Thursday 25 July 2013

Touchstone Thursday: Watson and Crick's 'Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids' (1953)

I suppose I could say that this paper needs no introduction. And, yeah, I guess this is a bit of a reach for a Subversive Archaeologist Touchstone Thursday. But, bear with me [I really do ask you to do this often, don't I?]. This article, only very slightly more than one page in Nature, is quite possibly the most important of the twentieth (or any other) century. 
Watson and Crick's 'Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids.' [Reproduced here courtesy of Nature, who've made it freely available online. Bless their pointy big heads! Click here for your own copy.] 

Click on these images to make them legible

When I first encountered this paper I was wrong-footed, for a couple of reasons. First, it's sooo short! [Size isn't everything, after all!] Occam's rusty old razor really had something going for it. Elegant theories, even in organic chemistry, don't have to be concomitantly complex. The other facet of this article that struck me was the depth and breadth of research that was already in place by the time the authors' brilliant solution was published. Although giants themselves, they were, truly, standing on the shoulders of similarly proportioned human beings, going right back into the nineteenth century, when D.N.A. was first discovered [I love the way that W & C abbreviate the molecule's nomen with periods between the letters--it's so...quaint-seeming today, when 'dee-en-ay' is, to all intents and purposes, a vocabulary word all on its own]. 
     For anyone who's interested [and you all should be], there's an excellent synthesis of the background to Watson and Crick's touchstone: 
Pray, L. (2008) Discovery of DNA structure and function: Watson and Crick. Nature Education 1(1)
Rosalind Franklin
Read it and be amazed. And let's not forget the crucial piece of the puzzle that Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins contributed. Unbeknownst to Franklin, Wilkins had shown Watson her X-ray crystallograph of the DNA molecule, known as photo 51. It turned out to be the key datum that convinced Watson that a double helix was the long-sought, but elusive, solution to the puzzle. That photo is reproduced below. It appears as if one's looking right down the throat of the molecule! Amazing. 
Rosalind Franklin's B-form of DNA, photo 51 (Credit for photo)
     And after you read Watson and Crick (1953), pause to reflect on the immense impact that Watson and Crick will have, in reality, for ever and ever, for all of us. Sounds a bit like a secular 'Lord's Prayer,' don't it? I'll prolly rot in Hell.

1 comment:

  1. I read an account that said the pointer in the picture was a slide rule, suggested to be used by the photographer to give the impression of being even more scientific.


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