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Genes, Girls, and Gamow by James D. Watson

autobiography, Alfred A. Knopf,  (hardback), 2001, 304 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

When does a scientific memoir read like a soap opera?  When its author was one of those Fifties wonder boys whose signal brilliance in one area prevented him from maturing in a more well-rounded fashion.

This is not the first time that James Watson has irritated his colleagues.  After winning the Nobel Prize for co-discovering the structure of the DNA molecule, Watson penned his first scandalous book, THE DOUBLE HELIX, in which he candidly exposes the personality disputes and rancor underlying the great scientific breakthrough, disputes that just weren't brought up in normal scientific company.  This present volume extends THE DOUBLE HELIX, covering the same years (1950s through early 1960s) but concentrating more on the intermingled personal lives of Watson and his colleagues, both in the U.K., and in the U.S., at Cal Tech, Harvard, and Cold Spring Harbor.

One of the most charming aspects of this memoir is Watson's close friendship with Russian physicist George Gamow.  Gamow was not afraid to cross the usually-observed boundary lines of scientific disciplines, and soon was penning a torrent of letters to Watson, pressing him for details and raising possible contradictions.  (Many of these letters are reproduced in facsimile in the book's Appendix).  Watson and Gamow became founding members of the RNA Tie Club, and commissioned thirty ties with the double helix depicted upon them for the elite members of this fanciful secret society.

Other giants of science fill these pages as well.  Watson presents intriguing portraits of Linus Pauling, Francis Crick, Richard Feynman, Ernst Mayr, Rosalind Franklin, and Walter Gilbert, among others.  The reader gets a sense of the strong personalities involved at the forefront of scientific research, and of how their professional lives affected their personal lives.

But the most curious fact about this memoir is Watson's inclusion of the details of his fumbling and almost pathetic attempts at seeking a worthy companion of the opposite sex.  Not only does this reinforce the notion that many brilliant minds achieve their insight at the sacrifice of some other part of their personality, but it also makes serious students of history shudder.  How many breakthroughs have gone unclaimed because of the arrogance of these geniuses, because they are immature socially and make
dubious personal choices that affected their research?  For example, one gets the sense that Watson left the high-powered laboratory world of Cal Tech because the opportunities for meeting smart, sexy undergraduates was far greater at Harvard.  By raising fascinating side issues such as these, Watson reminds us that scientific progress forges ahead in a much more twisted and tortuous path than most hagiographers of science would care to admit.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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