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Publisher's Summary

An authoritative history of the race to unravel DNA’s structure, by one of our most prominent medical historians.

James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 discovery of the double helix structure of DNA is the foundation of virtually every advance in our modern understanding of genetics and molecular biology. But how did Watson and Crick do it? - and why were they the ones who succeeded?

In truth, the discovery of DNA’s structure is the story of five towering minds in pursuit of the advancement of science, and for almost all of them, the prospect of fame and immortality: Watson, Crick, Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, and Linus Pauling. Each was fascinating and brilliant, with strong personalities that often clashed. Howard Markel skillfully recreates the intense intellectual journey, and fraught personal relationships, that ultimately led to a spectacular breakthrough. But it is Rosalind Franklin - fiercely determined, relentless, and an outsider at Cambridge and the University of London in the 1950s, as the lone Jewish woman among young male scientists - who becomes a focal point for Markel.

The Secret of Life is a story of genius and perseverance, but also a saga of cronyism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and misconduct. Drawing on voluminous archival research, including interviews with James Watson and with Franklin’s sister, Jenifer Glynn, Markel provides a fascinating look at how science is done, how reputations are undone, and how history is written, and revised. 

A vibrant evocation of Cambridge in the 1950s, Markel also provides colorful depictions of Watson and Crick - their competitiveness, idiosyncrasies, and youthful immaturity - and compelling portraits of Wilkins, Pauling, and most cogently, Rosalind Franklin. The Secret of Life is a lively and sweeping narrative of this landmark discovery, one that finally gives the woman at the center of this drama her due.

©2021 Howard Markel (P)2021 Recorded Books

What listeners say about The Secret of Life

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    1 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

Odd choice of narrator

This book concerns the discovery of DNA by Watson, Crick and the other scientists who worked on the problem. Because all of the events take place in England I was quite surprised that the narrator was an American. On the whole he reads well, but the mispronunciations are jarring. There are certainly oddities in British pronunciation, but either he or an editor should check. When speaking of Grosvenor Square he pronounces it as it looks like it should be pronounced rather than the correct “Grovner”. The same happens with Caius College, which is properly pronounced “keys”. But the strangest of all is his pronunciation of “deoxyribonucleic”, where an “s” is added in the middle of the word . This happens at least twice, but later in the book this word is pronounced correctly. This should have been corrected, since either he or an editor noted the error. This may sound like nit-picking, but these errors interrupted my focus. It’s an interesting book but as an audiobook could have been so much better.

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

Enjoyable and informative

I enjoyed most of the finer details of the scientific processes used. Just not the information about their love lives; I don't read romance novel's for a reason.

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A bit heavy on the detail

This is a meticulously reached book describing the people and events leading up to discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. It is an incredible story and the author does a masterful job of describing in particular the way in which Rosalind Franklin was marginalized and in effect written out of the record by Watson’s fictional tale The Double Helix. However in his desire to tell the “whole story” there is in my opinion way to much detail devoted to the minutiae of peoples lives. For example eating habits, interests in hiking, romantic disasters and personality quirks are given almost as much space as the central story itself. Some may love this detail and to a point it does add to the tapestry of the interactions of the people involved. I found it a bit tedious. That’s why the Performance and Story get 5 stars, but Overall gets only 4.