"The Double Helix" by James D. Watson, Chapters 1–6

Francis Crick and James Watson changed the world forever—and won a Nobel Prize—when they uncovered the structure of DNA. In this memoir, Watson reveals the story behind their discovery.

Here are links to our lists for the book: Chapters 1–6, Chapters 7–14, Chapters 15–22, Chapters 23–Epilogue
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definitions & notes only words
  1. fiber
    any of several elongated, threadlike cells
    He was Willy Seeds, a scientist who several years before had worked at King’s College, London, with Maurice Wilkins on the optical properties of DNA fibers.
  2. dominant
    exercising influence or control
    And as Francis was the dominant force in shaping my part, I will start the story with him.
  3. diffraction
    process by which light changes passing through a narrow slit
    He had been collecting X-ray diffraction data from hemoglobin crystals for over ten years and was just beginning to get somewhere.
  4. hemoglobin
    a hemoprotein that gives red blood cells their color
    He had been collecting X-ray diffraction data from hemoglobin crystals for over ten years and was just beginning to get somewhere.
  5. molecule
    the simplest structural unit of an element or compound
    The more complex the molecule, the happier Bragg became when a new method allowed its elucidation.
  6. elucidation
    an interpretation that removes obstacles to understanding
    The more complex the molecule, the happier Bragg became when a new method allowed its elucidation.
  7. manic
    affected with or marked by frenzy uncontrolled by reason
    Almost everyone enjoyed these manic moments, especially when we had the time to listen attentively and to tell him bluntly when we lost the train of his argument.
  8. notable
    worthy of notice
    But there was one notable exception.
  9. sufficient
    of a quantity that can fulfill a need or requirement
    Conversations with Crick frequently upset Sir Lawrence Bragg, and the sound of his voice was often sufficient to make Bragg move to a safer room.
  10. infrequent
    not occurring regularly or at short intervals
    Only infrequently would he come to tea in the Cavendish, since it meant enduring Crick’s booming over the tea room.
  11. enduring
    unceasing
    Only infrequently would he come to tea in the Cavendish, since it meant enduring Crick’s booming over the tea room.
  12. confines
    a bounded scope
    At the time of my arrival, Francis’ theories spread far beyond the confines of protein crystallography.
  13. subsequently
    happening at a time later than another time
    Moreover, he could not refrain from subsequently telling all who would listen how his clever new idea might set science ahead.
  14. heredity
    the transmission of genetic factors to the next generation
    Before my arrival in Cambridge, Francis only occasionally thought about deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and its role in heredity.
  15. theoretical
    concerned with hypotheses rather than practical applications
    A major factor in his leaving physics and developing an interest in biology had been the reading in 1946 of What Is Life? by the noted theoretical physicist Erwin Schrodinger.
  16. gene
    part of DNA controlling physical characteristics and growth
    This book very elegantly propounded the belief that genes were the key components of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must know how genes act.
  17. chromosome
    a threadlike strand of DNA that carries genes
    Given the fact that DNA was known to occur in the chromosomes of all cells, Avery’s experiments strongly suggested that future experiments would show that all genes were composed of DNA.
  18. unravel
    become undone
    If true, this meant to Francis that proteins would not be the Rosetta Stone for unraveling the true secret of life.
  19. inconclusive
    not putting an end to doubt or question
    Of course there were scientists who thought the evidence favoring DNA was inconclusive and preferred to believe that genes were protein molecules.
  20. cantankerous
    stubbornly obstructive and unwilling to cooperate
    Many were cantankerous fools who unfailingly backed the wrong horses.
  21. austere
    severely simple
    Her dedicated, austere life could not be thus explained—she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family.
  22. principle
    a basic truth or law or assumption
    Our first principles told us that Pauling could not be the greatest of all chemists without realizing that DNA was the most golden of all molecules.
  23. abhor
    find repugnant
    He positively abhorred most chemists, especially the competitive variety out of the jungles of New York City.
  24. genetics
    the study of heredity and variation in organisms
    Moreover, the chemists who did work on DNA were almost always organic chemists with no interest in genetics.
  25. biological
    pertaining to life and living things
    Thus both Luria and Delbruck hoped the Copenhagen lab would be the place where the combined techniques of chemistry and genetics might eventually yield real biological dividends.
  26. dividend
    a bonus; something extra
    Thus both Luria and Delbruck hoped the Copenhagen lab would be the place where the combined techniques of chemistry and genetics might eventually yield real biological dividends.
  27. seldom
    not often
    Perhaps he minded the fact that I was only seldom around.
  28. conscience
    motivation deriving from ethical or moral principles
    Through a completely unanticipated event my moral conscience became clear.
  29. incomprehensible
    difficult to understand
    One day early in December, I cycled over to Herman’s lab expecting another charming yet totally incomprehensible conversation.
  30. conducive
    tending to bring about; being partly responsible for
    On the other hand, the sun of Naples might be conducive to learning something about the biochemistry of the embryonic development of marine animals.
  31. embryonic
    of an organism prior to birth or hatching
    On the other hand, the sun of Naples might be conducive to learning something about the biochemistry of the embryonic development of marine animals.
  32. affirmative
    expressing or manifesting praise or approval
    A cheerful affirmative letter wishing me a pleasant journey came by return post from Washington.
  33. banal
    repeated too often; overfamiliar through overuse
    Thus there was seldom chance for anything but banal remarks.
  34. configuration
    an arrangement of parts or elements
    At that time almost nothing was published about the possible three-dimensional configurations of a nucleic-acid molecule.
  35. vacuous
    devoid of significance or point
    His talk was far from vacuous and stood out sharply from the rest, several of which bore no connection to the purpose of the meeting.
  36. allude
    make an indirect reference to
    Several other speakers were continental biologists, at that time guests at the Zoological Station, who only briefly alluded to macromolecular structure.
  37. stifled
    held in check with difficulty
    It was certainly better to imagine myself becoming famous than maturing into a stifled academic who had never risked a thought.
  38. prodigious
    great in size, force, extent, or degree
    The combination of his prodigious mind and his infectious grin was unbeatable.
  39. mesmerized
    having your attention fixated as though by a spell
    Even if he were to say nonsense, his mesmerized students would never know because of his unquenchable self-confidence.
  40. distinguish
    mark as different
    A sentence like “Genes are interesting to geneticists” would distinguish my way of thought from Pauling’s.
  41. elicit
    call forth, as an emotion, feeling, or response
    Even my information that a pretty X-ray photograph of DNA existed elicited no real response.
  42. indisputable
    impossible to doubt
    Despite his indisputable reputation, Bragg had worked out his Law just before World War I, so I assumed he must be in effective retirement and would never care about genes.
  43. inducement
    a positive motivational influence
    I was to write Washington that a major inducement in my wanting to be in Cambridge was the presence of Roy Markham, an English biochemist who worked with plant viruses.
  44. apparatus
    equipment designed to serve a specific function
    Markham took the news quite casually when I walked into his office and told him that he might acquire a model student who would never bother him by cluttering up his lab with experimental apparatus.
  45. injunction
    a formal command or admonition
    Also I occasionally forgot the injunction not to flush the toilet at similar hours and, even worse, I went out after 10:00 p.m.

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