The best *science book ever
It was said in class, its on the back of the book, and it is plastered all over the internet: James Watson’s The Double Helix is clearly the best science writing ever. Or should that be “science” writing? This question arises because it is difficult to distinguish Watson’s novels merits as a scientific reference point to his discoveries and research with its narrative nature. Watson not only tells you what he did in the lab, but also the circumstances, feelings, and events that led to arguably the second most important finding of all time (behind the atomic bomb). However, because of how Watson tells his incredible story, must we draw a line on the extent to which we can call this a book about a science. Is this really the best science writing ever penned or is it just a very good memoir of a scientist?
Initially, I had trouble viewing The Double Helix as a science book. There are many theories as to why I had trouble with the idea (maybe I’m so scarred by CHEM102 that I can only consider a science book to be one filled with painstaking facts I must memorize), but the reason I believe I had trouble reconciling with the fact that this was indeed a science book was due to my enjoyment in reading it. I was engrossed. Watson was an enjoyable character with a quirky and cocky personality. I’ve read fiction books with extremely less enjoyable characters. This was entertainment not science. To me, calling Watson’s book the best science writing of all time would be similar to calling a tell-all about Bill Clinton sleeping with Monica Lewinsky the best political writing of all time. I am sure that I would find such a story interesting, but is that really politics? No, John Locke’s social contract theory is politics.
However, I gradually began to become less harsh. Science writing or political writing does not necessarily have to be limited to theory and facts only. In fact, a personal story is what makes writing transcendent. What led me to softening my stance was thinking about nonfiction war books that I have previously read. I enjoy reading history and have read many books about World War II, and thinking back, all of the best writings on the war were not all inclusive narratives of the fight. Instead, they were stories told from a limited point of view that really highlight the life of one or a few soldiers. You get to know these soldiers and understand their feelings which gives the reader the best knowledge about the experience that they can get. Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers sticks out the most to me in this form. The book is a transcendent piece on World War II, but it limits itself to only one company out of the hundreds that fought in the 1940’s. However, its limits are overpowered by providing feeling and perspective through incredible yet real characters .
This is why in the end, I am fully willing to crown The Double Helix as the best science reading that I have ever read. I do this not because it turned me into an expert on DNA or genetics, but rather because its offers the full story, which is something that is too often lacking in science. Watson finally causes me to think outside of theories/equations and realize that real people make these discoveries. Real and hilarious people at that. The human touch made all of the difference in this book, and I thank Watson for crafting such great science writing: asterisk or not.