2024-02-11: Symbolic algebra and typing

2023-08-01: Population waves

2023-05-18: Math of telephone billing mystery

2023-05-05: Franklin and DNA More information…

2023-04-25: On angle and dimension

2023-02-20: On Leonardo da Vinci and Gravity

2022-04-29: Fabricating Evidence to catch Carmen Sandiego

2022-03-04: Probabilistic law of the excluded middle

2020-05-04: Archimedes and the sphere

2019-05-16: Glow worms return

2019-04-11: Original memetic sin

2019-01-31: The theory of weight

2018-11-06: Origins of telephone network theory

2018-10-24: Modern thought

2018-09-10: Feeding a controversy

2018-06-11: Glow worm distribution

2018-04-23: Outlawing risk

2017-08-22: A rebuttal on the beauty in applying math

2017-04-22: Free googles book library

2016-11-02: In search of Theodore von Karman

2016-09-25: Amath Timeline

2016-02-24: Math errors and risk reporting

2016-02-20: Apple VS FBI

2016-02-19: More Zika may be better than less

2016-02-17: Dependent Non-Commuting Random Variable Systems

2016-01-14: Life at the multifurcation

2015-09-28: AI ain't that smart

2015-06-24: Mathematical Epidemiology citation tree

2015-03-31: Too much STEM is bad

2015-03-24: Dawn of the CRISPR age

2015-02-12: A Comment on How Biased Dispersal can Preclude Competitive Exclusion

2015-02-09: Hamilton's selfish-herd paradox

2015-02-08: Risks and values of microparasite research

2014-11-10: Vaccine mandates and bioethics

2014-10-18: Ebola, travel, president

2014-10-17: Ebola comments

2014-10-12: Ebola numbers

2014-09-23: More stochastic than?

2014-08-17: Feynman's missing method for third-orders?

2014-07-31: CIA spies even on congress

2014-07-16: Rehm on vaccines

2014-06-21: Kurtosis, 4th order diffusion, and wave speed

2014-06-20: Random dispersal speeds invasions

2014-05-06: Preservation of information asymetry in Academia

2014-04-16: Dual numbers are really just calculus infinitessimals

2014-04-14: More on fairer markets

2014-03-18: It's a mad mad mad mad prisoner's dilemma

2014-03-05: Integration techniques: Fourier--Laplace Commutation

2014-02-25: Fiber-bundles for root-polishing in two dimensions

2014-02-17: Is life a simulation or a dream?

2014-01-30: PSU should be infosocialist

2014-01-12: The dark house of math

2014-01-11: Inconsistencies hinder pylab adoption

2013-12-24: Cuvier and the birth of extinction

2013-12-17: Risk Resonance

2013-12-15: The cult of the Levy flight

2013-12-09: 2013 Flu Shots at PSU

2013-12-02: Amazon sucker-punches 60 minutes

2013-11-26: Zombies are REAL, Dr. Tyson!

2013-11-22: Crying wolf over synthetic biology?

2013-11-21: Tilting Drake's Equation

2013-11-18: Why \(1^{\infty} eq 1\)

2013-11-15: Adobe leaks of PSU data + NSA success accounting

2013-11-14: 60 Minutes misreport on Benghazi

2013-11-11: Making fairer trading markets

2013-11-10: L'Hopital's Rule for Multidimensional Systems

2013-11-09: Using infinitessimals in vector calculus

2013-11-08: Functional Calculus

2013-11-03: Elementary mathematical theory of the health poverty trap

2013-11-02: Proof of the circle area formula using elementary methods

Blog – franklin

Franklin and DNA

So, last month, the New York Times ran a story about new historical evidence in the discovery of the structure of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) which we now now encodes the patterns of almost all life (I’m looking at you, fire). But don’t go looking there. The real article was in Nature by Cobb and Comfort. They have some new evidence, which suggests Franklin “… was no victim …[but] an equal contributor.”

Nature has a bias toward UK science, so it’s not surprising they would be disposed to burnish this black mark in science history. Never-the-less, the details of the process of discovery as Cobb and Comfort outline them are always fun to read. But, of course, there can be many stories through the same facts, and I think I read this story differently than the authors. So, here’s my take.

First, in research studies, there is often a time-point at which the search for understanding gives way from thrashing to the shape of the final solution. The exact point of the transition is fuzzy, but before this transition, we are grasping at straws, and after, the solution is inevitable. Atleast, this is the way it seems to happen in mathematics.

But science is messier. Many times in history, the shape of the solution has been knowable long before the last of the pieces have been put in place. It seems “everybody” was considering helical solutions to the shape of DNA, long before “big reveal” in April of 1953. Franklin had already expressed optimism about a helical structure in a November 1951 seminar, while Crick had co-authored a paper calculating the diffraction patterns of helicies by Fourier transforms in 1952. But establishing such a hypothesis took data – data that it seems was largely provided by Franklin, with other supporting contributions by Wilkins and other researchers.

There were several cases of questionable data transfer from Franklin to Watson and Crick. Cobb and Comfort say Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix through “… six weeks of what they later described as “trial and error” …" with models. I say that at that point, the discovery was inevitable, and who made it was a matter of sociality, money, and politics rather than science. Franklin was doing the hard work, and with that ball rolling, the structure was sure to be revealed. Without her work, it’s unclear and maybe unlikely the same discoveries could have happened in the same places. Crick made important contributions on the theoretical side, but wasn’t allone in those, atleast based on authorship.

For what it’s worth then, it seems to me that Franklin was not an “equal contributor”, but rather, the focal contributor to the discovery of the shape of DNA. Her systematic erasure from the history must forever be a reminder of the efforts needed to keep science a public commons. In science communication, we need to fight the tropes of “Eureka!” discoveries, and the setting apart of genius from ordinary life. It’s something we all can and should do, even in just the little moments of our life, like figuring out why the refigerator smells ;)

More information…