Sunday, April 21, 2013

Failing to make the inductive leap

Science writer George Johnson raves about The Best Science Book Ever Written, and adds:
Meanwhile I was reminded of a remarkable section in Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation where he recreates, through Franklin’s journal and other sources, what she knew and when she knew it, every step along the way. He writes of her “grievous slowness of intuitive response,” of her working “head down and doggedly, ingeniously struggling in the wrong direction.” “It is easy to feel great sympathy with Franklin,” he concludes. “The fact remains that she never made the inductive leap.”
Rosalind Franklin did extremely important research on the structure of DNA. She discovered that DNA was a helix with the backbones on the outside, she specified the water content of DNA, and she did the crucial experiment with X-ray crystallography. According to Watson's 1968 memoir, The Double Helix, he and Crick made essential use of her work without her knowledge or permission, and they would have been helpless without it. Their famous 1953 papers avoided explaining how they got their DNA model and gave the false impression that Franklin's work was only to verify what Crick and Watson had already done. The 1962 Nobel Prize went to Crick, Watson, and another guy who hated Franklin and schemed to devalue what she had done. As of last year, Watson was still badmouthing Franklin.

Some people say that Franklin has been maligned because she was a woman. I don't buy it. Lots of women are properly credited. That does not explain why a well-regard science history book would say something so foolish as, “The fact remains that she never made the inductive leap.”

Whatever she may have failed to do is irrelevant to crediting her for what she did do. Her contributions are documented, and there is no dispute about what she did, as far as I know.

Einstein would never be credited for relativity if he were criticize for failing to make the inductive leap. He completely missed the most essential parts of the theory, such as the spacetime geometry and the electromagnetic covariance, and did not understand these concepts were published by others.

Update: Johnson posted a followup, drawing this comment:
Franklin deserved credit for the discovery of the structure of DNA to the degree that a lab tech deserves authorship on a paper. She did essential work that produced the breakthrough. Having said that, she did not make the intellectual breakthrough, and she did not take part in making the intellectual breakthrough. Anyone saying that she deserves to be treated on the same basis as Crick and Watson is doing so for non-scientific reasons - transparently non-scientific reasons. Franklin did excellent lab work. She failed to understand the product of that work. Crick and Watson did. She-would-have, she-could-have hypotheticals are good for novels, but for history, not so much.
I cannot explain this antagonism against Franklin. The annotated Watson Crick paper says:
(5) Here, the young scientists Watson and Crick call their model “radically different” to strongly set it apart from the model proposed by science powerhouse Linus Pauling. This claim was justified. While Pauling’s model was a triple helix with the bases sticking out, the Watson-Crick model was a double helix with the bases pointing in and forming pairs of adenine (A) with thymine (T), and cytosine (C) with guanine (G).
Watson-Crick got that double helix and inward bases from Franklin.

No comments:

Post a Comment