A look back at James Watson’s book The Double Helix and the controversy it stirred in the science community.
In telling the story, he produced a great work of literary nonfiction. Watson expanded the boundaries of science writing to include not only the formal, public face of Nobel-winning discoveries but also the day-to-day life of working scientists—both inside and outside the lab.The Double Helixrejuvenated a genre that had been largely academic or hagiographic. Its success showed that there was and is an appetite for thestoryof science; that the stories can be human and exciting; that scientists can be flawed characters; that the whole endeavor doesn’t collapse if you depict it with something less than reverence.
Although the book caused an international scandal that winter, I don’t think any word of the controversy reached me at Classical High School. As a freshman, I read The Double Helix as a story of pure triumph. Now, of course, I can see what I couldn’t then: an epic of the loss of innocence, writ small and large. And I can see the arc of Watson’s life since 1968, which has been another epic of triumph and hubris, ending with a fall. So now I see the darkness around the shining cup.