Honest Jim and the Double Helix

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It isn’t every day that I eat pizza with a Nobel laureate. The experience was a fringe benefit of an undergraduate studentship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a cluster of biological research labs perched incongruously on the coast of Long Island, New York. The institute has played host to an impressive eight Nobel laureates in the past half-century, the most famous being James Watson, who together with Francis Crick solved the structure of DNA and set molecular biology in motion. Cold Spring Harbor is, in short, a heady place for a young scientist.

During his long presidency at the institute, James Watson made an annual tradition of holding a pizza party for the motley class of international undergraduates who arrived each summer to wreak energetic havoc in the laboratories. This prospect naturally excited us: one lad had brought a battered copy of Watson’s memoir all the way from Mexico, hoping to get it autographed. ‘This book’, he explained, ‘is what made me become a biologist.’ Nobody scoffed at him: we were all very young and likewise rather giddy with enthusiasm for science. That same burning enthusiasm, vividly portrayed, is both the driving force and saving grace of Watson’s famous – and infamous – personal memoir, The Double Helix.

The book describes the short, seminal period between 1950 and  1953 when Watson left Indiana for post-war Europe as a precocious 22-year-old with a Ph.D. in genetics. Genetics was, at the time, fraught with confusing phenomena and huge unanswered questions: it was still unclear whether the stuff of genes was DNA, the coding material inside the nucleus of every cell, or proteins, the building blocks of those cells. Wisely backing DNA, Watson made the first in a series of far-sighted career choices in determining to solve its molecular structure. Unfortunately, this meant he had to learn some biochemistry and it was this unwelcome task that took the young American to Copenhagen.

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About the contributor

Catherine Merrick recently returned from America to England, where the food, if not the climate, has improved since Watson made the trip in 1950.

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