for the Double Helix
Alternate title: Life Story, BBC Television (1986)
the early 1950s, the greatest unsolved mystery in science was the secret of life
itself - the process which all living things have reproduced themselves,
generation upon generation, since the beginning of life on Earth. Although the
mystery had a name, the 'gene', nobody knew what it was or how it worked."
This movie details the research and personal
interactions leading to the discovery of the structure of the molecule DNA.
The film opens in 1951, when the young American biologist James D.
Watson (1928- ), attending a conference in Italy, is jolted into active pursuit
of the structure of DNA by an X-ray diffraction image of a DNA sample presented
by the English biophysicist Maurice Wilkins. Since Wilkins’s image reveals the
regularity of a crystal, Watson is convinced that DNA might be analyzed by
straightforward methods that have previously succeeded in solving the structure
of other types of crystals. This conviction carries Watson to
By the first week of March 1953, Watson and Crick have won the
race. In the model they construct that week, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) takes
the shape of a spiral staircase (a "double helix," in geometrical
terms), with the steps composed of pairs of molecules known as bases, and the
formed by chains of sugar and phosphate molecules. Because the same types of
bases always pair together (adenine with thymine, guanine with cytosine), one
half of the DNA staircase (the sequence of bases attached to either
sugar-phosphate chain) contains enough information to reproduce the entire
structure (the basis for biological reproduction). Moreover, the sequence of
bases along the sugar-phosphate chain makes up a code of genetic information. An
alphabet of only four letters, A, T, G, C (the initial letters of the names of
the bases), produces enough variations in genetic information to account for the
great diversity of all living things, including human beings.
Although he did not win the race for the double helix, Linus
Pauling won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954 for his work on the nature of
chemical bonding. In 1962 (the same year Pauling won the Nobel peace prize for
his advocacy of nuclear weapons control), Watson, Crick and Wilkins shared the
Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work on the structure of DNA.
Rosalind Franklin was not considered for that prize because the rules require
that recipients be living at the time of the award, and
Watson (1928 - , American)
Cavendish Labs (
Crick (1916 - , British)
Cavendish Labs (
Franklin (1920-1958, French)
Pauling (Linus Pauling’s son) American
Randall (Rosalind Franklin’s lab mate)
Chargaff (French, “Chargaff’s Rule”)
Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View
of Scientific Discovery (New York, 1988).
Sayre, Rosalind Franklin and DNA (New
D. Watson, The Double Helix (New York,
D. Watson and Francis Crick, "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A
Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid," Nature 171 (2 April 1953).
Notes While Viewing:
movie depicts two different philosophies of scientific discovery.
Comment on the way in which the structure of DNA was discovered.
Discuss the method used by Watson and Crick, and compare and contrast it
with the method used by Rosalind Franklin. Which
method was more appropriate? Should
scientific exploration be a “race”? What
are the pros and cons of such a race? How
do you feel about Watson and Crick having the “glory” associated with
discovering the structure of DNA?
times in the movie, the politics of science were discussed.
Explain how politics played a role in the discovery of DNA structure.
Do you think the science of today is more or less political than it was
during the 1950s? Discuss one
example of modern research that is affected by politics, and how it is affected.
the methods Watson and Crick used to determine the structure of DNA.
What do you think was good about their methods?
What do you think was NOT good about their methods?
Why? Do the same for
Answer Questions for “Race for the Double Helix”
from Sue Anderson, Palatine High School, Palatine, Illinois; Dr. Harry
Hitchcock, Clinton High School, TN; J. Murray, Blue
Ridge Community College, Weyers Cave, VA)
What was Wilkin’s response?
Why is this
movie called “Race for the Double Helix”?
Do you think scientific research should be a race?
Why or why not?
What did you learn from the movie that you didn’t previously know?
from the movie
Access Excellence / Donald Bockler,
"The less data the better... Truth is pretty... We listen, but
we don't obey...like gossip."
comes not from knowing the solution, but from knowing why it’s the solution”
"Do you know what I like about our kind of work? You can be
happy or unhappy; it makes no difference. It doesn't matter if you like what you
find or hate it. You look at it and say, 'So that's how it is!'... Sometimes I
feel like an archaeologist, breaking into a sealed tomb. You just want to
"You know how I work, Francis. Anyone can come into my lab
anytime they like. Science is a communal activity. I have always said
"So we got it 2400% wrong... Anyone can make a mistake."
"That's what Science is like; it's not all cold reason. There
has to be excitement. Science is like love. You can't be told, 'Love this woman,
don't love that woman.' You follow your heart."
"Do you read detective stories? You don't read the ending
first to see who did it. It destroys the book. Satisfaction doesn't come from
knowing the solution. It comes from learning WHY it's the solution."
"It doesn't matter. THIS (DNA model) is what matters. Life is
the shape it is for a purpose. When you see how things really are, all of the
hurt and waste fall away. What is left is the beauty."