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Book covers
What is life?Book cover: What is life?

Physicist Erwin Schrödinger gave a series of public lectures at Trinity College, Dublin during 1943, where has was a refugee from Nazi Germany. These were subsequently published as a book, 'What is life?'. Although this text might seem overly-theoretical and even mystical to a modern audience acquainted with the details of genetics, it inspired a generation of scientists, among them Watson, Crick and Wilkins, to tackle the big unsolved mystery in biology -- the physical nature of the gene. The UK Folio Society judged 'What is life?' to be the most influential science book of the 20th century, and so reprinted it for its Millennium collection.

The double helixBook cover: The double helix

James Watson famously opened 'The Double helix' by saying that he'd never met Francis Crick in a modest mood. Many would apply that observation to Watson himself. Crick penned an alternative opening: "Jim was always clumsy with his hands. One only had to see him peel an orange..."

James Watson's brutally honest yet partial and in places, misleading, account of the events leading to the suggestion of a structure for DNA, led to a feud between himself and several of the people he described. This excellent Norton critical edition brings together Watson's skillfully-woven and best-selling tale, with the responses of many of those he described, contemporary reviews of the story plus the relevant scientific papers published in 1953 and 1954.

Book cover: What mad pursuit
What mad pursuit

This modest and engaging autobiography by Francis Crick was first published in 1989, but unfortunately it has not been in print for several years.

Crick could not help but convey his infectious enthusiasm for science. Unlike a conventional autobiography, this one included Crick's musings on many scientific topics alongside the usual personal details and anecdotes. There's a fascinating chapter covering Crick's thoughts on the BBC drama 'Life Story', but Crick's passion for science dominated. It is clear that he preferred to talk about ideas than his or other peoples' private lives.

Book cover: Rosalind Franklin and DNA
Rosalind Franklin and DNA

For many years, this book by her close friend Anne Sayre was the only account of Rosalind Franklin's life aimed at an adult readership (there was also a biography of Franklin for children by Cath Senker). Although the journalist-historian Horace Judson has questioned the accuracy of parts of this account concerning the status of women at King's College, it is generally well-researched, sensitively-written and very readable. When it was first published, several reviewers, including Jerry Donohue (who shared an office with Crick and Watson as they worked on the double helix) regarded it as the essential antidote to Watson's one-sided and controversial tale.

Rosalind FranklinBook cover: Rosalind Franklin

Since the publication of Watson's 'Double Helix', it has become increasingly difficult for anyone to write an objective biography of Rosalind Franklin. The extent to which Watson and Crick, Wilkins, Perutz and others (all of them men) apparently denied Franklin her rightful place in history tends to dominate any modern account of her life and work.

In this sympathetic yet relatively even-handed biography, Brenda Maddox places her own work in context of other accounts, including Watson's story and historical works such as those of Olby and Judson. For anyone who has enjoyed 'The Double Helix' this book is required reading.

[The photo at the top of this page shows the cover of the hardback edition.]

Click here to read The Guardian review by Hilary Rose.

The third man of the double helix
Book cover: The third man of the double helix

Maurice Wilkins was one of the last of the principal actors in the double helix story to give an account of it. 'The third man' doesn't add much to our factual knowledge and, as the author admitted, this book was a cathartic. He was perhaps a little too eager at the start of the book to mention his scientific and social relations with women and Jewish people in particular but, given the manner in which others have protrayed his relationship with Rosalind Franklin, this is hardly surprising. Despite the bitterness that he clearly still harboured (especially towards Randall), Wilkins was remarkably generous towards Jim Watson. If you've ever wondered how Wilkins felt about the events of 50+ years ago, this book gives a hint but probably does not present the full picture.

The path to the double helix
Book cover: The path to the double helix

Olby's academic work describes in detail the scientific discoveries that led eventually to the elucidation of the double-helical structure of DNA. Olby is more concerned with theories and facts than personalities, although he does provide biographical information and the occasional anecdote to lighten an otherwise heavy technical load. Obly's painstaking research casts light onto some old questions including how close Rosalind Franklin came to the Watson-Crick structure and whether Pauling, in the absence of Watson and Crick, would have discovered the double helix.

The eighth day of creation
Book cover: The eighth day of creation

The journalist Horace Judson's unique contribution to molecular biology is that he was able to meet and interview most of the active scientists in the field, many of whom have since died. 'The eighth day' therefore serves as an important record of the origins of a new science, told by its key players. The story Judson relates is in many senses the 'conventional' one that is increasingly questioned by historians, although that hasn't stopped them from drawing extensively upon his work. It's a pity that the current CSHL Press edition is so much more expensive than the Penguin paperback of the first edition (which is long out-of-print).

Designs for Life
Book cover: Designs for life

de Chadarevain's 'Designs for life' is a scholarly and authoritative study of the origins of molecular biology, that focuses principally on the work of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, its immediate predecessors and intellectual descendants such as EMBO and EMBL. Of particular note is the discussion of the role of models in the development of the field, both as research tools and in gaining wider public, political and financial support for the discipline. The book is elegantly-produced and illustrated and will give pleasure to those who have a special interest in the history of molecular biology.

In search of the double helix
Book cover: In search of the double helix

Popular science writer John Gribbin's book is essentially a lay reader's version of Robert Olby's academic work. Although dated, it is well-worth reading if you can find a copy (it has been out-of-print for several years). It brings together quantum mechanics, conventional genetics, Darwinian evolution and molecular biology.

A newer, up-to-date version covering genetic modification, the human genome project, the PCR and the like is long-overdue.

DNA for beginners
Book cover: DNA for beginners

Two illustrated guides to genetics were first published in 1983: Gonick and Wheelis's 'Cartoon guide to genetics' and 'DNA for beginners'. The former generally used cartoons to provide humour while the latter made excellent use of the comic strip format to explain complex science. If you find a copy of this rare book, buy it. Don't confuse this title with one from the same stable called 'Genetics for beginners': 'DNA' is far better and focuses specifically on the double helix story and the early work on the genetic code, gene function and genetic modification which followed. The level of technical detail conveyed is impressive, although it usually proved too much for my A-Level students.

DNA: The secret of life
Book cover: DNA: The secret of life

Written to accompany a series of Channel 4 television documentaries, this highly-illustrated book presents the early history of genetics, through to the double helix, the human genome project and beyond. Drawing upon a wide range of examples and anecdotes, Watson's book (co-written by Andrew Berry) is an enjoyable and comprehensive account for the general reader.

five 50-minute long television programmes can now be purchased on 2 (PAL format) DVDs from the production company, Windfall Films Ltd.

Book cover: 50 years of DNA
50 years of DNA

This compilation comes to the rescue of those who missed the first special DNA50 supplement to the journal Nature in 2003. Excellent colour photographs and illustrations plus articles of general interest covering contemporary genetics complement facsimiles of key scientific papers published by Nature over the last 50 years. These are accompanied by essays that place this work in a historical and social perspective. A fine souvenir of the 50th anniversary of the double helix, despite the inaccurate DNA model on the cover.

Most of the papers from this book can be downloaded free-of-charge form the
Nature Web site.

Book cover: Watson and DNA
Watson and DNA

This biography of Watson was written without his co-operation or access to relevant personal papers, but is based instead on interviews and other published works. Those familiar with the titles featured on this Web page will find little new material covering the 'double helix era' in McElheny's book, although much of the account of his later career is new and revealing. Minor errors of fact occur throughout the book and at times it gives the impression of having been assembled solely from other accounts. Nevertheless it is a comprehensive and relatively unbiased biography of one of the 20th century's most influential scientists.

Book cover: Representations of the double helix

Images of the double helix are everywhere: in scientific publications and the media, in business advertisements, as a design for consumer goods and in works of art.

This beautifully-illustrated and produced catalogue presents a selection of the material included in the exhibition 'Representations of the Double Helix' which was at the Whipple Museum in Cambridge during 2003. The book may still be purchased from the Museum and is a superb souvenir of the golden jubilee of the double helix. [This is a revised and expanded edition of a booklet first published in 1995 by the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine.]



What a deeply disappointing book this is from London's Science Museum, home of a reconstruction of Watson and Crick's original DNA model. It was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the double helix and is illustrated mainly by dull pictures from the Science Museum's own photo collection (including eight of stuffed animals and five of the Watson-and-Crick model). It is remarkable that of the 100 or so people shown in the book only one is non-white. The text is equally 'conventional' with descriptions of processes such as DNA replication and cell division. The supporting diagrams, where they exist, are poor. Readers would be better-advised to spend their money on a cheaper, better illustrated, more exciting and up-to-date account such as Jeremy Cherfas's pocket-sized 'The human genome'.

'DNA and genetics' is obtainable directly from the Science Museum's on-line shop.

Copyright © National Centre for Biotechnology Education, 2006 |