LATEST BLOG
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Friday, August 15, 2014
Thursday, August 14, 2014
Welcome to Matt Ridley's Blog
Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

Please note that this blog no longer accepts comments (there was too much spam coming in!). If you're reading this blog and want to respond then please use the contact form on the site.

You can also follow me on twitter.

Raymond Gosling, the forgotten man of the double helix

He took the two key X-ray photographs

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Last week saw a 50th-anniversary celebration in Stockholm of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA's structure. That structure instantly revealed a key secret of life: that an infinitely recombinable sequence of four chemical bases, pairing with each other in two ways, explains life's ability to grow and copy itself. Appropriately, two pairs of people made the discovery: James Watson and Francis Crick in Cambridge, England; and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in London.

But there was a fifth person, who's often forgotten in the telling of the tale: Raymond Gosling. He at last tells part of his own tale in some of the sidebar annotations of a remarkable new book, "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix," edited by Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski. The book's text is Dr. Watson's original and brilliant novelistic account of how the discovery was made, but Drs. Gann and Witkowski have added photos, extracts of letters and footnotes to fill out the picture, in the process vindicating almost all of Watson's characterizations.

I spoke to Dr. Gosling at the book's launch in London. He bears no bitterness at being left out of the Nobel Prize. A graduate student at the time, he was working under the direction of others, and his own career went a different way, into medical physics. But it was he, supervised by Maurice Wilkins, who in 1950 first took an X-ray photograph of a DNA fiber, which he had wound around a bent paper clip. Of that moment, he writes: "Those discrete diffraction spots emerging on the film in the developing dish was a truly eureka moment. Maurice and I drank several glasses of his sherry."

It was this photo that electrified Dr. Watson when he saw it presented by Dr. Wilkins at a conference in Naples, Italy. If, as the image implied, the gene had a regular structure, then elucidating that structure might explain its properties. And this quest brought Dr. Watson to (then) Mr. Crick, whom he persuaded to moonlight from the study of proteins and help him tackle DNA.

It was a different photo, taken in May 1952, that led to the solution by giving crucial clues to the dimensions and angles of the DNA molecule. Francis Crick was told about this "Photograph 51" by Jim Watson, who had been shown it by Maurice Wilkins, who had been given it by Rosalind Franklin. It's usually described as her photo, but Raymond Gosling says that he took it as well. By that time he'd been transferred from Dr. Wilkins's to Dr. Franklin's supervision.

Dr. Gosling's frequent omission might annoy a less equable man. Two other Nobel Prizes from the same era-for streptomycin and for pulsars-have led to much more contentious allegations of oversight. In the first, Selman Waksman and Albert Schatz fought bitterly over whether Dr. Waksman unjustly got the prize alone. In the second, Antony Hewish got the prize but his student, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, did not.

In the DNA story, there has long been a movement to rescue the reputation of Rosalind Franklin, who suffered from the typical sexism of the 1950s and died too soon to win the Nobel Prize. The role played by Dr. Franklin's data was certainly underplayed in most early accounts, but her rehabilitation has ironically obscured somewhat the fact that Dr. Gosling deserves a lot more credit than he generally gets for collecting those data.

When I put this to Dr. Gosling, he deflected me by saying that John Randall, the head of the lab where he, Dr. Wilkins and Dr. Franklin all worked, never gets enough credit for gambling early that DNA was as important as protein and that its structure might yield to attack. Self-effacing as ever, he was quick to remind me that science always requires a broad collaboration: Many people build the arch, even if the person who places the keystone gets most of the credit.