An interview with the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
The Double Helix is a famous book. It's also an infamous one. Written by James Watson in 1968, it tells the story of how he and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA. The catch is that Watson chose to write that story in what was, at the time, a damn-near unprecedented way. He didn't write a history. He didn't exactly write an autobiography, either. Instead, The Double Helix is a book about history, told in story form, where everything is seen through the eyes of a single narrator — the 25-year-old James Watson.
He is not the world's most likable narrator. Nor the most reliable one. I mean that in the sense of the "unreliable narrator" from fiction. We see this world through young Watson's eyes, and his perspective isn't always accurate. The story is shaped by his prejudices and his personality, and it can't really be read as THE account of what actually happened. That's a good thing, because the choice of style allowed Watson to really capture the back-room conflict (and cooperation), and the sense of urgency, that drives scientific discovery. It's a bad thing because it's far too easy to forget that The Double Helix has more in common with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood than, say, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It's not a scholarly history. It's more like memoir crossed with narrative non-fiction. You can't walk away from it thinking that Watson's narration represents some kind of objective truth.
The new, annotated and illustrated edition of The Double Helix — published this month by Simon and Schuster — makes that fact abundantly clear. Full of photographs, letters, handwritten notes, and commentary from other people involved in the history of DNA, this edition gives you glimpses of other perspectives — of a story much bigger than the one told in The Double Helix, itself.
It also made me wonder about James Watson's reaction to documents that completely upend the story as he told it — especially documents relating to Rosalind Franklin, a scientist whose work was instrumental in deciphering DNA's structure and who is unfairly maligned in the book as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature.
So I asked him about it.
I should clarify that I wasn't able to talk to James Watson by phone. This interview was done via email, and that's not my favorite way to work. With email (and you'll see this) it's far too easy to end up with one-sentence answers to complicated questions. Worse, there's no opportunity for follow-ups. But I do appreciate the Watson took the time to write some good answers to my questions about Franklin, and I wanted to share those with you.
First, though, a little background. 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.
That's basically what x-ray crystallography does. You shoot x-rays at a crystalline structure, like a molecule of DNA. Those beams hit the molecule and bounce off and you use the patterns of diffraction to learn something about the molecule's shape.
In the early 1950s, James Watson and Francis Crick were attempting to figure out the structure of DNA, but they weren't the only ones. In fact, Crick had avoided getting involved with DNA for several years because his friend, Maurice Wilkins, was also studying it. This is where Franklin comes in.
In 1950, the head of Wilkins department hired Rosalind Franklin. Wilkins — and his friends Crick and Watson — were under the impression that Franklin was supposed to be Wilkins' assistant. But she didn't act like his assistant. She acted like his colleague or, perhaps, his competitor. And that disconnect between who Wilkins thought Franklin was supposed to be and who she thought she was created a really shitty working environment. Wilkins was angry at Franklin, and his anger seems to have rubbed off on how his friends perceived her. Mix that with a little sexism and you get some of The Double Helix's most controversial parts. Here's an excerpt from James Watson's initial description of Franklin:
I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men.
It goes without saying that Watson was not particularly concerned with the fashion choices of his male colleagues. Likewise, the nickname "Rosy" isn't one that Franklin ever used. It was bestowed on her, and really only behind her back. Throughout The Double Helix, Watson refers to her as Rosy, even while calling other people by their formal last names. Or, at least, by names they would have called themselves.
But one of the interesting things this edition of The Double Helix does is shine some light on the initial conflict. On the page opposite the description I quoted above, you can see a photocopy of a letter, sent to Franklin by the department head, where he basically tells her that she's been hired to lead the DNA project — not to work for Maurice Wilkins.
Basically, Franklin was right in thinking that she wasn't Wilkins' assistant.
Reading Watson's perspective alongside the letter and a footnote explaining how Wilkins saw the situation, it becomes clear that one of the most famous conflicts in the history of science started because the department head wasn't communicating very well with either Franklin or Wilkins. In this reading, Watson kind of becomes the catty best friend, attacking somebody his pal was angry with even though he didn't know all the details of what was going on. It's Facebook drama in the laboratory.
And that brings me to the questions I asked Watson.
Maggie Koerth-Baker: I very much enjoyed this edition of the book, and the fact that it contained all these documents that provided some contrasting viewpoints and added to the depth of your perspective. And it seems like, in some cases, you'd originally written the book without having seen certain documents that end up significantly changing the story. In particular, I'm thinking of the letter from John Randall to Rosalind Franklin showing that she was right in thinking she hadn't been hired to be Maurice Wilkins' assistant, but rather his colleague. I'm curious about when you finally found out about that letter and what you thought about it. Did it change your perspective on the conflicts between Wilkins and Franklin?
James Watson: The Randall letter was discussed in Brenda Maddox’s biography of Franklin [in 2003] and that’s probably where I first became aware of it. But in this edition, Alex and Jan reproduce the whole letter – one of the pleasures of this edition is the number of letters and other documents they reproduce as facsimiles. Its fun to see letters just as their recipients saw them.
