- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

James D. Watson has been one of the most famous scientists in the world since 1953, when he was just 25-years-old. In that year he and Francis Crick discovered the famous "double helix" structure of DNA, a feat which won the pair a Nobel Prize in 1962. In 1968, Mr. Watson published his memoir "The Double Helix," which caused a minor storm in the staid world of science because of its frankness in discussing the naked ambition, ruthless rivalry and occasional dirty tricks that characterized the race to unravel the structure of DNA.
Now, well into his 70s and a much honored elder statesman of science, Mr. Watson has produced Genes, Girls and Gamow: After the Double Helix (Knopf, $26, 260 pages, illus.), a sequel to "The Double Helix" which discusses in great detail his activities, both academic and amatory, over the three years following the famous discovery. The book, based on his own memory and some 60 of what Mr. Watson describes as "diary-like" letters he wrote to the young girl with whom he was in love but lost to someone else, includes descriptions of his scientific research, the early stages of his academic career, and, most of all, his pursuit of a suitable spouse.
In recognition of the large number of people Mr. Watson interacted with during the short period covered by the book, it begins with a formal "Cast of Characters," comprising mostly a virtual Who's Who of the world of molecular biology of the time and also including many other distinguished scientists, a large fraction of whom either had already or would later become Nobelists, as well as their wives and daughters.
Many of these figures play only a fleeting role in the book, but encounters with the eponymous George Gamow occur often enough to give Mr. Watson an excuse to give the book an alliterative title. The hard-drinking, Russian-born Gamow was a highly original physicist, best remembered now as the originator of the Big Bang Theory of cosmology, but during the era discussed by Watson he was working furiously to discover the genetic code.
Historians of molecular biology may be interested in the series of letters from Gamow reproduced in the back of the book, and many readers will not fail to note the different mores prevailing in the pre-1960s age, where several of Mr. Watson's friends feel compelled to enter matrimony because of unexpected pregnancy, but the central motif of the book, along with Mr. Watson's search for the structure of RNA, another key biological molecule, as he moved from lab to lab in the international circuit, is his kiss-and-tell rendering of his quest for a life partner.
The book includes an epilogue covering the 1960s, which concludes in 1968, when the 40-year-old Mr. Watson marrried a 19-year-old Radcliffe student, Elizabeth Lewis. His concluding sentence tells us that "more than thirty years later, she remains very much a sweet peach."

Oliver Sacks' Uncle Tungstun: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (Knopf, 425, 320 pages) is a much warmer autobiographical memoir about a young boy's fascination with chemistry. Dr. Sacks is a distinguished neuologist and superb writer ("The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"). In this book he describes his growing-up years in England, encompassing the period from his birth in 1933 to his passage in to adolescence shortly after World War II.
Dr. Sacks' early years were passed in the bosom of a warm Anglo-Jewish family from which he was traumatically removed at the outbreak of war and sent away to a boarding school which was Dickensian in its awfulness. He almost never saw his parents for the next four years, and the religious belief and attachment to the Jewish observances he had absorbed in his parents' home were obliterated by the pain and abandonment he felt in the school. The only solace he found was in mathematics and chemistry.
His scientific interests were fostered by his parents, both of whom were physicians, and by their large and highly educated extended family, most notably "Uncle Tungsten" of the book's title, his mother's older brother Dave, whose nickname referred to his occupation as a manufacturer of tungsten-filamented lightbulbs. His mother was one of 18 children her father had by two wives , and one of the book's most interesting illustrations is a 1902 family portrait of Dr. Sacks' maternal grandparents together with their 13 children.
Dr. Sacks packs in a large amount of information about chemistry, particularly the properties of metals, his particular passion, and the hours he spent reading about it and experimenting. The qualitative chemistry that so intrigued him was one of the great achievements of the 19th century, a study far more appealing to the imagination than the highly theoretical subject that is taught in today's high schools.
He recalls the delights of producing explosive results with easily available chemical supplies, something which he regrets has been rendered almost impossible to youthful experimenters in today's safety-obsesssed and nanny-state regulated world. Dr. Sack's coming-of-age occurred at 14, when his parents let him know that it was time to end his chemical infatualion, join the real world and prepare to become a medical doctor.

Dr. Zakaria Erzinclioglu spends a large amount of time at scenes of supicious deaths collecting maggots, flies and any other entomological specimens that may be of help in determining when the victim died and who might have been responsible. Not surprisingly, the many British police officials who call on his services refer to him as "Dr. Zak." Formerly a senior research associate at Cambridge University and director of the Forensic Science Research Center at Durham University, he is one of the world's leading forensic entomologists.
As well as telling us how practitioners of his rather grisly field go about their work, in Maggots, Murder, and Men: Memories and Reflections of a Forensic Entomologist (St. Martin's, $23.95, 248 pages) the author provides a series of tales of crime and misfortune, surprising accounts of the positive benefits of "maggot therapy" in cleaning up wounds without more advanced forms of treatment, and reflections on profesional ethics based on his decades of experience.
Dr. Zak is a devotee of the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and appreciates the fictional sleuth's emphasis on careful observation. He is able to quote one of his own cases, when he looked up from his microscopic examination of some material taken from a corpse and declared to an astonished young policeman, there to tell him for the first time the background of the case, that the victim had died in late autumn, the body had lain at the edge of a wood for some time before being concealed indoors, and that the probable cause of death was a chest wound.
As well as describing various types of forensically-important insects, Dr. Zak shows how forensic entomology has played a major role in murder cases of varying degrees of notoriety. In his wide-ranging and analytic manner, he also hypothesizes about ancient historical events associated with insects, notably several of the 10 plagues that afflicted the Egyptians.
In conclusion, he comments critically on the presence of dishonest, incompetent and totally unqualified practitioners of forensic science among the ranks of supposedly professional expert witnesses, and regrets recent developments that have cut spending on forensic science in the United States, a casualty of the free market philosophy of government, which he believes is significantly weakening the criminal justice system.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.


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