Double Take on the Double Helix
Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution. Victor K. McElheny, xiv + 363
pp. Perseus Publishing, 2003. $27.50.
DNA: The Secret of Life. James D. Watson with Andrew Berry. xiv + 446 pp.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. $39.95.
In his recent biography of James D. Watson, longtime science writer Victor K.
McElheny refers to his subject as "a detonator in biology." This
characterization reflects Watson's explosive influence on the direction of
biology, from his very first detonation, the 1953 Nature paper that he wrote
with Francis Crick describing the structure of DNA, to his directorship of the
Human Genome Project in the late 20th century. But Watson's bombshells have not
been limited to scientific advances; he has also initiated unprecedented forays
of the scientific community into ethical and social realms. His brusque,
quirky, contradictory and even cranky behavior has provoked controversy in
nearly all of these endeavors, evoking a mixture of admiration and outrage.
Now, to gauge the man and his impact, on the 50th anniversary of the Nature
paper, we have not only McElheny's biography, Watson and DNA: Making a
Scientific Revolution, but also DNA: The Secret of Life, Watson's own account,
with coauthor Andrew Berry, of his Nobel Prize-winning DNA work and its
consequences for biology.