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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

And Also: Injured war vet Tammy Duckworth won a close Illinois primary, but the grass roots local progressive activist (44% of vote vs. Hyde in '04) came quite close even though the party bigwigs and moneybags were against her. Telling ... and upsetting ... besides having a good "image," did the best candidate really win? What message does this send?

I agree that faith is essential to success in life (success of any sort) but I do not accept your definition of faith; i.e. belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining. Anyone able to believe in all that religion implies obviously must have such faith, but I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world…

It has just occurred to me that you may raise the question of a creator. A creator of what? … I see no reason to believe that a creator of protoplasm or primeval matter, if such there be, has any reason to be interested in our insignificant race in a tiny corner of the universe, and still less in us; as still more insignificant individuals. Again, I see no reason why the belief that we are insignificant or fortuitous should lessen our faith – as I defined it.

-- Rosalind Franklin in letter to her father; Brenda Maddox in Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

James Watson was a young American scientist on the make in the early 1950s, managing to obtain a job with Francis Crick in a top English research facility. As discussed in his gossipy book The Double Helix, which I read in high school, the two got caught up in the "race" (at least, his view) to understand the nature of DNA ... the building blocks of all of life. A tricky term, "life," isn't it? Franklin's biographer quoted a work by Erwin Schrondinger -- What is Life -- which attacked the question partly in this fashion:
Life is matter that does something. The technical term is metabolism – eating, drinking, breathing, assimilating, replicating, and avoiding entropy … [Life as 'negative entropy'] … something not falling into chaos and approaching the dangerous state of maximum entropy, which is death.

It was overall an interesting story, young scientists in post-WWII England trying to unveil one of life's mysteries, and doing it really in a somewhat causal way. After all, it really was not their main job -- in fact, an early attempt to formulate a model of what DNA looked like was such a failure/embarrassment that their superior in effect told them to stop working on the effort. But, it still needled them, and they continued to obtain useful data on x-ray diffraction photos of the substance from another scientist in a competing institution. And, eventually was given permission to work on the question again, leading to an "eureka" moment wherein the characteristics of the "double helix" was discovered.

This eventually led to a Nobel Prize along with that third man and the race itself was portrayed in a PBS movie that I also saw in high school -- thus the matter was an interest to me for some time before I learned more about a woman ridiculed by Watson, but quite fundamental to the discovery. It is unclear, given the biases of the era and the way her work was underemphasized when the discovery of the DNA structure was first released (and at the awards ceremony itself), if she would have shared that prize. But, the matter was academic, so to speak -- the award is not given posthumously, and Rosalind Franklin died at age 37 about five years before it was handled down.

Franklin was the chief reason why that first attempt to build a model was deemed so embarrassing -- when shown the model by the duo, she bluntly described why it was so wrong. And, she had good reason to know: already internationally known for her x-ray diffraction expertise by the time she was thirty, Franklin was in the process of taking "photos" of the substance. One such photo, "Photo 51," led Watson to discover that DNA is a helix. But, Watson found Franklin hard to deal with, as did the person who showed the duo her notes -- a low key sort working at her lab, who (helped by some misunderstandings) clashed with Franklin.

And, it was his petty comments about Franklin (some other gossipy remarks were removed, but unlike the other participants involved, RF was dead by this time, so could not defend herself) in The Double Helix that helped lead others to be more interested in Franklin's story. Likewise, those concerned with women's history would of course be drawn to her story, more recently in the cited work quoted above. I read the book three years ago about when a Nova episode told her story, but missed its release. It finally was on again yesterday and provided added flavor to a remarkable life story, including her difficulties in an institution where the main place for the researchers to relax was men's only.

The biography is recommended. Rosalind Franklin was born in a well-off educated Jewish family in England, given a good education in an age where this was still notable for women, and ultimately clashed with her more religious minded father. Her head strong nature showed itself early on, but so did Franklin's intelligence, drive, and scientific abilities. She became an expert at the important if somewhat tedious (for some ... she loved the process involved) x-ray diffraction technique, in particular studies of coal, and helped the war effort by formulating a better gas mask. After the war, she obtained a position in Paris, where she thrived. The open minded nature of the institution as well as the beauties of Paris agreed with Franklin.

RF still felt that she had to return to England, though it turned out that her new position did not agree with her -- not the lack of fellowship with the other researchers, nor the drab surroundings. Given her clear skills and important research, this was too bad. As to the DNA issue, RF probably did not know how her research was used without her knowledge, since the duo did not fairly (at least this seems to be the general sentiments of various accounts) credit it when they published. As to its true nature, she was more a technician, so the theoretical analysis of her work was not as much her forte. Nonetheless, RF was in the process of formulating its true nature. And, if able to work with the others, she would have been able to analyze her work even more successfully.

About the time the "double helix" was discovered -- she immediately agreed with the duo's new model btw -- RF asked to be relieved of her position. She moved on to a new one and thrived, her work on viruses also eventually leading to one of her assistant's winning the Nobel Prize. This time, she was properly honored. Clearly having a wonderful future ahead of her, it was tragic when cancer (perhaps a result of radioactive x-ray experiments) struck at search an early age. In effect, she was pissed -- she was too busy to die. In fact, the disease first struck during a vacation in the U.S. -- RF loved to travel and climb. And, her life ended right before she was to travel to a conference.

Rosalind Franklin is a symbol of the ideal person of science, hard working and determined, while still having a cultured side that sometimes only her friends truly recognized. Great story, if one unfortunately shortened.