The Double Helix

So you’re stuck at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, and you want to know what one book you should you read to get an idea what science is like? I recommend The Double Helix, by James Watson. It’s a lively and controversial story about how Watson and Francis Crick determined the structure of DNA, launching a revolution in molecular biology.

The very first few paragraphs of The Double Helix describe the influence of physics on biology. Readers of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will enjoy seeing how the two disciplines interact.

To whet your appetite, below are the opening paragraphs of The Double Helix. Enjoy!

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood. Perhaps in other company he is that way, but I have never had reason so to judge hm. It has nothing to do with his present fame. Already he is much talked about, usually with reverence, and someday he may be considered in the category of Rutherford or Bohr. But this was not true when, in the fall of 1951, I came to the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University to join a small group of physicists and chemists working on the three-dimensional structures of proteins. At that time he was thirty-five, yet almost totally unknown. Although some of his closest colleagues realized the value of his quick, penetrating mind and frequently sought his advice, he was often not appreciated, and most people thought he talked too much.

Leading the unit to which Francis belonged wasMax Perutz, and Austrian-born chemist who came to England in 1936. He had been collecting X-ray diffraction data from hemoglobin crystals for over ten years and was just beginning to get somewhere. Helping him was Sir Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish. For almost forty years Bragg, a Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of crystallography, and been watching X-ray diffraction methods solve structures of ever-increasing difficulty. The more complex the molecule, the happier Bragg became when a new method allowed its elucidation. Thus in the immediate postwar years he was especially keen about the possibility of solving the structures of proteins, the most complicated of all molecules. Often, when administrative duties permitted, he visited Perutz’ office to discuss recently accumulated X-ray data. Then he would return home to see if he could interpret them.

Somewhere between Bragg the theorist and Perutz the experimentalist was Francis, who occasionally did experiments but more often was immersed in the theories for solving protein structures. Often he came up with something novel, would become enormously excited, and immediately would tell it to anyone who would listen. A day or so later he would often realize that his theory did not work and return to experiments, until boredom generated a new attack on theory.

Originally published at http://hobbieroth.blogspot.com.

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Brad Roth

Brad Roth

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.