The Double Helix (II)
I probably didn’t need to write two posts about this book as it’s not very long, but there was a lot of good stuff in there. I’ve given it four stars on goodreads. The main reason why it doesn’t get five stars is that you actually need to know some stuff about these things in order to understand the stuff that’s going on in the book; ideally a book like this would in my view contain detailed enough descriptions of the various problems they encountered along the way not to leave you any more confused than they were, but perhaps that’s too much to ask from a book like this – I occasionally felt that I had to look up stuff in Russell or at wikipedia in order to figure out the details of what he was talking about, and I’m not really sure you should have to do that when reading a book like this. On the other hand some people might rather say that if a book is sufficiently interesting to have you look up stuff in genetics textbooks or online encyclopedias, then that should truly lead to a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’ on part of the author.. As can probably be inferred from these remarks, I’ve not quoted from the most technical parts of the book – I decided to leave such quotes out, as well as potential major ‘spoiler’-quotes.
Aside from some technical stuff a few places which is not quite as clear as I’d have liked it to be, which arguably is just me asking a bit too much from a book like this, it’s a great read. A few quotes from the last half:
“I pilfered Barnal’s and Fankucken’s paper from the Philosophical Library and brought it up to the lab so that Francis could inspect the TMV X-ray picture. When he saw the blank regions that characterize helical patterns, he jumped into action, quickly spilling out several possible helical TMV structrues. From this moment on, I knew I could no longer avoid actually understanding the helical theory. Waiting until Francis had free time to help me would save me from having to master the mathematics, but only at the penalty of my standing still if Francis was out of the room.”
“The chilling prospect of enduring Francis throughout the remaining years of his tenure as the Cavendish Professor was too much to ask of Bragg or anyone with a normal set of nerves.”
“If a student had made a similar mistake, he would be thought unfit to benefit from Cal Tech’s chemistry faculty. Thus, we could not but initially worry whether Linus‘s model followed from a revolutionary re-evaluation of the acid-base properties of very large molecules. The tone of the manuscript, however, argued against any such advance in chemical theory. […] Linus’s chemistry was screwy.”
“Bertrand and Elizabeth looked pleased with themselves. They had just returned from motoring in a friend’s Rolls to a celebrated country house near Bedford. Their host, an antiquarian architect, had never truckled under to modern civilization and kept his house free of gas and electricity. In all ways possible he maintained the life of an eighteenth-century squire, even to providing special walking sticks for his guests as they accompanied him around his grounds.”
“As the clock went past midnight I was becoming more and more pleased. There had been far too many days when Francis and I worried that the DNA structure might turn out to be superficially very dull, suggesting nothing about either its replication or its function in controlling biochemistry. But now, to my delight and amazement, the answer was turning out to be profoundly interesting. For over two hours i happily lay awake with pairs of adenine residues whirling in front of my closed eyes. Only for brief moments did the fear shoot through me that an idea this good could be wrong. […] My scheme was torn to shreds by the following noon.”
“we had lunch, telling each other that a structure this pretty just had to exist.”
“For a while Francis wanted to expand our note to write at length about the biological implications. But finally he saw the point to a short remark and composed the sentence: ‘It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.'”
Watson & Crick’s original 1953 paper, A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid, and some related papers are available here. They’re very short (a few pages) and do not take a lot of time to read.
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