Watson’s The Double Helix and Science as Art

My relationship with science has been rocky, at best.

In high school, I clumsily fumbled my way through introductory chemistry and struggled to crack algebraic equations during sophomore-year trigonometry, damning the ancient Greeks at every turn (particularly Pythagorean and his stupid theorem). In my moments of frustration I frequently found myself questioning the relevance of what I was learning. Who really cares that electrons are moving around the nucleus, or that particle x contains y number of neutrons? When am I ever going to use this stuff?!

As a self-proclaimed English nerd, I have always scorned science as something dull and sterile, utterly devoid of creativity or emotion. Science, with its complex theories and rigid rules, always seemed to lack the effortless elegance of an E.E. Cummings poem, or the quiet grace of a Monet landscape painting. It was so emotionless, so pedantic. Hand me a novel written by Dickens and Chaucer and Austen, however, and it is a different story (no pun intended). Compared to science, words are much more vibrant and beautiful and alive. Words can make you laugh or smile or cry; they can make you feel. I challenge you to find me a math equation that can do the same (unless, of course, you’re crying out of frustration by your inability to solve it).

Given my general disdain for science, you can imagine my initial reservations when I first picked up a copy of James Watson’s autobiography The Double Helix. A book about DNA? I thought incredulously, I’d rather watch paint dry! Much to my surprise, however, Watson’s prose proved refreshingly unscientific. For as much as he came across as slightly misogynistic and egotistic at times, Watson gets brownie points for his ability to present complex scientific ideas in a rather straightforward, easy-to-understand manner. My science-averse mind had little difficulty comprehending his discussion of DNA—which is saying a lot, because I haven’t so much as cracked open a science textbook in years, and my knowledge about DNA is practically non-existent.

Ultimately, The Double Helix did the impossible: it worked to challenge my long-held belief that science and art are fundamentally incompatible. I had always assumed that science was the antithesis of art, and vice versa, but Watson’s delightfully dazzling prose proved me otherwise. Watson seamlessly fuses science and emotion, and the result is quite effective. At the end of the book, a world-weary Watson, alone and alienated, anticipates a cold and bleak future; the lines are infused with a palpable sense of nostalgia and disillusionment in a manner reminiscent of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other members of the so-called “Lost Generation.”

An existential book about DNA? What a delightful surprise!

–Anna D.

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~ by ardickens on March 19, 2012.

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