This letter makes me think even more what a tragic situation Wilkins and Franklin found themselves in. Wilkins had begun the DNA work at King’s and had it taken away from him and given to Franklin, without understanding why–that Randall had made the arrangements described in this letter. The situation would have been intolerable for anyone, let alone two such incompatible characters as Wilkins and Franklin.
MKB: I'd like to ask you a question about your treatment of Franklin, given that it's one of the things The Double Helix is rather famous for. Or, perhaps, infamous. You set out to write a book that captured your thoughts and feelings and viewpoint as a young man, in this specific time period, in an often-contentious working environment. But I'm curious about how your perspective on those events has changed over time. If you were to sit down and write about the events in this book now, not through your at-the-time perspective, but as you think about the past today, would it change the way that you portrayed Dr. Franklin? How has the way you think about her changed as you've gotten older?
JW: We didn’t know Franklin well–I only met her perhaps three times and Francis once in this period. So, my view of her was inevitably colored by our friendship with Wilkins and what he told us about her.
I am not an historian and wouldn’t want to write the book you describe. But if I were to do so, I would, of course, refer to the Randall letter and show how it set up the misunderstanding. I would write more sympathetically about the plight of both Wilkins and Franklin. I would also be able to write about her views of life at King’s College, including her dislike of her colleagues, in particular Maurice. This is made vivid in her correspondence, especially in one letter reproduced in the book.
In this new edition, I notice that Ray [Gosling - her student] has rather a good line in response to my comments about her appearance. He notes that I never saw her dressed up to go out in the evening, and that she had an elegance that I probably never saw.
I mentioned that Francis and I hardly knew Franklin at this time. Later, of course, we both saw more of her, as she was very much part of the elite structural biology community – her excellent work on TMV ensured that (though is often over-looked in popular accounts of her life). [He's referring to her work with tobacco mosaic virus, which she spent the last few years of her life studying. TMV was the first virus ever discovered and Franklin's work was instrumental in our understanding of RNA viruses. Franklin died in 1958 from ovarian cancer. — MKB]
Rosalind Franklin's Photo 51, an x-ray crystallography image of DNA.
There's a bit more to the Franklin-Watson/Crick story than just office squabbling. One of the most controversial points concerns a particular x-ray crystallography image that she took, which was shown to Watson without Franklin's knowledge or permission. That image ended up playing an important role in Watson's and Crick's ability to figure out the structure of DNA. But this edition of the book — and Watson's answers — provide a deeper view of what was going on in the background — how a personality conflict and bad management led to a much bigger controversy that people are still arguing about today.
I asked James Watson three other questions about the book, as well. His answers to these were less substantive, but you can read them below. In general, I'd definitely recommend this edition of The Double Helix. If you're going to read the book, this is the way it ought to be read. As James Watson's limited view of his own life, it's interesting. But the history really comes alive when you can see more of what everybody around him was thinking, as well. Among the gems: three pages of Francis Crick's six-page letter urging Watson to not publish The Double Helix, to begin with.
MKB: I'm curious about what got you interested in writing a book like The Double Helix to begin with. At the time, it was far out of the norm for the way that scientists wrote about science and, in fact, it was fairly far out of the norm for the way anyone wrote about anything. Narrative non-fiction was still a developing field, even from the perspective of journalists. What influenced your desire to write a story this way and what did you look to for inspiration?
James Watson: The story was too good not to be told as it actually happened!
MKB: One of the things that stands out to me in the book is your frustration with stuffy and bureaucratic social expectations within the scientific community. In particular, I'm thinking about some of the early chapters, where you talk about Francis Crick being unable to study DNA because Maurice Wilkins already was and it would have been poor form for another English scientist to try and "scoop" him, as it were. How have you seen this aspect of science change in the years since you wrote The Double Helix? Have some of those formalities fallen away? What are the new social twists you see young scientists having to navigate?
JW: Friendships almost have to evaporate when a scientist chooses unilaterally to work toward a scientific objective also pursued by a friend.
MKB: I was really struck by your description of Linus Pauling and the way he announced his findings in theatrical lectures. It reminded me a bit of some of the more theatrical, hyped-up scientific pronouncements of recent years, especially the now-discredited findings like arsenic life and faster-than-light neutrinos. In the wake of those events, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how this was so outside the norm for scientists, but it doesn't seem much different from Pauling's tactics. It's just that he was usually right. I'm curious about your thoughts on this. Do you see more theatrics in science today? How do you think the increased media spotlight has influenced the way scientists announce their work to the public? And how do you see your role in that, given the fact that The Double Helix was a major part of popularizing science and making it something more breathless and story-driven?
JW: I find theatrical performances even rarer than when Pauling lived. Almost no one now risks offending pompous individuals in the audience who later might review either their research articles or judge their applications for research money. Today’s science stifles individuality.
About the Author
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.
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