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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Finding Photograph 51: Rosalind Franklin & the Discovery of DNA

Photo 51 as published in Nature 171

I thought of Rosalind Franklin while reading Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition, a compelling novel about the effect of Turner syndrome on a family. Turner syndrome is caused by a chromosome aberration and that led me to wonder what ever happened to the lady scientist who famously helped James Watson and Francis Crick discover the double helix structure of DNA. Like many people, I couldn’t quite remember her name but I knew she’d done something important.

Rosalind Franklin was indeed a lady; born in 1920 into a wealthy British banking family, she had to fight to attend Cambridge and become a scientist. Her work on coal efficiency during World War II “helped launch the field of high-strength carbon fibers.” Watson and Crick were aware of her work but downplayed her contribution until recently. Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer four years before they won the Nobel Prize along with her lab rival Maurice Wilkins. Not that she was nominated…

Of course scientific discoveries build upon each other, and the quest to understand DNA actually began in 1869 with Friedrich Miescher’s discovery of nucleic acids. By the 1950s, several scientists were honing in on the actual structure of DNA. Dr. Rosalind Franklin at King’s College had refined her study of DNA strands by perfecting an x-ray technique which focused a fine beam of x-rays to reveal the water content of DNA. Watson heard her lecture about this discovery but failed to take notes. Fortunately for Watson and Crick, Wilkins shared her work without her knowledge.

I’d never known what exactly Franklin contributed to the work Watson and Crick were doing. They acknowledge her and Wilkins in their seminal 1953 Nature paper but are quite vague about why, perhaps because they didn’t want to discuss quite how much seeing her work helped. In the same issue, she and her collaborator Raymond Gosling published photograph 51, the visual impetus for Watson and Crick’s double helix theory. Wilkins published a related article as well. As happens with sports, the scientific “scorers” got all the credit while those teammates who put them in scoring position were overshadowed.

Franklin’s comparatively anonymous life is a direct counterpoint to that of Marie Curie, who received two Nobel prizes and a level of world fame rarely seen. Interestingly, however, both women accomplished their scientific goals by becoming excellent laboratory technicians; supervising assistants and writing papers while refining and improving various methodologies. Curie painstakingly isolated radium; Franklin precisely applied x-ray crystallography to reveal the structure of DNA. The sexism they faced may have compelled both to surpass the skill level of their male counterparts and lead to their crowning achievements. That they did so at a time when both were formally rejected from official academies on the basis of their sex testifies to their focus, dedication and intelligence. Franklin had earned her doctorate before Cambridge revised its discriminatory policies and retroactively awarded women bachelor’s degrees.

Franklin lived in a world that expected women to be educated but not intellectual. Knowledge was fine, exploring and expanding it was not. As a girl who solved math puzzles for fun, she probably could not imagine fitting herself into the social world of contemporaries like Pamela Digby, an intelligent British socialite also born in 1920 who changed the world through a more traditional application of her feminine gifts. The daughter of a baron, Digby lived the high life but aspired to more and achieved it through ambitious marriages, first to Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, then Broadway producer Leland Hayward and finally industrialist Averell Harriman. In 1971 she became an American citizen. Eventually, she hosted an influential Georgetown salon that supported the Democratic Party’s move to the center and the election of Bill Clinton as president. He rewarded her with an ambassadorship to France.

Yet Franklin chose a very different path of achievement. During World War II while Digby was socializing and having numerous affairs, Franklin was studying coal structure to find more efficient means of fueling the national defense. overcame those expectations and created a life that was satisfying to her intellectually and personally. A decade after her death, many friends defended her against Watson’s assertion in The Double Helix that she was a mere lab assistant who didn’t know what she was looking at. Anne Sayres wrote Rosalind Franklin and DNA to articulate the exact nature of Franklin’s work.

There are those who argue that Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA was essential and others who disagree. It’s lovely to hope that if she’d been alive, she too would have been recognized by the Nobel Committee with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. What sparks a more important discussion, however, is whether the recognition is more important than the work.

There’s something about anonymity that’s attractive in today’s hyper-celebrity world. The most confident scientists know their value without applause meters, prizes and recognition banquets. Universities and laboratories compete for their services even though they never make headlines. Working without attention allows for freedom of exploration without the pressure of expectations imposed by the outside world. Their work is respected by peers and they are ‘big fish in a small pond.’ That may be a blissful life for many, and the path that Rosalind Franklin would have chosen for herself had she survived ovarian cancer. She was wise enough to leave the poisonous atmosphere at the prestigious King’s College in London for the academic freedoms of Birkbeck College. Her work in other areas continues to influence science, and she may well have been happy for decades whether the whimsical gifts of prizes and fame were bestowed upon her or not.

