Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Au Revoir, Mes Enfants
Emma is going on a business trip for a while. I don't think I'll get a chance to blog. I'll see you soon. Have fun and NO HITTING!!!

And You Wonder Why I'm Angry?
In spite of the evidence in this blog, I'm not an angry person. I'm too busy with living to be angry; besides, as Anne Lamott memorably said, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. But there are things that just set me off like Kilauea, and once I'm off it's hard to bring the flow under control.

It happened tonight again. Usually I settle down to watch NOVA with the expectation of spending one hour in the company of some good science and good reporting. I don't check the tv guide, so I don't know what to expect, but I now I'll get up an hour later a bit more informed and filled with interesting questions.

Tonight, though, tonight I ran into The Secret of Photo 51. It's the story of Rosalind Franklin, the scientist whose work was used, uncredited, by Watson and Crick in creating their famous double-helix model. Dr. Franklin was a certified genius whose work with coal and charcoal, still cited today, helped launch the field of high-strength carbon fibers, and whose later work with Sir Aaron Klug is considered the foundation of structural virology. But in between these two, Dr. Franklin was the woman who first photographed DNA. (go here for a good discussion of her career accomplishments).

Franklin identified that there were two forms of DNA; she correctly identified the structure as helical; she also proposed that the base molecules would be on the inside of the helix (contra Watson and Crick, whose first model showed them outside in a triple helix configuration which was critiqued by Franklin at a meeting in Watson and Crick's lab). This can all be confirmed by her own published papers, her unpublished notes, and the recollection of colleagues and students.

Yet Watson, in The Double Helix, paints her as a a frumpy, belligerent, emotional incompetent who could not interpret her own work.

The character assasination of Rosalind Franklin seems to have started at King's College, a bastion of Anglo-Saxon manhood that would not tolerate a talented, competent woman who spoke her mind forthrightly. One of the people interviewed by NOVA descibed her as fierce and passionate, and commented "if she had been a man it would have been totally unremarked". Her colleague and competitor at King's College was Maurice Wilkins, who seems to have excelled in passing information to Watson and Crick (he shared the Nobel prize with them). He handed them the famous "photograph 51", which was the basis of the famous model. According to this Scientific American article Wilkins, who had been researching the matter for years, had seniority but little insight or good data. It was Franklin, a newcomer to biology, who made the critical observation that DNA exists in two distinct forms, A and B, and produced the sharpest pictures of both. They reached a compromise that Franklin would work on the A form and Wilkins on the B and went their separate ways. Except that Wilkins visited his buddy Crick every weekend in Cambridge and spilled all the beans from his colleague's laboratory.

When it came time to publish, the magazine Nature, with the contrivance of the (male) heads of both labs, placed her article last, to make it seem as if her work was only of a supporting nature to Watson's and Crick's more important findings.

Then, a few years after her untimely death, came the brutal hatchet job by Watson. Here's a taste By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. . . . There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. . . . Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice [Wilkins] to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA. . . . The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab.

Some writers feel compelled to downplay Watson's, Crick's, and Wilkins's actions: they "sneaked an unauthorized peek" at her work. This particular one glosses over it completely. This one says that The title of "discoverer" goes to those who first fit the pieces together. In rejecting Sayre's claim that Franklin was the victim of "robbery", the physicist Jeremy Bernstein has expressed the logic quite forcefully: "They made the double-helix scheme work. It is as simple as that.",COMPLETELY IGNORING THE FACT THAT THEY MADE IT WORK ONLY BECAUSE THEY HAD USED FRANKLIN'S RESEARCH IN PLACE OF THEIR OWN, WHICH WAS OBVIOUSLY NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

Ok, you're going to say, but there's plenty of nasty stories about scientists stealing other scientists' work, right? Yep, I answer. But that's not what makes me mad.

What angers me beyond belief is that even her most fervent supporters seem to need to make the point that she was "no saint". She "did not suffer fools gladly". This one, from Strange Science is a pip: She had a short temper, she often seemed unfriendly to those who didn't know her, and her affluent background may have affected her opinions of her less-wealthy colleagues more than she realized. It's as if they are saying that she brought it upon herself by being mean to the boys. Watson's asinine and clownish obssession with her looks (and he didn't even get it right; she wore the height of French fashion and was considered too sophisticated for King's College) is a clear attempt at creating a caricature that everyone will accept because everyone "knows" that's what women scientists look like--and therefore ignore his own disgusting behavior. And it worked for quite a while.

If you want to know what makes me really angry, this does.

Monday, April 21, 2003

A Sighting is Confirmed
I always believed--not being prey to that particular disease myself--that liberal guilt syndrome was a myth. But if some of the e-mail I have been received on my Castro post are any kind of diagnostic sign, there's many of you who suffer from it.

Here's the deal: I did not write that post in order to make you feel guilty, or angry, or ashamed, or any damned thing. I don't think you owe me, or Cuba, anything. I don't think it's a good idea--in fact, I think it would be counterproductive--to go around trying to fix everybody's problems.

If you read the post again (skip the first part and go straight to the section that begins with to the folks on the right), what I was trying to do was to point out that in many cases, the right and the left suffer from conditional principles, or situational ethics, or something. I think that one loses credibility when one approves in one government behavior that one finds unacceptable in another. Either all repressive dictatorships are bad or none are. Either all humans are deserving of personal freedom or none are. Either all governments should have the power to abridge those freedoms, or none should.

I can better understand someone who proposes that a nation should be guided by self-interest than I can someone who tells me they are all for liberty and justice--except for the people of x, and y, and z, because, after all, their leaders have led the fight against imperialism (communism), and the Republicans (Democrats) hate them.

That's the real realpolitik.