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Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix

Subject Area(s):  GeneticsGeneral Interest TitlesAutobiography/BiographyHistory of Science

By James D. Watson, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

© 2001 • 336 pp., 43 illus., 22 letters
NOTE: For distribution in the United States and Canada only.
Hardcover •
ISBN  978-037541283-7

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  •     Description    
  •     Reviews    


FROM THE PUBLISHER (Alfred A. Knopf): Immediately following the revolutionary discovery of the structure of DNA by James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, the world of molecular biology was caught up in a gold rush. The goal: to uncover the secrets of life that the newly elucidated molecule promised to reveal. Genes, Girls, and Gamow is James Watson's report on the amazing aftermath of the DNA breakthrough, picking up where his now classic memoir, The Double Helix, leaves off.

Here are the collaborations and collisions of giants, not only Watson and Crick themselves, but also legions of others, including Linus Pauling (the greatest chemist of the day), Richard Feynman (the bongo–playing cynosure of Caltech), and especially George Gamow, the bearlike, whiskey–wielding Russian physicist, who had turned his formidable intellect to the field of genetics; with Gamow—an irrepressible prankster to boot—Watson would found the legendary RNA Tie Club.

But Watson—at twenty–five already the winner of genetic research's greatest jackpot—is obsessed with another goal as well: to find love, and a wife equal to his unexpected fame. As he and an international cast of roguish young colleagues do important research they also compare notes and share complaints on the scarcity of eligible mates. And amid the feverish search for the role of the then still mysterious RNA molecule, Watson's thoughts are seldom far from the supreme object of his desire, an enthralling Swarthmore coed who also happens to be the daughter of Harvard's most eminent biologist.

Part scientific apprenticeship, part sentimental education, Genes, Girls, and Gamow is a penetrating revelation of how great science is accomplished. It is also a charmingly candid account of one young man's full range of ambitions.


review:  “This classy memoir reads like a Who's Who of 20th–century science and picks up where the author left off in his classic book, The Double Helix. In 1953, Watson, then 25, and colleague Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, a historic achievement that won them both the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Here Watson, who quickly became an icon for biology students worldwide, gives a detailed, journal–writer's account of the aftermath, recalling with subtle humor his younger self's professional and equally pressing amorous ambitions. Professionally, the goal was to unravel the structure of a then still–mysterious molecule called ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Watson's scientific highs and lows are mingled with his adventures in academic high society, some of which have the flavor of Wodehousian lark, as when Wilson and fellow pranksters “temporarily absconded with the experimental lobsters” belonging to a boorish lecturer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. Readers also encounter the “pope–like” figure of Caltech chemist Linus Pauling, the bongo–playing genius physicist Richard Feynman and of course Russian theoretical physicist George Gamow, the "zany," card–trick playing, limerick–singing, booze–swilling, practical–joking “giant imp” who founded with Watson the RNA–Tie Club. Reading Watson is a delight, an opportunity to breathe the rarefied air of his generation's greatest scientists and to crash a faculty cocktail party or two along the way.”
      —Publisher's Weekly

review:  “This second autobiographical work by Nobel prize winner Watson provides additional details of his personal life and experience during and after his and Francis Crick's discovery of the double helix as the model for DNA structure in 1953. His first work, The Double Helix, has been widely read and republished in different editions. That work focused on the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule; the current work uses the same conversational style to fill in more of the story and talk about what happened after the discovery was announced. Watson includes many personal details, devoting a sizable portion of the book to his romantic life. He also discusses his encounters with the likes of Linus Pauling, Richard Feynman, and Russian physicist George Gamow. Because of the wide appeal of The Double Helix and the extensive publicity on current genetic research, this work will likely be popular as well. Accessible to many levels of readers, it is recommended for public and academic libraries.”
      —Library Journal

review:  “Part memoir, part love story, part homage to the brilliant physicist George ("Geo," pronounced Joe) Gamow, this is another tell–all tale in the tradition of The Double Helix. Yes, Watson is at it again, recalling the turbulent decade that followed the world–shaking 1953 publication of the Watson–Crick model of DNA. Watson was then 25, unmarried, restless, and eager–not only to capture a bride, but also to nail the next scientific triumph–to show how information coded in the DNA in a cell's nucleus gets out into the cell body to direct the production of proteins. That story is told in an intricate chain of events intertwined with the pursuit of one Christa Pauling, Linus's beautiful daughter. Into this double helix winds yet a third chain–in the form of on–again, off–again appearances of the brilliant, irrepressible, and hard–drinking George Gamow. It was Gamow who conceived the notion that amino acids could be specified by a triplet code. The four bases of DNA taken three at a time would allow 64 (4X4X4) combinations of letters–more than enough to code for the 20 odd amino acids. It was Gamow who also playfully established the RNA–tie club with Watson, since RNA would play a key role. In the end, the combined efforts of a pantheon of greats and graduate students on both sides of the Atlantic led to the initial cracking of the code by Marshall Nirenberg in 1961. By that time the reader will have tracked Watson in endless commutes between the two Cambridges, Cold Spring Harbor, Caltech, and the like. As well, we will have trekked with him on climbing tours across England and the continent in the company of colleagues, often equally in pursuit of girls. The epilogue draws the chains to their conclusion–the brilliant triumph of the science, the sad early death of Geo, and a happy ending for the author, though not with Christa. Watson seems more tempered this time around, especially in the treatment of Rosalind Franklin. But the urge to reveal all will surely upset a few who may not see it that way at all.”
      —Kirkus Reviews