The Most Beautiful Picture In Science: James Watson - "The Double Helix"

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

#biology #chemistry #watson #crick #DNA

We were clearing out the loft not long ago when I stumbled across a book that I'd never known existed. Lying under a "NOW JUST £3.99" sticker from The Works was the published accounts of the discovery of DNA by none other than James Watson. It's been over 50 years since Watson and Crick famously made that discovery. A discovery that, today, seems far from the groundbreaking marvel of science that it once was. The simplicity of the structure being appropriately tidy, predictably succinct and functionally boring (to most year 8 students who have to memorise the four base names). Yet, reading Watson's journals is a fantastic way to put you back in the 50's (probably for the first time) and experience a front row seat to one of the greatest discoveries mankind will ever witness.

It probably comes as no surprise that Watson and Crick were no Cliff Booth. They represent a portion of the 50's which is noticeably closer to our reality - that is my reality of lab books and stats tests rather than convertible chevys and hand guns. Working out of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, which of course is still there (in essence anyway), these two were just like any other academics. I'm sure they knew that they were on to something big, but I like to imagine them blissfully unaware of what they were about to happen across ("happen across" is a disgusting oversimplification of years of work and genuine genius; that phrase alone probably discredits this article, blog and company). See, when reading the letters they sent backwards and forwards, where they have crossed things out or underlined things where they'd got excited, that discovery does seem real. It's not chapter 1, page 1, line 1 of AQA Biology. It's new, it's exciting, it's revolutionary. And it's in reading this article that I made a discovery of my own. The most beautiful picture in science.

This image, an early sketch of the double helical structure of DNA, has all the beauty of the now-known model; it's almost identical to it. Yet still, it's wrong. The like-with-like base pairing that Watson suggests is incorrect. Obviously they'd go on to correct this mistake, but this picture tells us so much about science as a profession, nay as a subject. For in this moment, the thought he had it. That they'd cracked the problem and found a crucial part of the inner workings of the universe. Watson talks about his excitement to announce his new discovery to the scientific community. However, in reality, they weren't there yet. They were tantalisingly close, only having to change one thing. But they weren't there yet.

I think it's a luxury to be able to step back from the rigid box of modern science and appreciate a time when, say, the structure of DNA wasn't a fact. It wasn't obvious. And it wasn't boring.

This picture tells us that not every good idea in science is true. It tells us about perseverance - that solutions are always there to be found in the universe. It tells us about the importance of collaboration - as this mistake was only rectified with the help of Crick and other collaborators. But for me, above all else, it tells us about the success; about how satisfying it is to finally crack whatever branch of the universe that we are working on, how beautiful true solutions actually are. For in the moment when we see this picture, we empathise with Watson as he was on the day it was drawn - excited that this is something good; but disappointed that it isn't done yet. But with all the gifts of hindsight, we know that they are so close to getting it, and we know how important it is.

In science, we are too used to failure. We work for so long and get negative results, or our projects don't wow or amaze in the way we hoped they would. Maybe our projects are successful, but they may not have the recognition or impact that we wanted. This picture tells us that those groundbreaking discoveries are out there, and that we - anyone - can make them. It's not some superhuman hunch that gave Watson and Crick the structure of DNA. It's hard work and perseverance (and a little bit of luck). We may not be there yet, but this picture tells me that getting there is possible. And all in all, I think that's pure inspiration.

Subscribe to Get Updates: