SGU Episode 498

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SGU Episode 498
January 24th 2015
Golden Rice.jpg
SGU 497 SGU 499
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
From my experience let me say this: in today's world it is no bad thing for a politician to have had the benefit of a scientific background. And not only politicians. Those who work in industry, in commerce, in investment. Indeed, so important has it become that I believe we are right to make science a compulsory subject for all schoolchildren.
Margaret Thatcher
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Steve's scapula recovery
  • Senate votes that climate change is not a hoax

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (4:10)[edit]

  • Forgotten Superheroes of Science: Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) Pioneering Molecular Biologist

S: All right, Bob tell us about your Forgotten Superhero of Science for this week.

B: Certainly! The Forgotten Superhero of Science this week is Rosalind Franklin, 1920 to 1958. She was a pioneering molecular biologist who made significant contributions regarding DNA. Ever hear of her?

(Steve, Jay, and Evan all answer in the affirmative simultaneously. Words are indistinguishable)

B: Yes

E: We have. I'm sure some of our audience has. Not everyone.

B: Now, Franklin, in her youth, absolutely fell in love with science. She went to one of the very rare schools in London that actually taught girls physics and chemistry. She made her dad upset when she was fifteen, claiming that she wanted to be a scientist. He kind of had the common prevailing attitude of the day that women, it kind of unsuited for higher education, and that she would be best suited as a social worker. Luckily, that did not happen.

She got her education, a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1945 from Cambridge University, very nice. After that, she went to Paris for a few years at the Central Laboratory of Chemical Services of the State, where she learned a very critical skill: X-ray diffraction, which would come in handy very soon thereafter. After college, she went back to England, where she got a job as a research associate in John Randall's laboratory in King's College, London.

There, she met molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins. Now, he headed a separate research group, and like her, as they were kind of indirectly or directly studying DNA, which at that time, they called Deoxypentose nucleic acid, not deoxyribnuclei acid. He was actually not there when she arrived, and when he did finally arrive after, I think vacation or something, he assumed that she was just an assistant, like a technical assistant, and didn't even know that she was essentially his peer.

I mean, he realized his mistake, but they really seem to never have gotten over that kind of initial friction. Soon thereafter, this is where the real meat of her life begins, really, in terms of her career. She carried out X-ray diffraction studies to create, along with her PhD student Ray Gosling, something called Photo 51. Now, this is really one of, maybe the most famous images.

It was a diffraction image of a DNA molecule, that was the best ever created at that time. It was really a thing of beauty, according to many of the people who saw it at that time. From that image could be gleaned a lot of key characteristics of DNA that were critical.

Another key contribution that Franklin made was the 1952 MRC, or Medical Research Council report, which she contributed to, and had some very critical and important DNA details from her research in there as well. So, at this time, in the early fifties, Watson and Crick, of course, these were the guys that were doing their revolutionary work with DNA at Cambridge University. They actually met Franklin on several occasions, and Watson even heard her speak at a seminar about some of the work she was doing.

So, the weird thing was that Maurice Wilkins worked with Watson and Crick. And Wilkins saw fit to show them Franklin's diffraction image without her knowledge. He really seemed to have no authorization to show her that. And they also appear to have learned a lot from reading Franklin's MRC report. So those are the two critical events in her career, and the controversy around it.

So the question is, how much did all this help Watson and Crick in coming up with their final correct model of DNA? Well, in the book Double Helix, Watson said, "The instant I saw the picture, my mouth fell open, and my pulse began to race." Many believed that the image was critical for determining the helical shape of DNA, and the calculations from using the image that they did, determined the critical values for the shape and size of DNA as well.

And the MRC report also had lots of valuable information that they clearly looked at, and clearly influenced their work. So, I'm trying to take anything away from Watson and Crick. What they achieved, what they did was amazing. But it really is a genuine controversy whether she could have deduced the full structure of DNA herself, had her image not been shown to Watson and Crick. They clearly minimized her contributions. Watson even disparaged her in her book, that a lot of people who worked on the project were very upset over the inaccuracy which Watson kind of retracted a little bit in the epilogue of the book.

So let me just end with a quote from Lynn Osmond Elkin. She's a professor of biological science. She's really like a biographer of Franklin. She said,

"I think it should be called the Watson-Crick-Franklin structure. As far as I'm concerned, she was a de facto collaborator, Maybe she didn't give them her information directly, but every time they hit a stumbling point, it was her information that they got from Wilkins that straightened it out."

So, in conclusion, why isn't she a household name? Read up on Rosalind Frankin, and her amazing contributions; mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing early diffraction images used to determine interphosphate distances. But either way, more people should know about what she did.

S: Yeah, I just want to add two things: One is that she died in 1958 at the age of thirty-seven

B: Yes

S: of ovarian cancer, so, yeah, ovarian cancer is bad. So that really cut her career very short. I mean, just imagine

B: Oh my god! By all accounts, she was an amazing scientist.

S: Yeah

B: Brilliant. Incredibly thorough. Just to think what she could have accomplished if she lived to seventy-five. It's just

S: Right

B: sad, really sad. But still, you know, some people think even if she had survived, she wouldn't have gotten the Nobel Prize. She clearly could not have gotten it, because they don't award it posthumously. But a lot of people think she wouldn't have gotten it any way. But even Watson said later on that she deserved it. He kind of

S: Yeah, yeah

B: begrudgingly said she really did deserve it.

S: Yeah, Watson, Crick and Wilkins got in in 1962, so that was

B: Yep

S: four years after she died. So that's why she didn't get it. But yeah, we don't know what would have happened had she been alive at the time.

B: Yeah

S: Interesting.

Special Report (10:03)[edit]

  • Artificial Intelligence

(Commercial at 26:38)

News Items[edit]

The Boy Who Didn’t Go to Heaven (28:33)[edit]

Marketing Biofortified GMO (35:28)[edit]

(Commercial at 45:35)

Omniprocessor (46:44)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (52:28)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Space Shuttle landing gear

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Deep Web Follow Up (54:37)[edit]

  • Jay answers multiple questions about the deep/dark web

(Commercial at 1:01:36)

Science or Fiction (1:03:00)[edit]

Item #1: Scientists have developed a smart keyboard that is self-powered and can identify users by their typing pattern. Item #2: Analysis of the oldest fossil primate species indicates that the earliest primates lived underground. Item #3: New research finds that wolves have as much social skill with their own species and with humans as do domestic dogs.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:09)[edit]

'From my experience let me say this: in today's world it is no bad thing for a politician to have had the benefit of a scientific background. And not only politicians. Those who work in industry, in commerce, in investment. Indeed, so important has it become that I believe we are right to make science a compulsory subject for all schoolchildren.' - Margaret Thatcher

Announcements (1:20:15)[edit]


S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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