The Double Helix
One of the most important discoveries ever in biology has to be that of the structure of DNA. In “The Double Helix,” James tells the story, both funny and serious, of all his trials and tribulations leading up to the famous discovery. James starts out with his fantasy of someday solving the great mystery surrounding the structure of DNA. He realizes from the very beginning his competitors in this great race: Maurice Wilkins (x-ray diffraction expert), Rosy Franklin (Information expert on crystallography and soon to be Maurice’s new enemy), Linus Pauling (very intelligent scientist), and Francis Crick (outspoken scientist often compared to Rutherford or Bohr). With all of these experts, in their own fields, Watson new he had to spring into action and fast.
In the fall of 1951, Watson set out to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. Once there he got to know the always-excited Francis and the straightforward Maurice. Soon after, Watson and Francis paired up to uncover the secret pattern of DNA. Two people who aided both to the slowness and acceleration of the project were Sir Lawrence Bragg (creator of the basic law of all crystallography ideas and also Francis’ superior) and Rosy Franklin. Their criticism and sometimes lack of cooperation had a big affect on the research.
Watson soon started attending conferences and seminars that had anything to do whatsoever with DNA. He and Francis started taking advantage of information from surrounding experts like Maurice and Rosy into their everyday studies. Scientist Linus Pauling, made a very near achievement towards the discovery of the DNA structure. He announced his completion of figuring out the a-helix. This put Francis and Watson on a faster track.
Francis soon after had a little success of his own. He came up with new equations to help the new theory of diffraction of x-rays on helical molecules. Another close call came when Rosy announced she was holding a seminar to announce that her study of crystallization was headed to straight success towards the structure of DNA. Watson of course attended and left both relieved and a little uptight. When he got back, he explained to Francis that she was in the wrong direction but on the right track.
As soon as they started to get back into the way of their studies again, an unpredictable announcement came from straight above.
Sir Lawrence Bragg ordered that they stop their experimenting with DNA and continue on with their original studies. No repeal or other action was taken; instead Francis and Watson continued to study the DNA on their own time.
Rosy continued her study and made known her opinions. She believed that the sugar-phosphate backbone was outside of the DNA structure. Her x-ray pictures were also very good looking.
If Rosy’s good guesses didn’t shake up Francis and Watson, the announcement coming later that week did. It was reported that Linus discovered the structure for DNA! The excitement grew around Cambridge as the information spread. While Watson was still trying to soak up the news, he studied Linus’ illustrations very intensely. He soon figured out that Linus was mistaken. One of the world’s most prestigious scientists made a dramatic elementary chemistry mistake. The model was not ionized. Linus’ nucleic acid was not an acid at all.
Almost traumatized, Francis and Watson began working around the clock to fix the error Linus made. Watson began to play with his ideas and soon he came to the decision to build 2 chain models of what the DNA structure was to him. With these models he soon figured out that the adenine-thymine pairs and the guanine-cytosine pairs were fuss-proof identical in shape. As he started to figure it out, it all seemed to fit perfectly. Maurice and Rosy’s x-ray data strongly supported their DNA structure.
All turned out to be accurate and Francis and Watson were instantly congratulated on their great work. The news was soon published everywhere. Francis, Watson and Maurice all shared in the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1962. Their success was great and their sacrifice was brutal.
This book really does show that besides hard work and a lot of smarts, that there are also ordinary, funny, and strange lives