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Scientific feuds

Tom Feilden | 10:50 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

"Eppur si muove." And yet it moves.

Perhaps the most famous quip in the history of science, and a one-liner that encapsulates one of its most celebrated feuds - between Galileo and pope Urban VIII - over the Catholic Church's refusal to acknowledge that the earth orbits the sun.

From such epic conflicts to mere petty squabbling, scientific progress has been dogged - and in some cases propelled - by personal rivalries and intellectual animosity.

Crick and Watson

We're treated to another fine example of that genre today, with the publication of a cache of missing letters and papers belonging to Francis Crick - the scientist who, along with James Watson, first described the structure of DNA.

Crick died in 2004 and it had been thought that much of his early correspondence had been lost. "Thrown away," as he claimed, "by an over-efficient secretary." In fact the lost papers - nine archive boxes of letters, postcards, notes and drafts dating from 1950 to 1976 - had been muddled up with those of his colleague and room-mate Sidney Brenner.

What we get from this lost correspondence, published in the latest edition of the journal Nature, is a vivid insight into the strained relations between rival labs, and the personal animosity between the individual scientists, involved in the DNA story.

Surprisingly the real feud at the heart of the story is not between the two teams - Crick and Watson in Cambridge, and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at Kings College London - but between Wilkins and Franklin themselves.

"I hope the smoke of witchcraft will soon be getting out of our eyes," writes Wilkins to Crick of Franklin's imminent departure to Birkbeck College in 1953.

Speaking on the programme this morning professor Ray Gosling, who was a PHD student in the Kings lab at the time, recalled running down the corridor between the two, trying to get them to embrace - something he admits he failed to do.

"That's my undying regret, because it could have been such a powerful effort."

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It's entirely possible that the names Wilkins and Franklin, rather than Crick and Watson, might for ever be associated with the discovery of the structure of DNA if only they'd got on a little better.


  • Comment number 1.

    Can I just get in a plug for my book, which Tom hasn't mentioned, and which is out now:
    Scientific Feuds: From Galileo to the Human Genome
    It details the spat between Franklin vs Wilkins et al, and over 30 other glorious grudge-matches from throughout the history of science.

  • Comment number 2.

    I thought it could be of interest:

    Curved Space Theatre are performing Act 1 of a work in progress dance drama which details the personal and professional lives of Kathleen Lonsdale, Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin. Particularly making note of them as a person and their contributions and addressing why these woman have been overlooked.

    The work will be open to a Q&A after Act 1 and a short film of excerpts of Act 2 content has been shown. It is tomorrow evening at 7pm. Could I please have contact details for Joel Levy and Ray Gosling to provide them the information and formally invite them to this performance and Q&A. It would be brilliant to have their feedback.

    Thank you

  • Comment number 3.

    What would you say if I said that none of these persons was the first to discover DNA?
    Feud all they want, there is hardly anything new under the sun.
    Most dicoveries are RE-discoveries of what the ancients knew and practiced thousands of years ago.
    Ancient persons had a great deal of knowledge about science and the universe. Modern schools teach that before the medieval age and the industrial revolution the people of our world were basically ignorant.
    Not true! In fact, it is modern cilization that is basically ignorant taking so long to catch up to out ancestry! If you don't believe this, ask yourself: what was the real purpose of the Pyramids, and remember no pharoah's body was ever discovered within.
    The knowledge of DNA was known to the Sumerians 6,000 years ago. They knew about the double helix; they used the symbol of entwined serpents (which is still used in medicine & biology). There are several Sumerian images showing the entwined snakes and the ladder like connection between the serpents bodies.
    The discovery of penicillin as a medicine is officially credited to Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928, although its effects had been previously published in 1875 by the Royal Society of London. In addition, four thousand year old medical texts from ancient Egypt describe penicillin and its use in fighting off bacteriological infections.
    In our modern world, atomic warfare and radiation sickness is relatively new, but the ancient texts of the Sumerian culture describe both the mushroom cloud of destruction and the subsequent “death wind” that spread desolation for many hundreds of miles downwind after one of their “gods” Nergal, unleashed a device from his orbiting “war bird”. Archaeologists in the Middle East have no explanation for the layer of ash four thousand years old that exhibits all the telltale signs of atomic fallout; nor can they explain why the ancient Sumerian texts describe in detail an ailment that was not seen again on this planet until 1945.
    Volta’s electric battery designed in early nineteenth century was mysteriously similar to the metal and lemon juice filled clay jugs the ancient Babylonians used to electroplate gold four thousand years earlier.
    There have been many such discoveries; this ancient knowledge shows we modern folk that our history is not complete; occasionally it has been fabricated. Most of the time, the knowledge has just been lost.
    Hundreds of out of place objects and artifacts that had been sent to the Smithsonian Institute for analysis and safekeeping mysteriously disappeared within those “hallowed” halls. How?
    So, fight not over a discovery; rather, ask
    1. who really did discover/invent the thing and
    2. why was modern man put into the position of having to rediscover what should have been his legacy.


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