University of Wisconsin–Madison

Explicit Guidelines for a Formal Writing Assignment in History of Science

Professor Lynn Nyhart, History of Science 280: The Double Helix


Polished draft due Tuesday October 8 (bring three copies TO CLASS)

Final version due Tuesday October 15.

Assess the value of James Watson’s The Double Helix for the historian of science. How useful is it as a document for giving us insight into the development of molecular biology (or insight into the scientific process in general in the early 1950s)? Some things you might want to consider in formulating your answer:

  • How accurate is the document–to what degree should we trust it, and in what areas?
  • How broad or narrow is its scope? What information is included; what information (or what kind of information) is left out that you think would be helpful or necessary to formulate a fuller picture of the history involved?
  • What does it tell us about the conduct of science that is useful to know, and what might be lacking from other sorts of documents?
  • What other sorts of documentation would you want to have access to, ideally, to gain a full picture of the early history of molecular biology?

You do not need to address all of these questions; you might want to address others as well/instead. These are just suggestions.

The essay should be about 1200-1500 words long (approx. 4-6 pages), and should make a coherent argument with a clear thesis statement that you support. (The argument itself may, of course, have multiple parts or sub-arguments.) However, we do not need to be rigid about the exact form of the argument. If you feel most comfortable writing a standard academic essay, you may do that. If you would rather imagine yourself offering advice to a friend, or a student, or someone else burning to know about the early history of molecular biology who has been told that The Double Helix is a good place to start, you may do that. You may even imagine yourself writing a didactic letter to the journal Biology Teacher or presenting a paper at the “International History, Philosophy, and Science Teaching Conference” (a real conference held every other year) advising non-historians of science of the pleasures and pitfalls of using this book to teach students about the history of molecular biology. In any of these cases, you would want to develop a clear thesis and argument, but you might couch them slightly differently in your introduction, and the overall tone might differ somewhat, depending on which approach you take. (BE SURE to be clear which approach you’re doing!)

Please attach to your draft a Cover Letter for your readers that highlights where you especially want advice. Are you uncertain whether you have articulated your thesis clearly? Do you want them to pay special attention to the ways you support your argument? The relationship of your conclusion to the evidence? Your balance of different kinds of argumentation? Are you concerned that you are trying to cover too little? Too much? Are there other issues you want them to focus on? The more responsibility you take for guiding your reader-editors, the more likely you are to get truly useful feedback.