2012-02-14

Thoughts on "Photograph 51"

A few days ago, I and the rest of MIT SPS went to see the play "Photograph 51". It details [and dramatizes] the life and work of Rosalind Franklin, who was the first to see the helical nature of DNA. For all her professional life (which tragically ended rather early due to ovarian cancer), she worked extremely methodically and refused to draw any conclusions or make any models unless there was solid data to support that. By contrast, Crick & Watson, who are traditionally the ones credited with discovering the structure and nature of DNA, went for models even if there wasn't always the most solid evidence to support them. What they did do that Franklin did not (according to the play, at least, which I believe and hope is pretty close to what actually happened) was to model how DNA base-pairing works and where the phosphates are in the nucleic acids.

One of the things that struck me as interesting is just how isolated Franklin made herself even from her colleagues at the King's College in London. I mean, I knew that she was generally reluctant to share her work because she knew that any work she published would be attributed to her male colleagues (even those under her in the research hierarchy), but I didn't realize she was practically antagonistic toward her fellow researchers. I fully understand how she did so essentially to maintain her own dignity and not submit herself to the male-dominated research community, but if she tried that today in a culture where females are quite prevalent (though of course there is still much progress to be made) in scientific research, I would think her actions would be unacceptable as they would be antithetical to the ideas of open science and collaborative research.

On the other hand, though, it's hard to discount just how pervasive the sexism present at that time was. Crick & Watson in the play were both quite patronizing toward her. Her colleague Maurice Wilkins could not really accept her as an equal until around the time when she first fell ill with ovarian cancer. She was segregated from the other male researchers. So of course she had to do everything she could to make sure she would be recognized as an equal to the other researchers rather than as an assistant of some sort.

There's another point to be made regarding open science in this context, and that is in the premature publication of Franklin's data. She didn't want to publish because she felt that she didn't have sufficient data to back up any claims she made (and this is also why she was opposed to making models as prematurely as Crick & Watson did). Ultimately, it should have been left to her as to whether she wanted to publish the data or not. Yet Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were overeager to publish and "win the race" (to finding the "secret to life"), so they managed to get a hold of one of Franklin's photographs without her permission and used it to complete their own work. Consequently, she didn't make it onto their Nobel Prize-winning paper, so the paper she published looked like it simply supported the paper from Crick & Watson. A lot of accounts describe the process as them "stealing" her data. On the one hand, I disagree with this because ultimately it is the results that matter to science more than the personalities behind them. On the other hand, they did acquire that data without her permission, and in the end it should have been up to her whether her own data should have been published or not. There wasn't any doubt that she would publish everything once she got around to it; it's just that she felt that the time wasn't right, and the other researchers violated her prerogative as a research scientist to make that call.

As I think about this more, the whole story really is a good deal more ethically knotty than how it is initially presented. Also, I would encourage you to go and see the play "Photograph 51" if you are in the Boston area; it is playing in the Central Square Theater in Cambridge.

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