Tuesday, August 25, 2015
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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.

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Science in action

Maurice Wilkins's letters to Francis Crick turn up

Francis Crick's letters from the 1950s, supposedly thrown away by `an over-zealous secretary', have come to light in Sydney Brenner's papers. Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski found them when they went through the Brenner archive. The secretary is exonerated. The Crick Brenner office (they shared a room) was moved twice in the early 1960s.

As one of Crick's biographers I have done some interviews, for example with the LA Times.

My main reaction is that this is a thrilling discovery that adds lots of colour and enriches the story but does not rewrite history in any fundamental way. Not that I have read all the letters yet.

The star of the show is Maurice Wilkins, who always had a knack for expressing himself in a spicey and perceptive way. Consider this letter, written just after the debacle of December 1951 when Crick and Watson were being warned off DNA after building a botched model based on other people's data, misremembered:

Dear Francis, This is just to say how bloody browned off I am entirely and how rotten I feel about it all and how entirely friendly I am (though it may horrible appear differently). We are really between forces which may grind all of us into little pieces……I had to restrain Randall from writing to Bragg complaining about your behaviour. Needless to say I did restrain him, but so far as your security with Bragg is concerned it is probably much more important to pipe down and build up the idea of a quiet steady worker who never creates 'situations' than to collect all the credit for your excellent ideas at the expense of good will....And you see it does make me a bit confused about our discussions if you get too interested in everything which is important; where I say confused I mean confused, I am now largely incapable of any logical thinking in relation to polynucleotide chains or anything. And poor Jim - may I shed a crocodile [INSERT: & very confused] tear?

Jim (Watson), by the way, emerges with great credit. His account of then whole affair, in The Double Helix, shocked the world -- and especially Crick and Wilkins -- with its warts-and-all depiction of scientists as flawed, ambitious and not always nice human beings. Watson was accused of sexism towards Rosalind Franklin. These letters confirm every nuance of Watson's realism. They also remind us that it was especially Wilkins who could not get on with Franklin. For example (Wilkins again):

There is also a silly muddle over Franklin's talk here. I got a big notice saying it was internal only - just a discussion between colleagues who worked in the same lab. Then a lot of notices went round about the Colloquium and I took it for granted all had had the other note. Hence [Pauline] Cowan's remark to you. I think that as the intention was to have it a private fight it would be best to keep it entirely so, as I told Jim. It should be either public or private. Let's have some talks afterwards when the air is a little clearer. I hope the smoke of witchcraft will soon be getting out of our eyes.P.s. Tell Jim the answer to his question 'When did you last speak to her' is this morning. The entire conversation consisted of one word from me.

There's also a fascinating glimpse of how terrified Crick was, even after building the model of the double helix with Watson, that Linus Pauling would ride in a pinch the whole thing. Wilkins to Crick, March 1953:

If Rosie wants to see Pauling, what the hell can we do about it? If we suggested it would be nicer if she didn't that would only encourage her to do so. Why is every body so terribly interested in seeing Pauling? ...Now Raymond [Gosling] wants to see Pauling too! To hell with it all.

Gann and Witkowski have made a fantastic discovery. It's almost like finding a trove of letters from Newton, Darwin or Einstein.