And yet.

What have we lost by her anonymity? How many women haven’t gone into the sciences because there were no role models, no famous women scientists encouraging them? What discoveries haven’t been made?

It’s crucial for everyone to have role models, and for women in the sciences in particular. Over the last decade, the Royal Society has established a Rosalind Franklin medal for female scientists and the University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School has been renamed the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Objective, comprehensive biographies are finally being written for general audiences as well as children. In June of 2012 Franklin’s sister, historian Jennifer Glynn, will publish a memoir that focuses on Franklin’s life and personality.

The resurgence of interest in Rosalind Franklin’s life, career and contributions comes at a time when basic science education is under siege from budget cuts despite the recognition of its importance to our future. Perhaps knowing her story will inspire teenage boys and girls who are passionate about science to pursue their interests despite all obstacles. Perhaps it will also inspire policymakers to remember that skills and intelligence require opportunity to grow. Perhaps male scientists will remember to open the door to female colleagues without outside pressure.

What’s certain is that knowing her story is better than ignoring it.

Suggested reading about Rosalind Franklin: – check out the cool video too!

It’s Always Valentine’s Day…

Yesterday my beloved and I successfully ignored all the pressure to shower each other with gifts, indulge in fine dining and otherwise pretend it was anything other than Tuesday. Ok, it was Tuesday with extra kisses in the morning, but still just Tuesday. We’ve done quiet Valentine’s dinners at a lovely restaurant in the past, but until recently he worked in the restaurant industry and therefore was always working on the 14th. We’d reschedule the celebration to his nearest day off, which makes it both more special and less hyped. For us, it seems that Valentine’s Day is just an affirmation of how we live our love all the time.

Any dude that waits till Valentine’s Day to treat his woman like a Queen is failing 364 days a year . – Adam Sandler (or a meme by the same name)

I know very well that many women can’t stand the thought of Valentine’s Day without roses, presents and the royal treatment. There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of that, it’s just not what I need or want. Apparently I’m not high maintenance. On one of our early dates we got all dressed up for a night of dinner and the theater and I suggested parking on the street instead of an expensive lot. That was when he knew I was a girl who appreciated sweet gestures and the finer things but didn’t have ridiculous expectations. What I remember about that night is the magic, not the money.

Of course we would love to have any excuse to give each other big expensive toys. In an alternate fairytale universe, our Valentine’s Day would start with breakfast in bed and pillow presents, most likely e-readers. Then we’d indulge in a morning of massages followed by a gourmet lunch and an afternoon at the movies. Just as everyone else emerged from offices and started filling up restaurants, we’d head home to open gifts. I’d unveil for him a large screen television fully installed and equipped with a dvr, cable, blue-ray and the entire Criterion collection. He’d hand me a smoking fast MacBook Pro fully loaded with Adobe Creative Suite and Dragon software. We’d make a steak dinner together, top it off with dessert and our favorite wine, and then spend the evening enjoying each other’s company.

So how did we really celebrate our first married Valentine’s Day, the first time in our entire relationship that he didn’t have to work? He made dinner, we drank some wine and talked, talked, talked. Then we played rummy with deuces wild, reviewed his resumes, and watched the Mirror, Mirror episode of Star Trek.

Basically the same without new toys. I’d like to think that’s how we’ll always be, loving and supporting each other no matter what the calendar says or how much we’ve got in the bank.

Top 10 Romantic Movies for Geeks

Freshly Pressed pointed me towards this fabulous list of Romantic Movies for Geeks. I’ve seen them all except the Michael Cera ones. No, wait. I did see Juno. The other two have been floating in the tank of yearning but are nowhere near the top. What’s at the top? A little thing called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

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Update: Hey everyone, we’re very happy to have been Freshly Pressed for the 2nd time! Thanks to regular readers who have been supporting our writing team since day one and a heartful welcome to our new readers! Enjoy your time at the House of Geekery, and make sure you check the homepage to see our other great features!

We’re bringing the Weekly Top 10 forward a few days this week for obvious reasons. Today is a day when couples are going to want to spend some quality time with each other partaking in traditional date-like rituals. One such ritual is the time-honored watching of a movie. If you head over to the romantic section of the video library you will quickly find that everything there is garbage. Valentines Day, Love Actually, Twilight…none of these are going are do anything to create a romantic mood for any self-respecting…

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Farewell, Whitney. Peace be with you…

Yesterday afternoon, news broke that songstress supreme Whitney Houston had been found dead in her Beverly Hills hotel room. All day today, I’ve been flooded with memories of listening to her music, dancing to it, pretending I could sing it, but really, no one sings like her.

