Watson-Crick and what favours scientific discoveries

The following (rather extensive) quotes from Francis Crick’s What Mad Pursuit are not only of intrinsic interest for what they reveal about the process of scientific discovery and some of the discoverers, but also for convincing those of you who haven’t read the book that it is well worth your time and efforts!

An even odder incident happened when Jim came back to work at Cambridge in 1955. I was going into the Cavendish one day and found myself walking along with Neville Mott, the new Cavendish professor (Bragg had gone on to the Royal Institution in London). “I’d like to introduce you to Watson,” I said, “since he is working in your lab.” He looked at me in surprise. “Watson?” he said, “Watson? I thought your name was Watson-Crick.”

It was because we passionately wanted to know the details of the structure.

This, then, was a powerful force in our favor. I believe there were at least two others. Neither Jim nor I felt any pressure to get on with the problem. This meant that we could approach it intensively for a period and then leave it alone for a bit. Our other advantage was that we had evolved unstated but fruitful methods of collaboration, something that was quite missing in the London group. If either of us suggested a new idea the other, while taking it seriously, would attempt to demolish it in a candid but nonhostile manner. This turned out to be quite crucial.

In solving scientific problems of this type, it is almost impossible to avoid falling into error. … The advantage of intellectual collaboration is that it helps jolt one out of false assumptions.

What, then, do Jim Watson and I deserve credit for? If we deserve any credit at all, it is for persistence and the willingness to discard ideas when they became untenable.

We could not at all see what the answer was, but we considered it so important that we were determined to think about it long and hard, from any relevant point of view. Practically nobody else was prepared to make such an intellectual investment, since it involved not only studying genetics, biochemistry, chemistry, and physical chemistry (including X-ray diffraction–and who was prepared to learn that?) but also sorting out the essential gold from the dross. Such discussions, since they tend to go interminably, are very demanding and sometimes intellectually exhausting. Nobody without an overwhelming interest in the problem could sustain them.

Then there is the question of what would have happened if Watson and I had not put forward the DNA structure. … Had Jim and I not succeeded, I doubt whether the ditscovery of the double helix could have been delayed for more than two or three years.

… This is that if Watson and I had not discovered the structure, instead of being revealed with a flourish it would have trickled out and that its impact would have been far less.

But what I think is overlooked in such arguments is the intrinsic beauty of the DNA double helix.

2 Responses to “Watson-Crick and what favours scientific discoveries”

  1. gaddeswarup Says:

    Very nice excerpts. It makes me feel like reading the book but you might have already quoted the best parts.

    • Guru Says:

      Dear Swarup,

      You should read the book; it is true that this is one of the chapters I liked a lot, and generously excerpted. But there are plenty of interesting stuff in the book, and with your experience and background, you might find some other sections which I did not appreciate fully, and hence not excerpted in this blog!

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