The Secret of Life by Howard Markel review – science and misogyny

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The archetypal leafage of Howard Markel’s broad past The Secret of Life reads similar the opening country of a movie. “On February 28, 1953, soon aft the chapel bells struck noon, 2 men hurtled down a stairwell of Cambridge University’s Cavendish Physics Laboratory. Bursting with exhilaration, they had conscionable made the technological find of a beingness … ” Delving into the quality lives and relationships down “the contention to unravel DNA’s structure”, the publication often zooms successful connected specified ocular details, from the “crusty yellowish remains” of fried ovum astatine Francis Crick’s meal array to the “clickety clack” of Rosalind Franklin’s heels echoing “on the slick, bedewed marble floor” of King’s College London.

A movie needs a leader and a villain, and successful this communicative they are Franklin – brilliant, female, Jewish, misunderstood – and James Watson, whose “mean-spirited” 1968 memoir “commandeered the humanities grounds with boundless guile and cunning”. This is the communicative of however Watson and Crick were memorialised for their enactment and Franklin’s publication was minimised, implicit with accounts of the world politics, truly rather idiosyncratic quality sketches (“Watson was a razor-thin, shy, odd-looking, and unathletic lad with bulging eyes and peculiar facial mannerisms”) and admirably wide explanations of the science: X-ray crystallography, molecular biology, mathematics and more.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their exemplary  of portion  of a DNA molecule, 1953.
James Watson and Francis Crick with their exemplary of portion of a DNA molecule, 1953. Photograph: A Barrington Brown, © Gonville & Caius College/Coloured By Science Photo Library

Markel has drawn connected galore sources successful his effort to acceptable the grounds straight: memoirs and biographies of the main players; Franklin’s painstaking notebooks, arsenic good arsenic different papers from Cambridge and King’s; the intimately guarded archives of the Nobel prize committees; and interviews with the archetypal sources, oregon their survivors. Among the astir fascinating of these is simply a bid of conversations with the 90-year-old Watson, conducted successful 2018. He “did not refrain from articulating his repugnant views connected Africans, African Americans, Asians, and … Eastern European Jews”. He turned reddish with choler astatine the proposition that Franklin mightiness person shared the Nobel prize. And helium conceded that, with regards to Franklin: “You wouldn’t accidental I was precisely honorable.”

After each these years, this admittance is remarkable, but it refers to 1 circumstantial incidental only: the infinitesimal connected 30 January 1953 erstwhile Franklin’s workfellow Maurice Wilkins handed Watson Franklin’s celebrated “Photograph 51” without her consent oregon knowledge. This was a eureka infinitesimal for Watson, 1 helium aboriginal described successful his memoir: “The instant I saw the representation my rima fell unfastened and my pulse began to race.” The representation revealed the treble helix signifier successful the B-form of DNA, sending Watson backmost to his 3D modelling with a caller perspective.

A antithetic penny dropped for Crick successful mid-February 1953 erstwhile different portion of Franklin’s enactment came into his hands, again without her knowledge. “[We] needed a hint … ” helium aboriginal wrote, “and the hint was Rosalind Franklin’s data.” Markel is wide successful his condemnation of each the men involved, but particularly Crick and Watson. Their “lack of a ceremonial citation [in their historical insubstantial for Nature] of Rosalind Franklin’s publication to their enactment is the astir egregious illustration of their negligence,” helium writes.

The communicative that leads to this constituent is simply a bittersweet and frustrating one. Markel paints a representation of a civilization of misogyny and egotism that punished Franklin for property flaws her antheral colleagues were allowed. She was spiky and superior. Watson was arrogant. Crick’s conceit was “superhuman”. Wilkins’ toxic narration with Franklin led to her being “frozen out” of King’s College completely. It’s besides notable that this 1 immense find required galore antithetic technological disciplines and chiseled property types: “one soberly conscientious, with an unbending nonrecreational cognition to her work; the different a agleam spark with a devil-may-care attitude”. In this hare and tortoise contention for the concealed of life, the hares won. But however overmuch sooner mightiness the concealed of DNA person been cracked if scientists opposing teams had lone been capable to collaborate? Indeed, what important discoveries mightiness we inactive beryllium waiting for contiguous due to the fact that of a publish-or-perish civilization that rewards lone the first?

Franklin seems to person harboured small bitterness astir the accolades that ne'er came her way. When she yet reviewed Crick and Watson’s model, she was pleased that it made consciousness of her research. “We each basal connected each other’s shoulders,” she said. Watson called her “a loser”. Franklin died of ovarian crab successful 1958, aged 37, with her tremendous contributions to subject mostly unacknowledged. She astir apt would person hated being the heroine of a movie, but we’re fortunate to person books specified arsenic this to enactment her backmost successful the picture.