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James Watson's Double Helix, an account of his work on the structure of the DNA molecule, has been delighting lay audiences since 1968, but was greeted with suspicion from the start by many scientists, including Watson's co-worker Francis Crick and the third Nobel laureate Maurice Wilkins. Some claimed that Watson had not given colleagues due credit; others objected to science-for-the-layman with so profoundly distorting an emphasis on personalities, trivial circumstances, and sheer brainless competition for its own sake. Watson countered that he was portraying things not as they ""were"" but as they looked to him in his salad days (1953). Not a very satisfactory answer; the brash 24-year-old's disingenuous hornblowing has still shaped more people's idea of science than the broader, more impartial picture. The gap between the two is pointed out with missionary zeal by Anne Sayre, a personal friend of the late RoSalind Franklin. Franklin, who appears in Watson's book as ""Rosy,"" a cranky, unattractive, humorless, uppity underling of Maurice Wilkins at Kings College (where a line of research was being pursued parallel to Watson and Crick's simultaneous work at Cambridge), came to molecular biology by way of physical chemistry. She had worked first on coal microstructures, then on crystallography--where she mastered the X-ray diffraction techniques which formed her chief line of approach to the DNA question. Sayre presents a wholly different version of what Watson calls the ""race"" to discover the molecule's structure: nobody except Watson knew there was supposed to be a race; if Wilkins and Franklin (equals, not superior and cantankerous subordinate) had not hated each other they would have made more rapid headway on the DNA problem; in any case Franklin would have discovered the correct solution on her own in three months or maybe three weeks (Francis Crick's opinion); Watson could not have found the answer when he did without semi-clandestine briefings on Franklin's progress; Franklin might well have replaced Wilkins as the third laureate had she not died in 1958, four years before the Nobel award. The experts and the surviving members of the original teams will have to thrash out the facts among them; what is clear is that--aside from an overly didactic, magisterial tone--Sayre makes an extremely sharp: and impassioned case. Deserves wide attention.

Pub Date: Aug. 25th, 1975
ISBN: 0393320448
Publisher: Norton