Monday, December 30, 2013

The Double Helix by James D.Watson

I just want to write how I feel about this book and I don't want to make it look like a book review. It's  the short history of DNA told by its discoverer.

First of all, I was surprised to learn that just like Max Dellbruck and Maurice WilkinsFrancis Crick was also a physicist and became interested in biology later in his career. You might think that changing fields is craziness and it only works for exceptional figures like those mentioned. Well, I used to think the same. But, after reading how much time and effort Francis Crick spent on thinking about DNA, I changed my mind. He wasn't a genius. He wasn't one of the greatest minds of his age and according to Watson, he wasn't even favored by his fellow scientists including his director Sir Lawrence Bragg. There were several occasions that they seriously considered sending him away.
Secondly, I was totally surprised that the four people (Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick and James Watson) who were involved in the discovery of the helix, had many arguments. Surprisingly, Rosalind Franklin was not much of a fan of sharing her experiment results and data with others.
Maurice Wilkins was not so different. When Linus Pauling wrote him a letter and asked for a copy of X-Ray photos of the structures, he didn't send him any.
Linus Pauling wrote in his The Nature of the Chemical Bond;  "It has been recognized that hydrogen bonds restrain protein molecules to their native configurations, and I believe that as the methods of structural chemistry are further applied to physiological problems it will be found that the significance of the hydrogen bond for physiology is greater than that of any other single structural feature. " He was absolutely right. During the time Crick and Watson spent on thinking of a possible structure for the DNA molecule, they were well aware of the fact that hydrogen bonding would help to stabilize the molecule. So, they tried several pairings of the base pairs and being good at physics and maths Francis Crick calculated the distances, bond lengths etc. They knew that Linus Pauling was a great chemist and being the discoverer of the alpha helix, he had the upper hand. Actually, Watson bought himself a copy of The Nature of the Chemical Bond to learn more about inorganic ions, bonding etc.
Francis Crick's tricks to deceive the "fellowship electors" is another story. He didn't really work where he was supposed to before he came to UK. I will not go into detail but I will just quote this one "It made me feel slightly dishonest as I set off for the sun."
He was also not interested in biochemistry. HE was actually sent abroad by his "boss" to learn biochemistry but he didn't really like it. This was my biggest surprise and may be he had to tell lies about his workplace and research interests. I think there is enough evidence in the book to answer this question and I believe he really had to do so.
There are also some evidences how women in science were perceived. So, I can empathize with R.Franklin to some extent. I want to quote Watson here again ; "The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab."
I finished the book in a few hours and I seriously wished that it had 200 more pages. It was fascinating and I really loved it. I think I've learned so many important facts from this book that I will never forget in my future life and career. After all, I think it is the most famous molecule in the world.

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