As a student of Molecular Biology, the nature of molecules and how they function within our body has always fascinated me. A central molecule that one studies is DNA. How the DNA is synthesised, to how it replicates, how does it create the RNA messages needed for protein synthesis, etc.
The discovery of the structure of DNA was central to our understanding. The popular culture credits James Watson and Francis Crick for the double helix structure of the DNA. Two others played an important role, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. According to me, it was Rosalind who is the unsung hero. Maurice did win the Nobel Price with the Watson and Crick for the discovery of the nucleic acid structure.
My belief, along with the peers of Rosalind is she was a genius scientist, but as she was a woman, men would have been intimidated by her sheer brilliance. Also, four people sharing the price would have been too crowded. Who knows?
I always felt, women have drawn the short straw and have been lost in the background whereas men hogged the limelight. I feel ashamed the scientific field of discovery suffered the syndrome too.
Interesting though is how the story appears in the book Where Good Ideas Come From. Maybe it was just the Rosalind did not spend too much time in the coffeehouse. Below is the section of the books which talks about why Watson and Crick were able to jump through the conventions of the time and make a leap into the what now appears obvious.
The model of weak-tie exaptation also helps us understand the classic story of twentieth-century scientific epiphany: Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. As Ogle and others have noted, in the small scientific community working on the problem of DNA in the early 1950s, the person who had the clearest and most direct view of the molecule itself was neither James Watson nor Francis Crick. It was, instead, a biophysicist at London University named Rosalind Franklin, who was using state-of-the-art X-ray crystallography to study the mysterious strands of DNA.
But Franklin’s vision was limited by two factors. First, there was the imperfect state of the X-ray technology, which only gave her hints about the helix structure and base-pair symmetry. But Franklin was also limited by the conceptual island on which she based her work. Her approach was purely inductive: master the X-ray technology and then use the information collected to build a model of DNA. (“We’re going to let the data tell us the structure,” she famously told Crick.)
But to “see” the double-helix in the early 1950s took something more than just analyzing it in an X-ray machine. To solve the mystery, Watson and Crick had to piece it together with tools drawn from multiple disciplines: biochemistry, genetics, information theory, and mathematics, not to mention Franklin’s X-ray images. Even Crick’s sculpture metaphor proved crucial to cracking the code.
Next to Franklin, Watson and Crick seemed almost dilettantes and dabblers: Crick had switched from physics to biology in his graduate years; neither had a comprehensive grasp of biochemistry. But DNA was not a problem that could be solved within a single discipline. Watson and Crick had to borrow from other domains to make sense of the molecule. As Ogle puts it, “Once key ideas from idea-spaces that otherwise had little contact with one another were connected, they began, quasi-autonomously, to make new sense in terms of one another, leading to the emergence of a whole that was more than the sum of its parts.”
It is a fitting footnote to the story that Watson and Crick were notorious for taking long, rambling coffee breaks, where they tossed around ideas in a more playful setting outside the lab—a practice that was generally scorned by their more fastidious colleagues. With their weak-tie connections to disparate fields, and their exaptative intelligence, Watson and Crick worked their way to a Nobel Prize in their own private coffeehouse.
Source – Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From (pp. 168-169). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.