Freedom, Fridays and Firing Your Boss

English: The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, 2006.

Liberty Bell, Philadelphia Image via Wikipedia

Freedom bells are ringing today, and not just because it’s the end of the normal work week.

This Sunday is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. This Wednesday was the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese woman sold into slavery, brought to Italy and eventually freed by the Italian courts when she refused to leave the convent where her owners had left her during their trip overseas. Unfortunately, slavery still exists but organizations like CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking) and CIW (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) are winning the battle, person by person and company by company. Today Trader Joe’s joined the Fair Food Program, which improves the working conditions and protects the human rights of workers who put food on our tables by picking it from the fields. One small step for a popular grocery store, one big step towards a more just world.

One small change in a proposed HHS mandate was also a big victory for religious liberty. The First Amendment enshrines a founding principle of our country: that government cannot tell us what to believe or how to live according to those beliefs. I’m not sure whether it was the 200,000 letters and signatures, or all the mainstream editorials that ran heavily against the mandate, but today the mandate was adjusted in favor of religiously affiliated organizations.

And on a more personal level, freedom reigns in my home again. Earlier this week, my husband fired his boss. Walking away from an abusive relationship is hard and leaving a paycheck behind is scary, but he has courageously done both these things because he knows his rights and values his dignity. Ultimately, that’s what the Fair Food Program and religious liberty are also all about.

It’s been quite a week, so raise your glass and celebrate. Ring some bells while you’re at it!

A World Where I Can Scratch My Butt

There is no such thing as over-sharing. And I’m not gonna lie either; it’s not just an itch but a fierce tickling sensation mixed with slight burning.

J. Ploober

A Better World

I dream of a world where people feel more connected.

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Before Dawn

English: Low Green, Pre-Dawn Very popular on h...
Image via Wikipedia

There’s some debate in my house about what it means to be a morning person. I contend that rising easily at an early hour – like seven a.m. – qualifies one for the club. To me, it’s about whether you like getting up and function well before the necessities of the day take over.

My husband, on the other hand, believes morning people watch the sunrise with their coffee already made and most of the daily news consumed. He likes to rise around 5:30 and considers me a sloth.

There’s definitely a different quality to the hour before dawn than the one that follows. The stillness envelopes you with peace, the darkness reminds you of the night that just passed, the solitude embraces you like a dear friend that doesn’t need to say a word.

In the twenty-first century, ordering our day by the sun seems almost as archaic as arranging our urban school year to accommodate the needs of farmers. Yet our circadian rhythms seem to be hardwired; many people who work nights have to counteract their reverse schedules with sun lamps and white noise. They have trick their bodies into thinking everything is fine when they rise in the afternoon or early evening and head to work while most of us are heading to bed. Their shift ends as the sun rises and they sleep in broad daylight. And then there are the times we party until the sun comes up. Exuberant and often drunk, we celebrate the sunrise with an entirely different perspective than the runner or the morning shift worker who anticipate the new day.

Sunrise may be one of the most photographed, reported, analyzed daily phenomenons. Poets have filled pages of pronouncements upon the new day, photographers have filmed countless daybreaks and in our electronic age every sunrise gets a daily timestamp from meteorologists. We expect it, need it, even if we sleep through it. Even our endless postindustrial twenty-four hour day has to start somewhere, so why not the quiet moments of darkness giving way to light?

English: Dawn sunlight through early morning mist

Image via Wikipedia

Irony, Football and Fraud

Centuries ago, travelers relied on the generosity of monasteries and convents for shelter and food. Monks and nuns took care of the poor as well as the rich, using donations from the latter to help the former. Recently, a group of women religious bought stock in hotels, not to return to their ancient roots of caring for strangers but in order to tackle a modern twist on the age-old problem of prostitution – sex trafficking. By holding hotels accountable for human trafficking awareness training, the good sisters aim to decrease the rate of sex trafficking in Indianapolis this weekend. That’s a lot more complex than teaching catechism or changing bedsheets. I will admit that the whole phenomenon of exploiting women during glorious sporting events baffles me, but perhaps I  haven’t watched enough Spartacus.

And isn’t the Super Bowl just another gladiator match with slightly different rules and better stadiums? Since the twenty-first century enjoys perks like sanitation, air travel and the internet, there is also a  multimedia extravaganza available online and in person. There’s much talk about how this game is a rematch of the 2007 game and a face-off between two great quarterbacks – one boisterously good-looking and famous, the other an often-overlooked little brother. I hope it’s a nail biter like the AFL & NFL Championship games; the whole playoff series was stupendous football so it would be a drag to have the game be a blowout, even if the commercials feature the return of Ferris Bueller.

