Markel masterfully demonstrates how temperaments, pettiness, and the pursuit of prestige can poison science. An illuminating and candid resetting of a pivotal moment in science, with characters who often cross the line between antagonist and protagonist.
Markel’s argument fails for a peculiar reason: not because he misstates Franklin’s treatment (although at times he does), but because for all his gallantry, Franklin remains overshadowed. The world he creates on the page is just as simplistic and male-dominated as the one he seeks to replace ... all the apparatus of a scholarly history: context-setting introductory chapters, footnotes, index ... verbose, earnest, humorless ... He seems as obsessed with Watson as Watson was with DNA: Watson’s name occurs as often as Franklin’s and Crick’s combined. So although Markel gives us the most critical reading yet of Watson’s role in the double helix discovery, no other account hews so closely to Watson’s narrative or gives him such an outsize role in the discovery. Markel’s characters are as two-dimensional as Watson’s ... Franklin can be read accurately as a tragic heroic figure who has received full recognition only posthumously. Markel makes her pitiful, a passive victim. The heart of Markel’s book, the conspiracy theory, is built on sand. Much of his case is made by speculation, insinuation, and innuendo, which is often larded with trivial detail ... The book would be a more convincing defense of Franklin if Markel weren’t constantly stealing the spotlight.
No explosive new details are revealed, but Markel unifies the timeline and gives voice to the scientific and personal thoughts of the principal scientists, found in their correspondence, lab notebooks, memoirs, and interviews. Markel’s book portrays each scientist as a complex individual and is firm in the conclusion that Franklin was denied due credit for the DNA discovery ... This enjoyable account will save readers’ time by synthesizing and supplementing information from the dozen or so memoirs and biographies of Crick, Franklin, Watson, Wilkins, and Pauling.
There is no shortage of excellent histories, but Markel, a Guggenheim fellow and professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, has written one of the best. After a quick review of the relevant advancements in the 19th century, the author delivers long, satisfying biographies of the leading figures as well as a large supporting cast ... Markel provides a meticulous account of DNA research by others, as well, and he emphasizes that Watson and Crick made their breakthrough by examining X-ray photographs of DNA crystals ... A brilliant addition to the literature on the history of biological discovery.
Markel skillfully explains the knotty science behind the breakthrough and highlights the clash of outsize personalities ... His tone sometimes feels overblown, but his tart, sharp-eyed prose saves the day. This wonderfully evocative tale sings.