MOLECULAR BIOLOGY is often described as the nuclear physics of the '70s, a science in ferment, its products spilling over into society, capable of prolonging, destroying, even redefining life. Yet the extraordinary intellectual achievements that produced this biological revolution have been curiously neglected, eliciting only a few, largely unimaginative histories, and sketchy, albeit imaginative, popular accounts.

The situation is considerably improved by the appearance of Horace Freeland Judson's The Eighth Day of Creation . Thoroughly researched, balanced, accurate, it lays out the major developments from the '40s to the '60s that yielded an understanding of the structure and function of DNA as the material that orders and reproduces life. Its centerpiece is of course the story of James D. Watson and Francis Crick's solution of DNA's double helical structure in the early '50s, a chronicle which dominates the first three chapters. The rest of the book details the aftershocks of the discovery: the conceptual transformation in the biological community, the gradual decoding of the cipher hidden in DNA's design, and the piecing together of the roles of RNA and protein in carrying out the cipher's orders.

In its treatment of these scientific giant steps, The Eighth Day of Creation is a one-volume crusade against the misimpressions left by earlier scholarly and popular books. In Judson's view, traditional history of science suffers from the retroactive perspective of the historian, giving the impression that science proceeds logically toward inevitable truths: "The history of science is liable to a sneaky teleology whereby the future, the truth itself, seems to be drawing the discoverer on: such whig interpretations are harder to purge from this than from other sorts of history because a knowledge of the outcome is often the only redress of the intellectual balance between scientist and historian."

On the other hand, popular versions, in Judson's view, overemphasize and distort the role of personality and serendipity in scientific endeavor. Particularly taken to task is James D. Watson's autobiographical tale, The Double Helix (1968), which has singlehandedly formed most lay conceptions of DNA events. Its characters, according to Judson, are fictionalized. Crick, who comes across almost as a buffoon in The Double Helix , is portrayed as the theoretical helmsman of molecular biology in Judson's account. Crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, so ridiculed in The Double Helix that it elicited a book-length rebuttal from Anne Sayre, (Rosalind Franklin and DNA, 1975) is, more moderately, a victim of both prejudice and her own scientific misjudgement in Judson's view. And finally, Watson himself: "The strangest character in the pursuit of DNA is the one Watson created, in The Double Helix , for himself to hide behind . . ."

Judson's point is that it is the interplay between personal style and conceptual resources that shapes scientific destiny. And so he presents both. He conveys the human side in a set of remarkably revealing and thought-provoking interviews with leaders of the day: Crick, Sydney Brenner, Max Perutz, Maurice Wilkins, Linus, Pauling Jacques Monod, among others. Highlights of these interviews are coupled with elegant biographical vignettes, and a sprinkling of anecdotes exposing scientists' competitiveness, cliquishness and quirks. Scientific leaders Salvador Luria, Perutz, and Lawrence Bragg, for example, helped conspire to mislead Washington in 1951 about Watson's activities in England, so that the young researcher's funding would continue; Marshall Nirenberg's crucial work on the DNA code was nearly ignored at a major Moscow conference in 1961 because "he was not a member of the club"; Mark Ptashne and Walter Gilbert, competing in neighboring Harvard laboratories during the '60s, raced each other unabashedly to be the first to isolate chemicals that repress gene function.

At the same time, however, Judson also probes the science that interacted with the personalities, from the basics of Fourier analysis to the details of the ingenious Matthew Meselson/Franklin Stahl experiment that, when announced in 1958, convinced most scientists for the first time that Watson and Crick were right. Underlined is the profusion of wrong ideas that perpetually clutters the scientific landscape, mistakes that must be appreciated to understand the magnitude of the cussesses, and that are indeed "essential to the process of the science." Illustrated, too, are the myriad social and individual patterns of scientific discovery, so few of which fit the high school textbook scientific method.

In effect, Judson surrounds the reader with the raw materials of science and of history, in a kind of paticipatory science writing. Judson joins the cast of characters in the book-although as a hazy, inadequately explained figure-and the reader joins him in the triumphs of finding treasures of old correspondence, in the banalities of menu selections that interrupt luncheon interviews, in the challenges of reconstruction circumstances that are now obscured by the comforts of hindsight.

Regrettably, this kaleidoscope of explication, interviews, detail dead ends and denouement, does not make for easy reading-a fact that will limit the book's lay audience. Meeting the double demands of Judson's quest and the scientists' quest at times takes diligence and a dictionary. But the demanding style is intentional: Judson is capable of breezier writing. For seven years the European arts and sciences correspondent for Time , he produced a lively rendition of more contemporary controversies in DNA research for Harper's four years ago. Infact, it is somewhat surprising and frustrating that the book ends abruptly in the '60s, leaving a hiatus between its conclusions and the spectacular events in genetic engineering, cancer research, and cloning that have sparked public interest in the '70s.

The tradeoff is that, by recapturing rather than recounting a critical time and type of science, Judson provides important insights into the inner workings of science as a whole. Popularizing science is a notoriously thankless task. Popularizing the history of science is no doubt doubly treacherous. Running the gauntlet of scientific mistrust, scholarly haughtiness, and lay skittishness, The Eight Day of Creation will be one of the rare survivors. CAPTION: Illustration, James D. Watson (left), Francis Crick, and Linus Pauling (bottom left) by Richard Willson for The Washington Post