This book makes interesting reading in parallel with Popper’s introductory lectures on the philosophy of science. Jim Watson’s book The Double Helix demonstrated how Watson and his colleague Francis Crick engaged in Popperian “conjecture and refutation”; here Crick did even better because he reflected on the way they worked and he especially explained the role of criticism. For a more complete summary of the book, see here.
It is amusing to note that neither he nor Watson were officially working on DNA. Crick was writing a thesis on the X-ray diffraction of polypeptides and proteins (despite being 30 years old he had no doctorate due to the wartime disruption of his studies) and Watson went to Cambridge to help Kendrew crystallize a big protein (myoglobin).
“Jim and I hit it off immediately, partly because our interests were astonishingly similar and partly, I suspect, because a certain youthful arrogance, ruthlessness, and an impatience with sloppy thinking came naturally to both of us” (64).
They had no data of their own “Jim and I never did any experimental work on DNA, though we talked endlessly about the problem. Following Pauling’s example we believed that the way to solve the structure was to build models. The London workers [Wilkins and Franklin] followed a more painstaking approach.” (65)
There is an interesting account of the papers that they wrote, and the very cautious claims that they made about the helix in the first Nature paper in April 1953. Crick wanted to put the genetic implications up front but Watson was afraid that over-ambitious claims could rebound against them if they turned out to be wrong. “He suffered from periodic fears that the structure might be wrong and that he had made an ass of himself.” (66).
Crick devoted a few paragraphs to Rosalind Franklin, suggesting that there is no feminist issue, she had a different conception of research methods and was not prepared to think beyond the data in hand. Her personal disagreements with Wilkins were more of a problem; she was not interested in DNA (Willkins told her to work on it, and she thought he just wanted her to work as an assistant rather than as an independent researcher). She was about to leave the unit to work on Tobacco Mosaic virus with Bernal. She died five years later, long before the Nobel was awarded.
Some people, especially inductivists and feminists, think that Crick and Watson cheated by being so competitive and unconventional in what is often depicted as a race for the Nobel Prize. Crick’s defence was they were just in a hurry to get the truth, or at least to get a result and this was a matter of enthusiasm rather than competition (they were just trying to help, like good government workers).
“In our enthusiasm for the model-building approach we not only lectured Maurice Wilkins on how to go about it but even lent him our jigs for making the necessary parts of the model. In some ways I can see that we behaved insufferably (they never did use our jigs) but it was not all due to competitiveness. It was because we passionately wanted to know the details of the structure.”
He regarded that enthusiasm as a big plus in their favour, and he nominated a couple of others. They had no external pressure to make progress so they could attack the problem intensively for a while and then turn their minds to other things (so they didn’t go stale or become frustrated by slow progress).
“Our other advantage was that we had evolved unstated but fruitful methods of collaboration, something that was lacking 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 non hostile manner. This turned out to be quite crucial. In solving scientific problems of this type, it is almost impossible to avoid falling into error. [as noted] Now, to obtain the correct solution of a [complex] problem usually requires a sequence of logical steps. If one of these is a mistake, the answer is often hidden, since the error usually puts one on completely the wrong track. It is therefore extremely important not to be trapped by one’s own mistakes.” (70) [my emphasis].