James Watson's fame as a scientist and research leader overshadows his considerable achievements as an innovator in the form and style of scientific communication. This book surveys Watson's books and essays from the perennially bestselling The Double Helix
through his classic textbooks of the 1960s and 70s, polemics on ethical questions about genetic technology, to more recent works of autobiography.
The Double Helix would on its own have established James Watson's reputation as a writer...But Watson's textbooks have also given scientists, particularly students, a deeper understanding of genes and cells. And his popular-science books have given the public a new image of scientific research...The Writing Life of James D. Watson provides valuable insights into the process that led to this success.
In this magnificent book, Friedberg celebrates a scientist whose contribution to humanity does not end with experiments and scientific papers, who also established a novel writing style, and for whom conveying information to scientists and the public became a lifelong priority. Throughout the book, Watson’s insight, his great call for mentoring and teaching, and his sense of humor emerge, reminding us of Albert Einstein’s words, ‘Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.’
Writing about molecular biology for readers without backgrounds in chemistry presents a very real challenge. Friedberg (Univ. of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas) focuses on Watson’s writing for public consumption rather than on his scientific research papers. He shows that Watson made major inroads in describing scientific endeavor to nonscientists, and he illustrates Watson’s exceptional ability to capture the significance of advances in molecular biology over the past half century without becoming bogged down in jargon and detail. Not only does Watson’s ability to write well come across, so also does his great desire to share the story of science and make it readable. Though this book focuses on Watson’s approach to writing, it is as intriguing a science biography as one might ever hope to find. Written for all audiences, it will be of special interest to those entering science and those who want to understand the relationships of writing and publishing to the scientific enterprise.
Watson is unusual in doing all his writing longhand in ink and in a tiny printed script that one of his mentors at Indiana University, H J Muller, called barely macroscopic. He is also unusual in saving all his drafts and dating them so scholars can follow the way his ideas and stylistic changes develop during the progress of a manuscript from its initial start to its final draft for publication. Friedberg does a firstrate job with illustrations of pages of these drafts and the correspondence with critics, editors, and colleagues. Readers will come away admiring Watson for the courage to be innovative, to take risks, and to demand a standard of excellence and personal integrity that frequently put him at loggerheads with his publishers and editors....For scientists who like to write or who appreciate good writing style, reading this analysis by Friedberg will be rewarding.
The Quarterly Review of Biology