The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick and the Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix

Howard Markel. Norton, $30 (608p) ISBN 978-1-324-00223-9
One of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century was also the scientific heist of the century, according to this action-packed history. Historian Markel (The Kelloggs) recreates the 1953 elucidation of DNA’s structure by Cambridge University’s James Watson and Francis Crick and their rivalry with the King’s College team of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. While for decades history books have attributed the discovery to Watson and Crick, it really wasn’t so simple, Markel writes—their discovery was based on Franklin’s research that was “borrowed” by Watson. Markel skillfully explains the knotty science behind the breakthrough and highlights the clash of outsize personalities: the mercurial, loudmouthed physicist Crick; the nerdy, manipulative molecular biologist Watson; the prickly X-ray crystallographer Franklin; the “high-strung, bumbling” biophysicist Wilkins; and the world-renowned chemist Linus Pauling (who threatened to beat them all). Markel decries Watson and Crick’s secret appropriation of Franklin’s X-ray data as “one of the most egregious rip-offs in scientific history” and the culmination of her “oppression” by “white, entitled, English academic lords.” His tone sometimes feels overblown, but his tart, sharp-eyed prose—“Chargaff was unimpressed by Crick’s nonstop blathering, not to mention Watson’s Greek chorus of eye-bulging and snorting”—saves the day. This wonderfully evocative tale sings. Photos. (Sept.)
Reviewed on : 07/23/2021
Release date: 09/21/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
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