The Double Helix
- The Double Helix
- Max Perutz, M. H. F. Wilkins, and James D. Watson: “Three Letters to the Editor of Science” (pages 207-212) – 1969
- Andre Lwoff: “Truth, Truth, What is Truth (About How the Structure of DNA Was Discovered)?” (pages 224-234) – 1968
- This reading was a collection of writings from four different authors, each with his own message. The first section included Perutz, Wilkins, and Watson. Perutz’s main message was that Watson misrepresented certain aspects of the process in discovering the structure of DNA. He then gives evidence to back his claims. Wilkins’ letter is in response to Perutz’s letter, and clarifies and expands upon some scientific nuances left out of Watson’s book The Double Helix and Perutz’s letter. Watson then reacts to the other two, apologizing for representing others the way he did. The main point of Lwoff’s essay was that Watson has given science historians an ample view into the social life of scientists, even if his representations are brash and cold.
- All writings in this reading point to the social aspects of the development of science. Lwoff describes how Watson intentionally associated himself with those that would allow him to advance his scientific pursuit to discover new information about the basis of genetic material – DNA. James Watson went to great lengths to work on DNA, including rushing into the Cavendish Laboratory without prior permission from the fellowship board. The purpose of the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics committee that included Randall and Perutz was to make sure that different labs working in the field of biophysics would share information and collaborate. Here comes a point of contention – in his book, Watson writes that he gets a report by Franklin and Wilkins in an indirect way from Perutz. In his letter, Perutz says that the report was never confidential, but admits that he should have asked for permission before showing it to Watson and Crick. In his letter, Wilkins adds some scientific background distinguishing “A” pattern DNA from “B” pattern DNA.
The committee that Perutz served on shows a paradigm shift in science towards collaborative efforts; with increased communication comes faster and further scientific achievement. If Watson and Crick hadn’t seen Franklin and Wilkins’ report, they would not have arrived at the conclusion that DNA runs in a double helix (they might have, however, if Watson had taken notes during Franklin’s lecture on the same subject as the report). If Watson and Crick hadn’t spoken to Erwin Chargaff, they wouldn’t have figured out that the sides of the helix fit together like a puzzle. If Jerry Donohue hadn’t pointed out that the nucleotides were in keto form, then the structures Watson and Crick strung together would have been incorrect.
- The part that I found the most compelling was Lwoff’s description of Watson’s character. He reduces Watson down to three characteristics: cold logic, hypersensitivity, and lack of affectivity. This shows that Watson was immature and somewhat paranoid. I don’t like Watson very much, given his views on women and minorities, support of genetic engineering of humans, and his general tendency to view people as tools. “Honest Jim” has a tendency to depict his contemporaries with their undesirable mannerisms and characteristics. Lwoff describes Watson as ignorant to the fact that the naked truth can hurt others. He depicts Rosalind Franklin as an unattractive woman who doesn’t share her research findings, and refers to her using the nickname “Rosy.” The nickname alone is disrespectful and demeaning to a woman who works very hard at the top of her field, his comments on her physical appearance are unnecessary, and Franklin shared information freely with the Biophysics committee and gave seminars on her findings.
I found the format of the first section of this reading (the three letters) to be compelling. It shows that science and discussion about science is a dialogue rather than a bunch of recluses printing their findings in absolutes.
- The part I found the least compelling was James Watson’s letter. He splits the letter into points, and covers different parts in the other letters that he has reservations about. He starts and finishes by apologizing to Perutz, but the middle is more underhanded. He admits that the report given to him was confidential (even though he had previously said it was), but then shifts the blame for the publication of this representation to Perutz. He does this by saying Perutz should have asked him to change it when he had sent the manuscript to Perutz. Watson says that he under described the science in The Double Helix because not doing so would kill the experience for the average reader. This is how he defends not differentiating between the different patterns of DNA. Before apologizing to Perutz at the end of the letter, he says that Perutz has oversimplified the situation, thereby placing more negativity onto Perutz. Watson has a tendency to obfuscate the details in order to conceal his misdeeds, and then shifts the blame when someone calls him out on his actions. This shows immaturity, which is something that I cannot condone; this is why I don’t find Watson’s letter compelling.
- Max Perutz, page 208: “The report was not confidential and contained no data that Watson had not already heard from Miss Franklin and Wilkins themselves.”
James D. Watson, page 212: “The fiasco of November 1951 arose largely from my misinterpretation of Rosy’s talk…”
Andre Lwoff, page 233: “If Jim were a different person, The Double Helix would lack the spice of scandal.”
- I have noticed that the relationship between scientists seems to be often one of disagreement, pettiness, or rivalry. Watson saw Pauling as a threat/rival and worked against him, while his depictions of his fellow researchers was petty (especially his depiction of Franklin). Alfred Russel Wallace and Francis Galton disagreed on the application of eugenics. Sir Isaac Newton had his own rival. Have these kinds of relationships always occurred in science? Is science pushed further when there is competition between scientists?
- While some scientists thrive on competition, like the ones listed above, others do not seem to need the competitive drive. Although there is much controversy surrounding Tesla and Edison, the two only met twice. Tesla thought of Edison as merely his boss for a while, and Edison didn’t seem to notice Tesla. While their campaigns for different current types went against each other, the actual scientists had no quarrel and both advanced science a great deal. As far as I know, Albert Einstein did not have a rival and yet came up with the theory of relativity.