Part memoir, part love story, part homage to the brilliant physicist George (“Geo,” pronounced Joe) Gamow, this is another tell-all tale in the tradition of The Double Helix.
Yes, Watson is at it again, recalling the turbulent decade that followed the world-shaking 1953 publication of the Watson-Crick model of DNA. Watson was then 25, unmarried, restless, and eager—not only to capture a bride, but also to nail the next scientific triumph—to show how information coded in the DNA in a cell’s nucleus gets out into the cell body to direct the production of proteins. That story is told in an intricate chain of events intertwined with the pursuit of one Christa Pauling, Linus’s beautiful daughter. Into this double helix winds yet a third chain—in the form of on-again, off-again appearances of the brilliant, irrepressible, and hard-drinking George Gamow. It was Gamow who conceived the notion that amino acids could be specified by a triplet code. The four bases of DNA taken three at a time would allow 64 (4X4X4) combinations of letters—more than enough to code for the 20 odd amino acids. It was Gamow who also playfully established the RNA-tie club with Watson, since RNA would play a key role. In the end, the combined efforts of a pantheon of greats and graduate students on both sides of the Atlantic led to the initial cracking of the code by Marshall Nirenberg in 1961. By that time the reader will have tracked Watson in endless commutes between the two Cambridges, Cold Spring Harbor, Caltech, and the like. As well, we will have trekked with him on climbing tours across England and the continent in the company of colleagues, often equally in pursuit of girls. The epilogue draws the chains to their conclusion—the brilliant triumph of the science, the sad early death of Geo, and a happy ending for the author, though not with Christa.
Watson seems more tempered this time around, especially in the treatment of Rosalind Franklin. But the urge to reveal all will surely upset a few who may not see it that way at all.