Rosalind Franklin and the Winds of Scientific Reputation

I watched a Nova documentary on Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of DNA tonight, I recorded last week. It covered a lot of ground I was already familiar with: the x-ray diffraction work she had done that enabled Watson and Crick to back-up their theoretical model of the double helix, and the conflicts she had working with the major figures involved in the discovery. Most of my information came from another dramatic popularization, The Race for the Double Helix, a TV movie made by the BBC in 1987. I was particularly struck by how valedictory the documentary was of Franklin. In trying to correct the biased view of Watson from his book The Double Helix the directors made Franklin into a paragon of science.

The story has all the elements of tragedy. Franklin dies before she knows the importance of her work, there are shady tricks and data sharing that she did not know about, and the treatment of women in English scientific establishments doesn’t come out looking very good. By now Watson may be feeling a bit put upon over all the fuss. He declined to be interviewed. He may be arrogant enough to not really care but it must be interesting to see the historical wheel turn so far against your story of events. Most of all it shows that the process of science is full of personal conflict and tempers much like business and politics.

I’ve long thought that we give too much credit to the seemingly impersonal and objective nature of science. If we can put so much faith into the competitive capitalist economy then why do we find it so hard to believe that science must be somehow more noble than the rest of life. I’m speaking as an outsider and observer of science as opposed to working within the culture. Nor am I suggesting that the success of science should be called into question. Science has succeeded immeasureably but it seems to have created a mindset that centers around a contradiction: the ambition of the individual versus the objectivity of the group. In many ways science has answered this dilemma better than any other human endeavor. But the contradiction remains and the story of the discovery of DNA is another of its revelations.

The only other point it raises is the question of mortality. I’m 31 now, just past the age when Franklin completed her DNA work, and only six years away from the age at which she died. Franklin certainly seemed to have found her calling in science.