J. D. Watson and the Process of Science
The Double Helix, by James D. Watson
BEGINNING WITH Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and Newton and his famous apple, there has been more fiction than truth in the popular conception of how scientists discover what they discover. And the conception of what motivates them to discover anything at all is equally mythical.
Newton, probably the most important of all scientists, is surely nine-tenths myth. Absent-minded, able to concentrate exclusively on his work for long hours during his fertile period, and generally refusing to pay any attention to getting his work published. Newton is the type of the Scientific Genius. But there is a more sordid, or at least more human, side to Newton's life. After quarreling with one astronomer (John Flamsteed) he removed from the second edition of the Principia all passages from the first edition in which he had acknowledged his debt to the man. In a paper once, Newton implied that Leibniz had borrowed his idea for the calculus from one of Newton's manuscripts. And as the furor over this question spread through scientific Europe, Newton played an active role in the publications of a paper by the Royal Society which examined the conflict and concluded, not entirely fairly, against Leibniz.
In his occasional jealousy and bitterness. Newton is the rule rather than the exception among scientists. Disputes over priority, often exacerbated by intense nationalistic feelings, fill a lot of pages in the history of science.
It is interesting enough to have historians and sociologists of science uncovering this dark aspect of one of our most noble professions. But when a distinguished scientist himself confesses his motives to the reading public, he is bound to shock.
WHATEVER else may be said about James D. Watson in The Double Helix, he is honest about his motives. He knew then (in 1953, when he was 24 years old) that DNA was something big. He knew that to the scientist who discovered its structure would come renown and a Nobel Prize. And he knew that Linus Pauling, working in California, was after the prize and had a head start on Watson and his colleagues working in England. "Within a few days of my arrival," he writes, "we knew what to do: imitate Linus Pauling and beat him at his own game."
Watson frequently reiterates this obsessive need to beat out Pauling. He furthermore creates the distinct impression that he and Francis Crick are scientifically inferior to Pauling--that they are fighting an uphill battle against an acknowledged champion. At one point, they realize that some problems in ionic bonding are crucial roadblocks to their attempt to solve the structure of DNA:
Francis, as well as I, knew almost nothing about how inorganic ions were arranged in three dimensions. We had to face the bleak situation that the world authority on the structural chemistry of ions was Linus Pauling himself. Thus if the crux of the problem was to deduce an unusually clever arrangement of inorganic ions and phosphate groups, we were clearly at a disadvantage. By midday it became imperative to locate a copy of Pauling's classic book, The Nature of The Chemical Bond.
As an author, Watson has a sense of the dramatic, and he milks the character Pauling for all he is worth. Through almost all the book, we do not meet him--we only hear how good he is, and how successful he has been. "There had been previous encounters with Pauling, stretching over a 25-year interval. All too often Linus had got there first."
PAULING is the book's hero-at-a distance (when he dines with Pauling near the end of the book Watson proudly writes that Pauling prefers his youthful company to Crick's). But Watson's other scientist-characters are viewed from up close, and you can smell them. From the opening line ("I never saw Francis Crick in a modest mood"), Watson is critical of all his scientific colleagues at Cambridge and in London. But he is even more critical of the lesser scientists who were not his colleagues, and who form the bulk of the profession. "A goodly number of scientists," he writes, "are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid."
It is difficult to believe some of Watson's tales about the quarrelsome coterie of scientists in Great Britain who were after DNA. One woman, Rosalind Franklin, refuses to let Watson and Crick see her X-ray photographs of DNA crystals, the world's best, because she does not believe in the helix theory, and insists on working independently. At one point, Rosy--as her colleagues call her--almost assaults Watson in a one-one-one situation in her lab.
But it is even more difficult to figure out Jim Watson himself. Reading this account, one gets the feeling that Watson is trying to dupe the reader into thinking it was all so easy--so much easier than we know it was. He sets himself up as a kid scientist, still wet under the nose, making it because of a will to conquer DNA, despite his unpreparedness in chemistry, X-ray crystallography, and mathematics. He portrays the discovery as little more than the fitting together of the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with one eye on the clock because Pauling is almost there.
And yet, it would be folly to think Watson is any more modest than Crick. It is just that he is concerned with the literary value of his narrative. Though he claims in the introduction that he means this book to be the autobiographical recollections of a working scientist, one senses that Watson tries to write about scientific discovery as Melville did about whaling, or Hemingway about bullfighting. Watson wants his autobiographical recollections to be a novel: the novel about science.
Sometimes memoirs, sometimes literature, The Double Helix is a perfect example of the new kind of journalism which has come to dominate the best-seller lists. Like Norman Mailer on the conventions, Watson is telling what happened as Watson saw it, as Watson likes to remember it. Thus, we are provided as much insight into the author as into the subject. And this is the way Watson intended it, for just as the new journalism proclaims that the story depends on the reporter, Watson writes in his introduction that science's steps forward "are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles."