The Double Helix by James D. Watson

Summary

This is a fascinating tale about the discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950s. I’m pretty weak in the hard sciences, and I’m impressed by how JD Watson writes the story so that someone without a hard science background can digest and enjoy it.

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Key Takeaways

Strive to be remembered

“It was certainly better to imagine myself becoming famous than maturing into a stifled academic who had never risked a thought.”

Watson didn’t discover the structure of DNA by playing it safe. He took on an important, hard problem that required extreme focus and ingenuity. That path seemed better than falling into a safe academic niche and never really taking a bet on solving something big and important.

Be authentic

“Worrying about complications before ruling out the possibility that the answer was simple would have been damned foolishness.”

You don’t get anywhere by seeking messes. Look for the simple solutions before complicating a problem. It may turn out that the solution is complicated, but it also may turn out that the solution is simple. If you start with the simple solutions first, you save yourself from the tangled mess of complications that may make you quick before you really get started.

How to learn

“The idea was so simple that it had to be right.”

Look for the simple solutions. They may not always be right, but they just might be.

A useful equation

DNA → RNA → protein. This simple equation expresses the transfer of genetic information from the sequences of nucleotides in DNA molecules to the sequences of amino acids in proteins.

Don’t play it safe

“One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.”

Being a scientist doesn’t mean that you’re intelligent. Like any field, science is full of people who are not masters of their craft. Don’t let someone’s profession or title cloud your judgment about their intelligence, value, or ability to deliver results.

Results matter more than people

“In the end, though, science is what matters; scientists not a bit.”

While people lead the process of scientific discovery, it’s what they discover that matters most.

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