A Modern Greek Tragedy of Temperament .. and Gender, revisited.

It is a modern Greek Tragedy of Temperament

… and Gender.

The Fates can be cruel or kind, or boththree-fates-greek

It seems so in this story.  This story is about discovery.  This story is about life and death.

She had worked hard all her life.  She had overcome her circumstance. Latin: Circum– to encircle, stance to take a position, to contend. Yes, it had been a man’s world, she was surrounded by her society and her family who discouraged her from her passion: science. Of course, other women had suffered discrimination before her: Marie Curie and Emmy Noether to name two, but they had their families to teach them, encourage and help them. Nobody had encouraged her, certainly not her family, and still was a man’s world in science in 1952.  She had to rely on herself, so she thought and acted.

He, of course, was hopelessly arrogant and smart.  He had been a precocious child; he even appear on Quiz Kids. And he had hooked up with an equally curious and brilliantly arrogant man, a man with a thousand ideas a minute.  They had formed an informal team: a Mastermind RationalJames Watson and a Inventor RationalFrances Crick at the Cavendish Labs in Cambridge. Real Idea Men.

She was reluctant to show her x-ray pictures and data to Watson, in fact she refused.  He had to get them indirectly.  She was dismissive of Crick and Watson’s work – they were wrong – she had convinced them that their initial models couldn’t be right.  Rosalind Franklin, a Mastermind Rational, a Strategic Contender, knew her stuff.  She was a meticulous scientist, she did not speculate wildly beyond the scientific evidence on hand.  She had taught herself to be disciplined in science – rigorous deduction was the way not to get lost.  That way you don’t make mistakes, yourself.

Making mistakes is bad.  It is good to avoid them.  But on the otherhand, if you try to eliminate mistakes, you unfortunately, probably won’t make brilliant mistakes, either.

“Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself.”  — Vilfredo Pareto

Watson had Crick, Crick had Watson. They used wire models of the molecular radicals, and their imagination. Together they figured out the key to life: the Structure of DNA.  They had use their own unique talents, Temperament, and knowledge, but they worked as an Idea team. And they also had Rosy and her work, however reluctant, critical, and knowledgeable she was.

They published their findings in 1953, not acknowledging Rosalind Franklin as being key in the discovery.  For she was and wasn’t.  Without Franklin’s work it probably would have been others, not Watson and Crick who made the discovery, possibly years later by an iconoclast like Linus Pauling, or who knows.  The correct interpretation of Franklin’s x-ray diffraction data of crystaline DeoxyriboNucleic Acid, was Crick and Watson’s solely.  This interpretation has been described by some other biologists and Nobel laureates as the most important scientific discovery of the 20th century. They were rewarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, five years after Franklin had died of ovarian cancer.

She did have her Science.  She knew herself — what she did.

A tragedy?  A comedy?  Or a Modern Greek Tale of Temperament and Gender.

It is 60 years exactly when Watson and Crick article was published.


Other Mastermind Rationals include:  Sheryl WudunnSalman Khan,  Susan B AnthonyIssac NewtonSharon PresleyBill GatesMasha Gessen,  Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ulysses S. Grant

0 thoughts on “A Modern Greek Tragedy of Temperament .. and Gender, revisited.”

  1. Hopefully with spotlight (60 years) again shining the light back on DNA there might be some more acknowledgment, and appreciation for the meticulous research Franklin did. “The most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.” Brenda Maddox did a fascinating book On Franklin, ‘Dark Lady of DNA’ while I struggle with detail of the science, the message, the story is not lost on me: >>It was Franklin’s photographic skills that made the discovery possible, says Maddox. “She could take photographs of crystals… and interpret the patterns.” She had “a particular genius at aligning hand and mind.”

    She did not know the other men were using her research upon which to base the article that appeared in the journal Nature. She didn’t complain either. This may be thanks to her upbringing, says Maddox. Franklin “didn’t do anything that would invite criticism… (this was) bred into her.” << With hindsight and time, we get to benefit the whole story, (well, almost). It's an excellent book!

  2. … not acknowledging Rosalind Franklin as being key in the discovery. For she was and wasn’t. Without Franklin’s work it probably would have been others, not Watson and Crick who made the discovery…

    The correct interpretation of Franklin’s x-ray diffraction data of crystaline DeoxyriboNucleic Acid, was Crick and Watson’s solely.

    –> OK, So maybe you should decide what you want to say here, because you just contradicted yourself saying without her it would not have been possible (yes, I do see the ‘She was and she wasn’t’ but I don’t see where you explain how this assertion is true) and then giving sole credit for the ‘interpretation’ to her colleagues. The meaning of interpretation is to read something on existing material, right? Without that material the interpretation is not possible at all and if others were producing material similar to Franklin’s and it was indeed possible for them to use THAT instead, these other x-ray photographers need to be mentioned, otherwise it seems you randomly decided to take credit from her (60 years later! let me tell you, it is definitely tragic) for the work she did do and that was inovative enough to allow someone else to see something no other work of the kind had allowed till then.

    Can’t argue about the science but your argument simply does not follow.

    1. Franklin did not believe in Crick and Watson’s approach, she believed in her approach. There was a race to understand the Structure of DNA, which included Linus Pauling’s group, and another, I forget the details. We, of course, don’t know if or when Pauling would have come up the double helix idea. Watson and Crick thought is was a matter of months or days that Pauling would understand his mistake and “figure it out”, the competition spurred them on. The problem with “awards” (like the Nobel) is that it assigns discrete credit and excludes those who have died. Pauling’s work (through competition and Pauling’s mistake in his alpha helix model) also “contributed to” Watson and Crick final model. So again, Franklin definitely contributed to the discovery of the model, but it still took Watson and Crick messing around a bit (with their physical model) to make the final leap. Knowing the Franklin’s story is important to understand exactly what her contribution was. In other words, it is important to give credit where credit is due. Luckily I think Franklin knew that she was important to the discovery of the Structure of DNA, and that was what was important to her, THE SCIENCE — the rest did not matter.

      You might be interested in another person’s reaction to awards — Grigori Perelman on the solving of the Poincare Conjecture.

      And then there was Richard Feynman — he seriously considered not accepting the Nobel Prize. But we can forgive him for his weakness in accepting?! 😉

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