Throughout my academic career, the only thing I have hated more than history class is that annoying history section that always comes up at the beginning of science classes. We talk about Einstein, Darwin, Schwann, Mendeleev, and a multitude of other geniuses who have clearly had a massive impact on human knowledge, but never seemed remotely relevant to my practices of science. I’ve always preferred to operate under the assumption that these scientists would rather that I didn’t waste my time learning about them, but spend that time instead on developing an understanding of their subject.
That being said, it’s probably not hard to imagine that I was not looking forward to reading “The Double Helix.” I went into it with a bad attitude, and was rather irritated when I found myself actually enjoying the read. Watson’s humor, his anecdotes, and his honesty really captured my attention and left me thinking I was reading a novel instead of a history book. Furthermore, I felt like I could relate to Watson throughout, because he presented the scientific world as one big lab class, similar to groups that I have been involved with both at Vanderbilt and in high school.
We’ve all had those Rosalind Franklin’s in our lab group, who are so hate-able that even when their ideas are great, it is far more appealing to ignore and mock them instead of listening.
I won’t believe you if you tell me that you’ve never wanted to compete with another group to beat them to the punch, and don’t even try to tell me that you haven’t borrowed someone else’s information to get ahead on a lab when you’re completely lost on your own.
All of these situations that Watson presents in “The Double Helix” transform this story from some boring history book, to a real life report of how science is discovered. Even when he seems rude, sexist, or dishonest, his commentary sends me straight back to a multitude of memories I myself have made in lab. In the preface, Watson, “hope[s] this book will show, science seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backwards) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles.” Watson makes no buts about his discovery, discloses everything, and tells the story like it happened, a strategy that should be employed by more science history authors.