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Watson and DNA


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About the Author

Victor K. McElheny is a distinguished science journalist who has covered the revolution in molecular biology for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Science for nearly four decades.


James Watson's The Double Helix, an account of his discovery with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, is one of the bestselling scientific memoirs of all time. Science journalist McElheny, author of a biography of photography pioneer Edwin Land (Insisting on the Impossible), fills in the details of Watson's early career, before his Nobel Prize- winning discovery, and tracks his many achievements over the following half-century. Watson's work as an administrator, most notably of the Cold Spring Harbor labs on Long Island, and as a mentor to young scientists, has been as important as his own scientific work. Not one to rest on his laurels, Watson moved on from studying the structure of DNA to investigate recombinant DNA and the genetic causes of cancer. Most recently, he led the Human Genome Project, until political pressures forced his resignation. McElheny manages to convey Watson's complex personality: confident to the point of arrogance and infamous for alienating coworkers, Watson knew the impact of the "mad scientist" look on politicians and wealthy donors: more than one observer described him mussing up his hair and untying his tennis shoes before going in to give a presentation. However, readers interested in Watson's private life (he didn't marry until he was nearly 40) or psychobiography will have to look elsewhere. McElheny worked under Watson for a time and comes perilously close to hagiography. Those who work in the sciences or who knew Watson will find this biography informative, but the general science buff will probably find it less satisfying than going back and rereading The Double Helix. Photos. (Feb.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

"McElheny presents the science in this amazing story with effortless lucidity and sets out clearly Watson's success as scientific impresario."

For over half a century, James Watson has maintained his position as the dominant star within a constellation of Nobel prize winners and outstanding scientists. Eccentric, elusive, and iconoclastic, he lacks tact and grace, and his behavior can be shocking. Yet he is insightfully sharp in science and is also known to be a skillful administrator. Attempting to capture the essence of this genius, distinguished science journalist McElheny catalogs the highlights of Watson's career from his unraveling the mystery of DNA with Francis Crick to current genome projects. While he tells a thrilling adventure story of molecular science, McElheny fails to offer a real sense of the human being behind the scientist. Watson's relationships with others besides Crick are never analyzed, and McElheny relies primarily on countless quotes from Crick's associates to describe his difficult behavior. Still, his book offers exciting science history and is recommended for all public and academic libraries as a companion to Watson's own memoirs (The Double Helix, A Passion for DNA, and Genes, Girls, and Gamow).-Rita Hoots, Woodland Coll., CA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.

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