Imaginary Science

Olivia Judson explains that science is not a succession of facts, facts facts and why Rosalind Franklin did not discover the structure of DNA.

She had the data. Why didn’t she reach the solution? There are several answers to this; but one is that she had a fixed idea about how the problem should be solved. Namely, she wanted to work out the structure using the methods she had been taught. These methods are intricate, abstract, and mathematical, and difficult to use on a molecule as complex as DNA. Watson and Crick, meanwhile, were building physical models of what the diagram suggested the structure should be like — an approach that Franklin scorned. What’s more, their first model was ludicrously wrong, something that Franklin spotted immediately. But they were willing to play; she wasn’t. In other words, she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, adopt a more intuitive, speculative approach.

Francis and Crick had what Einstein had. Franklin didn’t.

But there’s one way in which we should not be limited: imagination. As Einstein put it, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

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Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

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