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Genes, Girls and Gamow    by James D. Watson order for
Genes, Girls and Gamow
by James D. Watson
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Genes, Girls and Gamow is by James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA. It is a followup to his excellent 1968 memoir The Double Helix, which described the scientific and personal events leading up to the discovery in 1953. Together the two books provide an insider's view of some of the most important scientific discoveries of the second half of the 20th century; ones that have led to the Human Genome project and important advances in genetics and medicine. It is a fascinating glimpse into a time when the scientific world was much smaller and everyone from atomic physics to microbiology knew each other.

The book covers the scientific (Genes), the trivial (Girls) and the amusing (Gamow). The scientific quest was to understand how the information encoded in the DNA double helix structure was used by RNA to achieve the final goal - protein synthesis. Although some understanding of elementary genetics is useful in reading the book, it is not necessary to be able to appreciate how big scientific discoveries such as these are made. It is very much a personal memoir, in that the unmarried young Watson's pursuit of marriageable young women forms another big part of the book. Providing entertaining and amusing relief is George Gamow, an emigré Russian physicist with a brilliant mind and wit, who contributed his genius, mathematical skills and 'out of the box thinking' to solving the scientific puzzle. Watson scrupulously kept much of his correspondence and has excerpted many communications from Gamow in the book, so that the reader can really appreciate the latter's contributions.

Watson is a name-dropper in the best sense of the world, and includes in the book anecdotes about many famous people he encountered. Scientists such as Niels Bohr, Richard Feynmann, Edward Teller and Linus Pauling share space with well known names from the literary world like Doris Lessing. Watson includes a great deal of personal detail from his own life, especially on the topic of his search for female companionship. He does not spare himself as he depicts the two equally intense drives in his life - scientific understanding and finding a wife. He also describes events in others' lives, including marital problems and foolish escapades that many might feel have exceeded the limits of discretion.

Beginning in 1953 when Watson was 25, the book chronicles events through 1968 when Watson finally found his girl and married. Along the way he became a Harvard professor and shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 with Francis Crick for their discovery of the DNA structure. The perspective on the way in which science was conducted in the days before high speed computers and sophisticated instrumentation, will enthrall anyone with an interest in the discoveries that led to the deciphering of the human genetic code and other, as yet unseen, advances which will spring from this knowledge.

Overall, the book is definitely worth reading for its window into an important scientific era. However, many may agree with me in wishing for more Genes and Gamow and less Girls. Of course, the book is a personal memoir, not a definitive and scholary account, so Watson is entitled to do what he wants.

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