Saturday, October 13, 2007

There’s No Sexist Fool Like An Old Sexist Fool Posted by olvlzl

Or Yes, Comment Please.

The famous scientist James Watson is on a book tour with his memoire to much acclaim from his adoring fan, though there are those scientists and especially women in the sciences who might not be inclined to hero worship. One biologist who I asked to comment said, “He’s known for being one of the biggest assholes in the world,”.

Much of his “other” reputation stems from how he used another scientist, Rosalind Franklin and the, “perhaps”, less than honest way he got hold of her work without which he and Francis Crick might have been in the footnotes of another scientist’s book tour today.

Crick and Watson relied on two key pieces of information that were due to Franklin but obtained without her knowledge. One was her DNA Photograph 51, which Maurice Wilkins showed to Watson in January 1953. "The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race," Watson writes in The Double Helix, for he recognized immediately its tell-tale helical signature. It was psychologically the key event that inspired him to drop everything to search for the DNA structure.

The other piece of information used was Franklin's measurements of a DNA unit cell, which she included in a report to the Medical Research Council. When Max Perutz passed this non-confidential but not really public report to Crick in February 1953, Crick realized that the two strands of the helix run in opposite directions.

... In the Nature paper of April 1953 in which Crick and Watson announced their discovery, they acknowledged being "stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr M H F Wilkins, Dr R E Franklin and their co-workers at King's College". This sentence was carefully crafted so that Franklin would not realize just how effectively Crick and Watson had used her data. She would die five years later without ever knowing that Watson and Crick had seen Photograph 51 and her unit-cell measurements, although Maddox says that she must have suspected. Neither Crick nor Watson mentioned her in their Nobel speeches.

Rosalind Franklin died in 1958. Some of those who knew Franklin were outraged by the frankly sexist and dismissive treatment of her in Watson’s “The Double Helix” which led some of them to urge Anne Sayre to write her biography Rosalind Franklin and DNA.

But, back to today. What did the great scientist whose fame and glory almost certainly stands on Rosalind Franklin’s shoulders learn in his long life in the pursuit of objective reality?

"Men evolved to compete with other men...I guess it would be good if men acted like women, but then they become girly-men, afraid to offend everyone. I don't think you can be a man and be politically correct...I like women to succeed in science, I just want them to work 80 hours a week."

Maybe Wilkins told him that’s how much time Franklin put in at the lab. If she hadn’t done that, who knows if we would have ever heard of Watson and Crick.

Note: On his book tour Watson has some nasty comments for the safely dead and unable to respond, Crick too. But Watson’s moral philosophy seems to be summed up in this:

Victor McElheny notes how relentless Crick and Watson were, quoting Watson as saying: " 'Nice' is what you do when you have nothing else to offer."