Skip to main content

The Third Man of the Double Helix – Maurice Wilkins ****

This is a stunningly powerful insight into the workings of real science, and particularly of the discovery of the structure of DNA – the only reason it doesn’t have our ultimate five star accolade is that Wilkins is at best a pedestrian writer, and would have benefited hugely from a co-author.
If you ignore the preface, the worst written part of the book, and skip quickly through Wilkins early life, which has little in the way of useful insights and has all the stilted lack of humanity of a 1950s newsreel (for example “Their gramophone filled their home with humorous songs, such as George Formby, with his banjo, singing (with amusing innuendo) When I’m Cleaning Windows.”), you have a chance to see the very gradual, mistake-ridden, back-biting ride that is the reality of scientific discovery.
Inevitably most fascinating is the relationship between Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, the less lionised half of the DNA quartet. Mention the discovery of the structure of DNA and two names immediately spring to mind – Crick and Watson. This is forgetting (hence the title of the book) the fact that Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize, and made the essential that would lead to that famous double helix first.
After Crick and Watson, the next name likely to occur to anyone is that Rosalind Franklin. She has in recent years been picked out as the victim of the male-dominated world’s attempts to suppress the work of a female scientist. As Wilkins says himself: “one side effect was that Rosalind’s male colleagues were to some extent demonised.” It certainly is unfortunate that the Nobel rules only allow a maximum of three recipients for the prize – showing it to be totally out-of-date when applied to modern science – and Franklin would have made a worthy fourth, but it seems quite likely that fourth is the correct position to put her in, and given the rules there was little other choice.
Wilkins’ book exposes a flawed three-way relationship that almost inevitably brought about confusion and resentment. Wilkins’ boss, Professor John Randall loomed over much of his career, helping Wilkins ahead, but at the same time often seeming jealous of any possibility that Wilkins could succeed independently. When Randall brought Franklin in, he told her that Wilkins was going to stop X-ray diffraction work (X-ray photography was Franklin’s speciality) and go back to using microscopes – only no one seems to have told Wilkins this. This set Wilkins and Franklin off on the wrong foot, as she felt that he was trespassing on her territory (never mind that he had made a significant discovery using X-rays before she even started work on DNA). Add to this Wilkins’ obvious difficulty with interacting with women and Franklin’s unusually strong sense of individual ownership in what should have been a shared project and the inevitable outcome was a human conflict that makes the story of DNA so much more entertaining and gripping.
We’ve had this story from about every direction now. It’s good that Maurice Wilkins has weighed in with his version, if only to balance the one-sidedness of some of the books that take Rosalind Franklin’s side. As much as Feynman writing about the atomic bomb project, this is an essential piece of first person observation from the heart of one of the greatest scientific discoveries ever. Hopefully it’s less fictional than Feynman’s tales, even if lacking his prose style – either way it is history from the coal face.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…