The dramatic twists and turns of this season require a great climax, maybe the kind of drama delivered by Mark Moseley back in 1982. But what happens after the glamour goes away? Does playing sports have value for grown men? Mike Wise of the Washington Post found out in this weekend’s feature, which might have been called Tilting at Windmills in Fredericksburg, or The Federicksburgh Generals, Football, and Finding Peace. But it’s in the Post, where clever headlines and article titles violate editorial standards.

Post headlines aren’t teasers, they’re trailers that give away the entire story. And yet it works, because I definitely wanted to read this:

Indiana election chief found guilty of voter fraud, other charges; faces removal from office

The article explains that Charlie White, the secretary of state for Indiana and therefore the person in charge of enforcing voting law, was found guilty of false registration, voting in another precinct, perjury and theft. Theft, you say? Did he steal ballots? No. He lied about where he was living because he didn’t want to give up his $1,000 a month salary for serving on a town council after he moved. Yeah. He took taxpayer money fraudulently while campaigning for a job that requires the utmost in honor and integrity in order to protect our right to vote. Now that’s irony.

Fridays, Filing, and Five A.M. Laundry

This morning as I slid between sleep and wakefulness, I heard a washing machine filling with water in the apartment upstairs. The sound of the pipes clicking on and off wasn’t particularly loud or obnoxious, just enough noise to let me know that someone was getting ready for the day. Maybe they were planning a long weekend away, or expecting company to stay overnight. Before the sun came up, my own husband started a load of work clothes. Usually we manage to keep laundry under control but not this week. This week the baskets are overflowing. And my husband will be working all weekend so something must be done. Now.

The same thing happens with filing. I’m in the fourth week of a lifestyle improvement project called ‘The Game On Diet” and I’ve had to do twenty minutes of filing every day since we started. The piles of paperwork weren’t quite as high as the mountains of laundry, but they were still daunting. At first, I invented my own system of piles mentally labeled ‘to do,’ to file later,’ ‘to shred’ but then I found an article in the Washington Post that advocated an actual file box. And that box has been a brilliant aid to my endeavors. It’s reassuring to hear from a professional organizer that we can manage our paperwork in small bursts of regular action. I’m figuring out what to keep and what to toss with the help of a list from the Consumer Union website. Apparently they do more than evaluate washing machines…

What filing and laundry have in common is that they simply must be done. Disaster ensues otherwise. Why live without clean underwear? Not that paramedics or doctors really care, but it’s much harder to decide what to wear when your choices are three piles: barely worn, worn a few times, and wore to the gym twice. Finding the motivation to take care of filing and laundry can be hard and for most people it’s a cycle; you do it well for a few weeks, then you skip a week to remind yourself how unpleasant that can be.  You can pay people to do your filing or your laundry, or if you’re lucky both, but in the end only you know where your husband’s birth certificate and his socks really belong.

Large portions of the workforce are kicking back with a brew now as I actually head out to photograph not one but two work events. I’m jealous, but only a little. Have a great weekend…

Signage for Life

This morning on the way to work I took a bike path as a shortcut and saw this sign instructing us all on how to yield properly. I’m not sure how the horses are expected to read it but apparently they are not expected to yield so they will do the right thing naturally. Basically, the theme here seems to be don’t run each other down or block someone’s way.

And that’s not a far stretch from ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you.’ But as you can see, the sign is dirty and battered and resembles what’s happened to the Golden Rule in a lot of ways.

We’re usually pretty good at not running into each other, partly because it’s obvious and it hurts. Just be respectful, choose safety, and avoid bloodshed.

It’s blocking each other that gets us in trouble and leads to the need for signs. Blocking in football requires deliberate full body contact, but in daily life it is subtle and insidious. We don’t always notice how our choices impact others, how our hurries and worries cause us to get in the way of someone else. Rush hour intersections are a great example; they are filled with cars hoping to make the light and instead blocking the flow of traffic. It’s not that people are trying to get in the way, it’s that they’re not trying not to. Drivers try to beat the lights instead of yielding, submitting, surrendering to forces beyond their control.

We’ve all been there – thinking of everything on our to do list, the busy day we just had, thinking of everything except where we are and what we’re doing. We go through life automatically, without connecting with our world, somehow thinking that we’re in control simply because we haven’t had a collision. Meanwhile we’re surrounded by miles of blocked traffic that we ourselves have caused.

And so we have signs reminding us to yield to beautiful creatures, great and small, whenever they come upon us.

And look out for horse droppings…

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