lived alone for several years until Odile, some five years his junior, came to Cambridge and hastened his revolt against the stodginess of the middle classes, which delight in unwicked amusements like sailing and tennis, habits particularly unsuited to the conversational life. […] There was no restraint in Francis’s enthusiasms about young women – that is, as long as they showed some vitality and were distinctive in any way that permitted gossip and amusement.”

“it was possible to get a university degree in biology without learning any genetics. That was not to say that the geneticists themselves provided any intellectual help. You would have thougt that with all their talk about genes they should worry about what they were. Yet almost none of them seemed to take seriously the evidence that genes were made of DNA. This fact was unnecessarily chemical.”

“Though Odile could not follow what we were saying, she was obviously cheered by the fact that Francis was about to bring off his second triumph within the month. If this course of events went on, they would soon be rich and could own a car. At no moment did Francis see any point in trying to simplify the matter for Odile’s benefit. Ever since she had told him that gravity went only three miles into the sky, this aspect of their relationship was set. Not only did she not know any science, but any attempt to put some in her head would be a losing fight against the years of her convent upbringing. The most to hope for was an appreciation of the linear way in which money was measured.”


September 17, 2013 - Posted by | Biology, Books, Genetics


  1. Romantic relationships such as the one shared between Francis and Odile (or, in the fictional universe, Leonard and Penny) never fail to boggle my mind.

    Comment by Miao | September 17, 2013 | Reply

    • I don’t think it makes much sense to compare the Odile/Francis pairing and the Penny/Leonard pairing or to think of them as similar in more than a very superficial way. Odile and Francis Crick met in 1945 – the year my father was born. Back then you sure didn’t have online dating and I’m pretty sure the female beauty premium was much larger than it is now, because women were in general not expected to have a career of their own (so stuff like their IQs and earnings potentials likely mattered less). Unlike now, females were in general less educated than males and much fewer females had scientific degrees – and so there were a lot more male scientists than there were female scientists able to pair up with them. Many people like Francis would either find someone like Odile or become the stereotypical unmarried professor. Neither type of arrangement was presumably that uncommon, also because of the fact that search costs were significantly higher back then and the potential mating pool was much smaller.

      Given that females on average have more education than males today, relationships of the Penny/Leonard kind today I’d consider to be much more remarkable than were pairings of the Odile/Francis-variety 60 years ago.

      Comment by US | September 17, 2013 | Reply

      • That is a very good point, of course. It momentarily slipped my mind that Watson was writing about a story that took place decades ago.

        Comment by Miao | September 17, 2013

      • I should note that given the way the book is written Watson implicitly makes sure that you remember this while you’re reading the book – random remarks spread out across the pages which make you appreciate how different so many things were back then is certainly part of what makes this a very enjoyable read.

        Comment by US | September 17, 2013

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