What James Watson thinks of Rosalind Franklin now.


James Watson's The Double Helix is one of the most famous pieces of science writing in the last century, despite its personal, idiosyncratic, and often unkind view of the people involved with the discovery of the structure of DNA. Watson was, of course, one of the two winners of the Nobel Prize for that discovery, along with Francis Crick.

Now Simon & Schuster has published a new, annotated and illustrated edition of The Double Helix that reproduces many letters and documents that bear on Watson's story. In a review at boingboing.netMaggie Koerth-Baker says that if you're going to read The Double Helix, this is the edition you ought to read. 

One of the lingering problems with the book is that it largely dismisses the contributions of Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray images of DNA were important–even essential–in solving its structure. And in an email exchange with Watson, this is the first thing Koerth-Baker asks him about. Watson still isn't entirely forthcoming.

Koerth-Baker asks him if his views of Franklin have changed in recent years. Watson says yes, but he doesn't address her scientific contribution to the solving the structure of DNA. He admits that she was the victim of some awful office (or laboratory) politics. And he praises her work on tobacco mosaic virus, saying it is "often overlooked in popular accounts of her life." But he doesn't say whether or not her images were essential to the discovery of the double helix.

Even so, I commend Koerth-Baker's review. It's a nice discussion of the issues, and it is nicely written. Her description of X-ray crystallography was, I thought, particularly good:

Rosalind Franklin was a biophysicist who worked primarily with x-ray crystallography, a method of determining the shape and structure of things that we can't see with our own eyes. Imagine that you have captured Wonder Woman's invisible airplane. You can't see it. But you know it's there because when you throw a rubber ball at the space, the ball bounces back to you. If you could throw enough rubber balls, from all different sides, and measure their trajectory and speed as they bounced back, you could probably get a pretty good idea of the shape of the plane.

I agree with Koerth-Baker that this is the edition of The Double Helix you should read. And hers is the review you should start with.

-Paul Raeburn


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