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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 15 – The Double Helix by James D Watson (1968)

An astonishingly personal and accessible account of how Cambridge scientists Watson and Francis Crick unlocked the secrets of DNA and changed the world

Jim Watson was just 24 when, in collaboration with Francis Crick, he decoded the structure of DNA, “the molecule of life”. This was a 20th-century watershed, the solution to one of the great enigmas of the life sciences that would revolutionise biochemistry. In human history, without exaggeration, nothing would ever be the same again.

Watson arrived at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, during the autumn of 1951 looking for success, fame and the love of women. He was brash, brilliant and American; a graduate zoologist from the mid-west who dreamed of winning the Nobel prize. Watson, as arrogant as he was obscure, found himself working with an equally self-possessed but somewhat overlooked older man at the Cavendish, Francis Crick, a 35-year-old would-be biophysicist who had seen service as a scientist in the second world war. In his breezy, tactless way, Watson describes his new colleague as “totally unknown [and] often not appreciated. Most people thought he talked too much.”

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