The Secret of Life by Howard Markel review – science and misogyny | Science and nature books

The first web page of Howard Markel’s complete historical past The Secret of Life reads just like the opening scene of a film. “On February 28, 1953, shortly after the chapel bells struck midday, two males hurtled down a stairwell of Cambridge College’s Cavendish Physics Laboratory. Bursting with exhilaration, they’d simply made the scientific discovery of a lifetime … ” Delving into the human lives and relationships behind “the race to unravel DNA’s construction”, the guide steadily zooms in on such visible particulars, from the “crusty yellow stays” of fried egg at Francis Crick’s breakfast desk to the “clickety clack” of Rosalind Franklin’s heels echoing “on the slick, moist marble ground” of King’s School London.

A film wants a hero and a villain, and on this story they’re Franklin – sensible, feminine, Jewish, misunderstood – and James Watson, whose “mean-spirited” 1968 memoir “commandeered the historic report with boundless guile and crafty”. That is the story of how Watson and Crick had been memorialised for his or her work and Franklin’s contribution was minimised, full with accounts of the educational politics, actually fairly private character sketches (“Watson was a razor-thin, shy, odd-looking, and unathletic boy with bulging eyes and peculiar facial mannerisms”) and admirably clear explanations of the science: X-ray crystallography, molecular biology, arithmetic and extra.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their model of part of a DNA molecule, 1953.
James Watson and Francis Crick with their mannequin of half of a DNA molecule, 1953. {Photograph}: A Barrington Brown, © Gonville & Caius School/Colored By Science Picture Library

Markel has drawn on many sources in his try and set the report straight: memoirs and biographies of the principle gamers; Franklin’s painstaking notebooks, in addition to different papers from Cambridge and King’s; the intently guarded archives of the Nobel prize committees; and interviews with the unique sources, or their survivors. Among the many most fascinating of these is a collection of conversations with the 90-year-old Watson, performed in 2018. He “didn’t chorus from articulating his repugnant views on Africans, African Individuals, Asians, and … Japanese European Jews”. He turned crimson with anger on the suggestion that Franklin may need shared the Nobel prize. And he conceded that, on the subject of Franklin: “You wouldn’t say I used to be precisely honorable.”

In spite of everything these years, this admission is exceptional, but it surely refers to 1 particular incident solely: the second on 30 January 1953 when Franklin’s colleague Maurice Wilkins handed Watson Franklin’s well-known “{Photograph} 51” with out her consent or data. This was a eureka second for Watson, one he later described in his memoir: “The prompt I noticed the image my mouth fell open and my pulse started to race.” The picture revealed the double helix sample within the B-form of DNA, sending Watson again to his 3D modelling with a brand new perspective.

A special penny dropped for Crick in mid-February 1953 when one other piece of Franklin’s work got here into his palms, once more with out her data. “[We] wanted a clue … ” he later wrote, “and the clue was Rosalind Franklin’s information.” Markel is obvious in his condemnation of all the boys concerned, however particularly Crick and Watson. Their “lack of a proper quotation [in their historic paper for Nature] of Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to their work is probably the most egregious instance of their negligence,” he writes.

The story that leads up to now is a tragic and irritating one. Markel paints an image of a tradition of misogyny and egotism that punished Franklin for character flaws her male colleagues had been allowed. She was spiky and superior. Watson was conceited. Crick’s conceit was “superhuman”. Wilkins’ poisonous relationship with Franklin led to her being “frozen out” of King’s School utterly. It’s additionally notable that this one enormous discovery required many alternative scientific disciplines and distinct character sorts: “one soberly conscientious, with an unbending skilled angle to her work; the opposite a vivid spark with a devil-may-care angle”. On this hare and tortoise race for the key of life, the hares received. However how a lot sooner would possibly the key of DNA have been cracked if scientists opposing groups had solely been in a position to collaborate? Certainly, what essential discoveries would possibly we nonetheless be ready for as we speak as a result of of a publish-or-perish tradition that rewards solely the primary?

Franklin appears to have harboured little bitterness in regards to the accolades that by no means got here her manner. When she lastly reviewed Crick and Watson’s mannequin, she was happy that it made sense of her analysis. “All of us stand on one another’s shoulders,” she mentioned. Watson referred to as her “a loser”. Franklin died of ovarian most cancers in 1958, aged 37, together with her huge contributions to science largely unacknowledged. She in all probability would have hated being the heroine of a film, however we’re lucky to have books corresponding to this to place her again within the image.

The Secret of Life is printed by Norton (£21.99). To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Supply prices could apply.

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