Monday, July 27, 2020

More on Photograph 51 and Rosalind Franklin

Environmental & Science Education
Nature of Science
History of Science
Edward Hessler

British scientist Matthew Cobb posts occasionally on Why Evolution is True. I always look forward to reading any post by him, today's especially. It hit me between the eyes.

On July 25 Professor Cobb wished Rosalind Franklin a Happy Birthday and then sets the record straight about Photograph 51, how science works, the importance of her data, a key to understanding the structure of DNA, not Photograph 51 alone, her contributions to X-ray crystallography, and includes links, and photographs.

I was wrong, dead wrong in my earlier post about Photograph 51 but am far from alone. (my emphasis) I take no solace in this. My view was badly distorted, couldn't have been worse. Alas, it is a perception we are not likely to shake for the the account by James Watson exerts a powerful hold. This correction is important.

Below are some of Dr. Cobb's comments but please read his post if you are interested in her remarkable, short career. There are some photographs and links, too.

"Franklin’s decisive and unwitting contribution to Watson and Crick’s discovery was not a single photo. Indeed, she did not even take photograph 51; it was taken by her PhD student, Raymond Gosling, who had initially been a student of Wilkins. By the end of 1952, Gosling was again supervised by Wilkins, which is why Wilkins had the photo and had every right to show it to Watson. Whether that was wise is another matter.
"Instead it was something much more significant: a set of values, established by Franklin on the basis of her detailed studies of these photos, and which were contained in a report by the King’s lab to the Medical Research Council, which provided Watson and above all Crick with the key. This report, including Franklin’s data, was handed to Watson and Crick by members of the Cambridge lab where they worked at the end of 1952.
"Franklin was not consulted, but the data were not secret, or private. Indeed, she had presented similar data 15 months earlier at a talk Watson attended, but he did not take notes, and by his own account spent his time musing about her dress sense. But the Cambridge crew could and should have asked her, and were wrong not to. Given her previous (and understandable) complaint to members of Wilkins’ group that they should not interpret her data for her, it is perhaps no surprise that she wasn’t asked – it seems very likely her answer would have been ‘no’.
"Once Crick saw the data, he understood their significance in a way that Franklin initially did not do – he had been working on the way that helical molecules diffracted X-rays, so his mind was prepared to understand them in an instant. That encounter of a prepared mind with Franklin’s values, not Watson glancing at photograph 51, was the decisive moment."
I'm very grateful that Cobb wrote this essay.

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