Web edition: February 25, 2010
Print edition: March 13, 2010; Vol.177 #6 (p. 30)
To their credit
In Tom Siegfried’s article, “The Top 10 science news stories since time began” (SN: 1/2/10, p. 2), No. 5 is “Watson and Crick elucidate DNA’s double helix structure, 1953.” I am annoyed that, as usual in articles about the early understanding of DNA, Rosalind Franklin’s name has been left off. Even Watson and Crick admitted that without her work they could not have been successful.
Ted Coskey, Seattle, Wash.
Tom Siegfried’s list of the Top 10 “science news favorites from the dawn of civilization” includes the comment that “analyses of new science should be undertaken with some caution, and a sense of history.” Certainly, as Siegfried notes, one can argue with the items he chose for his list or the order in which he placed them, but if this list is to be presented with a proper sense of history, it should not repeat the mistakes of the past in providing proper credit.
With regard to No. 10, nuclear fission: History tells us that Lise Meitner (with her nephew Otto Frisch) elucidated nuclear fission (by explaining what Hahn and Strassmann had observed, but signally failed to explain). We know this now (with the benefit of some history) despite the Nobel committee’s overlooking both Meitner (unconscionable) and Frisch (probably unfair).
Science News Letter’s publication of Hahn and Strassmann’s “discovery” at the time of the confirmation of Meitner’s theory by Frisch is simply the error of the contemporaries in not recognizing Meitner’s pivotal role in establishing the theoretical underpinnings of fission. Moreover, it was Meitner who recognized the potential for a fission chain reaction. Meitner’s name belongs there with Hahn and Strassmann (and Frisch’s arguably does too).
As to No. 5, DNA’s structure: Though Watson and Crick never gave her any credit (and, indeed, showed a lack of class and intellectual honesty by disparaging her abilities and work), it is abundantly clear that Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction images were critical in guiding them to their proposed structure for the DNA helix. Her insightful criticism of Watson and Crick’s first proposed structure for DNA (which had the base pairs on the outside rather than the inside of the helix) is also a historical fact. The Nobel committee gets off on this one on the technicality that Franklin was dead by the time the award was made — and the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously — but there’s no evidence that the committee would have included her if she had been living. But, without question, Franklin should be listed along with Watson and Crick by anyone who claims to be listing the discoverers of DNA’s structure with a proper “sense of history.”
John M. Craig, Orem, Utah
I always enjoy your perspectives, including your list of science news favorites in the Jan. 2 Science News. However, I was disappointed that for item 10, the discovery of nuclear fission, you give the credit to Hahn and Strassmann, and do not even mention Lise Meitner.
While it is true that the 1944 Nobel Prize for this discovery went to Hahn, hindsight reveals that Meitner was unjustly excluded as the true discoverer of fission. Meitner had been working with Hahn from the early 1920s. While, as a woman and a Jew, she could not openly hold any important position in the lab, it was she who first appreciated that an experiment Hahn conducted at her urging after events in 1938 forced her out of Germany was in fact nuclear fission, a result Hahn had not yet come to terms with. To add insult to injury, Hahn was most ungracious to Meitner, giving her no credit whatsoever, but jealously claiming the discovery to himself. I feel history should be kinder to the true deserver of credit when the opportunity presents itself. Keep up the great work you do.
David Clough, Weed, Calif.
My list did not attempt to credit all who contributed to those major discoveries. It is certainly true that Lise Meitner played a major role in the discovery of fission and in figuring out what Hahn and Strassmann had done. Rosalind Franklin’s work was important in Watson and Crick’s elucidation of the DNA double helix, but it is not correct that they never credited her. At the end of the paper reporting their discovery (in Nature on April 25, 1953), they wrote: “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M.H.F. Wilkins, Dr. R.E. Franklin and their co-workers at King’s College, London.” — Tom Siegfried
I’ve been following the arguments of creationists, now intelligent designers, for years. Eugenie Scott makes an important point about scientists becoming engaged citizens in her commentary “Accept it: Talk about evolution needs to evolve” (SN: 8/1/09,p. 32). She reflects on how creationists have had to evolve in their arguments in order to survive. Is it ironic that they have become perfect examples of evolution?
Patrick Dunn, Mishawaka, Ind.
In Ardi’s defense
Regarding “Partial skeleton gives ancient hominids a new look” (SN: 10/24/09, p. 9), how did Ardipithecus defend itself against predators when on the ground? Ground-dwelling baboons mount a formidable defense by fighting in a cooperative manner like a pack of dogs, using sharp canine teeth in long snouts. In contrast, Ardi could have carried tree limbs and rocks in her strong arms. Standing firmly on her legs, Ardi could have wielded these weapons in a deadly manner. Since teeth were not used for fighting, the canine teeth of hominins became smaller and the snout shorter.
A. Bjornson, Peabody, Mass.