The People Behind the Discoveries

While reading Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever and The Double Helix, very different techniques allow the same views to come to light: that intricate world changing discoveries are made by real people, not robots or aliens or mad scientists. They have families and friends, hometowns and ideals. An English major myself, I can never imagine making such amazing discoveries having to do with genetics, specifically being able to identify the location of ions, take X-Rays of viruses, or even figure out how to successfully cross-breed pea plants.  In Sylvia Nasar’s strikingly appropriate introduction to The Double Helix by James D. Watson, she states that the story is “also an affectionate paean to a rare friendship, and, perhaps more surprisingly, a joyous celebration of the importance of being playful while pursuing a Nobel… always time – even during the stomach-crunching final stretch-for a game of tennis, an afternoon at the movies, or a bottle of burgundy” (Watson, xvii).

“Characters” such as Mendel and Watson somewhat agree with my stereotypical imaginary mad scientist (James Watson sure has the hair in some of the pictures to back me up here), but both characters are given a humanity in these books. Much as was the goal to give clones human characteristics in Never Let Me Go, stories allow personality quirks and likes and dislikes come across.  I’m sure James Watson has written many a scholarly article in his day detailing his discoveries regarding the structure of DNA, and if we wish we could go find them and read them, but The Double Helix allows a rare glimpse into the mind of, well, any type of science figure. We learn about his mistakes, his missteps, his concerns, his “drama” with his colleagues seeking the structure of the gene, and what was going through his head as he took the knowledge available to him and combined it into a carefully constructed thesis to support his formation of the double helix figure.

Andrea Barrett’s depiction of Mendel is (clearly) much more fictional and idealized than Watson’s account of his own work, yet perhaps Barrett’s imagination creates a figure even more desirable.  Mendel as an eccentric neighbor, willing to share his information to anyone interested, and a devoted and humble scholar is a figure that I would have never put with his name as one of the founding fathers of genetics.

Texts like these should be required reading for younger children, to allow them to see that they don’t necessarily have to have the mind to discover the structure of DNA, just the heart and the drive and the determination to do so.  For now, however, we will just have to amuse ourselves with this Limited-Edition James D. Watson Bobblehead!

– Stephanie Mills


~ by vandysteph on March 1, 2010.

One Response to “The People Behind the Discoveries”

  1. You are right….I think its important to see these scientists on a more personal level, see their struggles and obstacles. It also helps people realize that these discoveries did not happen overnight. Seeing their problem solving skills can be helpful and encouraging!

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