Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Double Helix by James D. Watson

This is a classic.

The scientific race between James D. Watson (the author) and Francis Crick at Cambridge vs Linus Pauling at Cal Tech to solve the structure of DNA is vividly described. The book was written not as an objective science history, but as a record of what the author thought, felt and experienced in the midst of that race, and begins its preface with this:
Here I relate my version of how the structure of DNA was discovered.
Because the author was in the centre of this adventure, there is no other way for him to tell his story than as a personal recollection. Nobody can be an objective third-person observer and reporter of important events around himself that changed the world. And because the book is written from that perspective, the author's adrenaline rush during the fierce competition feels even more real to the readers.

After examining the draft of a paper sent to Peter Pauling (Linus's son, who was then at Cambridge) from their competitor, Linus Pauling, in which Linus described his solution to the puzzle of DNA structure, the Cambridge group concludes that Linus's solution cannot possibly be correct, and congratulates that they haven't lost their race yet. Then:
On our way to Soho for supper I returned to the problem of Linus, emphasizing that smiling too long over his mistake might be fatal. The position would be far safer if Pauling had been merely wrong instead of looking like a fool. Soon, if not already, he would be at it day and night.
When I read this passage, this somehow reminded me of the excitement and tense sense of competition I felt during the early days of Git development. Of course, I was competing with the other  Linus (Torvalds, who is known for his Linux operating system, originally wrote Git and was actively developing it with many other brilliant software developers in collaboration) back then.

When there was an issue to solve, everybody rushed to present his own bright idea, and it was a race to show a clean, clever and useful solution to improve the system. When other guys went in a wrong direction and wasted their time, you had more time to polish your work and beat them to your better solution.

I do not think that the similarity between the way how the scientific race and the open source race work stops there. Even though the participants all want the glory of being the first to reach the right solution, at the highest level, everybody is working collectively towards the same goal, be it the advancement of their scientific field, or the improved user experience of their software. The subtle balance between competition and collaboration is the same in both endeavours.

The book depicts Maurice Wilkins of King's College, the other scientist who shared the Nobel with Watson and Crick, as somebody who had access to good X-ray crystallography data that eventually helped the discovery by Watson and Crick, but didn't solve the puzzle himself even though he was an expert in the field of DNA research.

Given that the way Watson's book is written from his own perspective, I suspect that the aptly titled book The Third Man of the Double Helix : An Autobiography by Wilkins himself is a must-read for anybody who reads this book to see both sides of the coin. It is already on my "To Read" list.

The book was a very satisfying read and I really enjoyed it. It was given by a happy Git user Ben (thanks!) as a present to me the other day, picked from my Amazon wishlist.


Ævar Arnfjörð Bjarmason said...

I've just bought you Boomerang by Michael Lewis from your wishlist. It's a really interesting book, I've read it and his book The Big Short recently.

I think I'll check out The Double Helix, but unfortunately it looks like there's no Kindle edition of it yet.

Gitster said...

Thanks, Ævar. The Big Short was fun (so were liar's poker and moneyball).

I actually did read the double helix on Kindle. Perhaps it is region restricted? I could try to buy it as a gift to you and we can find out what happens.