Alternatives to Watson and Crick’s Style

Much has been discussed about the style in which Watson and Crick conduct their scientific work and the acceptability of their “shady” dealings such as taking Xrays from Rosalind Franklin without permission. When I think about this, I tend to be undecided on whether or not they were wrong to do the things they did, but I do think of one specific question: if they did not do these things, what would have been the final outcome of the situation and what are the alternatives?

Without the information they wrongly obtained would their great discovery ever have been made? Would someone else have made it, just later on down the road? Could they have collaborated with the other scientists in a peaceful manner to make the discovery? These are things to think about.

After reading The Double Helix, I’ve realized that a large part of the scientific process are the grey areas. The long periods when nothing is discovered, the “a-ha moments,” and even the shady areas that Watson and Crick deal with. Kepler’s greatest work on Laws of Motion and the integration of astronomy into mathematics would not have been possible were it not for his “borrowing” of Tycho Brahe’s notes.

The question is, do we sacrifice some moral fiber in order to make prominent historical discoveries? In all honesty, Rosalind Franklin was wronged in her lack of acknowledgement in the discovery of the Double Helix, but the discovery most likely would not have been made were it not for Watson taking her research. Seeing what her xrays showed was close to being the straw that broke the camels back for Watson & Crick.

Maybe one would say that Watson and Crick should have tried to collaborate with Ms. Franklin, but one of the most prominent themes in the novel is competition. It is very likely that Watson’s sexist attitude toward Rosalind as well as Watson and Crick’s general pride would have prevented them from working with Rosalind. They could not bring themselves to even talk to any other scientists about their progress so to show humility and combine research with someone like Rosalind Franklin seems very unlikely.

Discoveries such as the double helix are crucial to our understanding of the world around us and without the grey area that Watson and Crick experience these discoveries would most likely not even be made. Scientists such as the two discussed in The Double Helix need little pushes from things like “a-ha” moments as well as help from other scientists and with the pride they showed in their work, it was very unlikely that they could have achieved this with complete honesty and fairness. This isn’t necessarily an “ends justifies the means” argument, I just feel that instances like the shady ones Watson and Crick went through are inevitable in the scientific process.

– Peter

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~ by letarteps on March 22, 2010.

2 Responses to “Alternatives to Watson and Crick’s Style”

  1. I think it would be rather difficult to argue that the structure of DNA would not be known, had it not been for Watson and Crick. Certainly the discovery would have been delayed, but the interest in DNA was so widespread that the elucidation of its structure was practically inevitable.
    You bring up an interesting point about whether or not the discovery would have been made collaboratively if Watson and Crick hadn’t made it. To me it seems that many people get the wrong idea of scientific research from The Double Helix. Certainly there is plenty of competition in conducting scientific research. However, most research expands upon previous ideas – in that sense, every scientist is working towards furthering scientific knowledge. One could say that while the individual pursuit of certain ideas can be competitive, scientific research as a whole is collaborative (perhaps with the exception of proprietary research).

    Finally, judging from the character of Rosalind portrayed in The Double Helix (without taking into account the validity of her character), it didn’t seem like she would have been enthusiastic about working with them, because she was convinced they were completely wrong about DNA having a helical structure.

  2. I tend to agree with the comment made. I don’t think Watson and Crick wrongfully obtained data. They credit Franklin’s x-rays for what they were insights that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA.

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