The Double Helix Study Guide

The Double Helix By James D. Watson

Born in Chicago in 1928, James Watson studied at the University of Chicago and then got his PhD from the University of Indiana at the tender age of 22. He then moved to Copenhagen, where this story begins.

James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA together. In this book, Watson examines not only the process of discovery, but the personalities of many famous scientists involved in the project as well as the technical aspects of proteins and crystallography.

The story takes place over three years, 1950 to 1953. It begins in Copenhagen as Watson arrives in Europe, stumbles around unfocusedly, realizes that he wants to understand genes, and moves to Cambridge and teams up with Francis Crick. Crick is a loud man with a tendency to give his colleagues headaches.

Linus Pauling, an American, was advancing the understanding of DNA, and Watson and Crick knew they had to race Pauling to determine DNA's structure. The middle part of the book deals with their attempts at modeling DNA. They fail their first attempt, and get a bad reputation, and it looks like they'll never succeed. As a side note, Cambridge has bad accommodations and the food isn't that good either.

In the final parts of the book, as the race gets hotter, Linus Pauling publishes a paper on DNA structure too soon. When Watson and Crick realize he has made a fundamental error, they see a chance to win the race, and they run back to their ideas and models. They arrive at the correct answer, re-obtaining the support of their alienated allies as they do. At age 25, Watson is able to correctly announce to the world that he and Crick have uncovered the nature of life.

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