The human face of science
The writing life of James D Watson
Cold Spring Harbor, US: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press | 2005 | 193 pp | £14.99 (HB) | ISBN 0879697008
Reviewed by David Lilley
James Watson was the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953. At that time few appreciated the true significance of DNA, but the knowledge of the structure immediately opened up the new world of molecular biology. Watson has been a constant witness to this process and over the following 50 years has consistently recorded and documented it in many books.
These have included a number of influential textbooks, including The molecular biology of the gene. This certainly influenced me to move from theoretical chemistry into the new biology in the 1970s.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the structure, Watson published a fascinating record of the development of modern genetics entitled DNA: the secret life (2003), which included biotechnology, genome sequencing, genetic disease, DNA fingerprinting.
He also wrote The double helix (1968), an inspiring account which has sold a million copies and has been translated into 20 different languages. This alone marks Watson out as a substantial writer of the 20th century. There are few scientists who can combine Nobel prize-winning discoveries with such efforts to give their science a human face. Richard Feynman perhaps comes closest, although it's hard to make quantum electrodynamics quite so accessible.
In this book Errol Friedberg has taken a chronological trawl through Watson's writings. Some parts of this book are revealing, such as the correspondence with Francis Crick who fervently disliked The double helix, feeling that it invaded his privacy and violated the friendship between himself and Watson.
Friedberg's book is a good documentation of the prolific writing of Watson, and provides many reproductions of letters, book covers and other illustrations. But at the end I felt I learned relatively little from it, with few new scholarly insights. My advice to the reader is to save your money and buy one of Watson's books instead.