A look back at James Watson’s book The Double Helix and the controversy it stirred in the science community.

Watson expanded the boundaries of science writing to include not only the formal, public face of Nobel-winning discoveries but also the day-to-day life of working scientists—both inside and outside the lab. The Double Helix rejuvenated a genre that had been largely academic or hagiographic. Its success showed that there was and is an appetite for the story of science; that the stories can be human and exciting; that scientists can be flawed characters; that the whole endeavor doesn’t collapse if you depict it with something less than reverence.

Although the book caused an international scandal that winter, I don’t think any word of the controversy reached me at Classical High School. As a freshman, I read The Double Helix as a story of pure triumph. Now, of course, I can see what I couldn’t then: an epic of the loss of innocence, writ small and large. And I can see the arc of Watson’s life since 1968, which has been another epic of triumph and hubris, ending with a fall. So now I see the darkness around the shining cup.