|tags:||Science & Technology|
SCIENCE IS OFTEN INDICTED for the coldness of its absolutism. Its inflexible distinction between right and wrong leaves no room for the more human shades of interpretive grey. Yet we accept that, in science, being right and getting there first constitute the metrics of worthiness. E.O. Wilson summed it up nicely: “Original discovery is everything […] Make an important discovery and you are a successful scientist in the true, elitist sense [...] fail to discover and you are little or nothing.” Scientific culture is indifferent towards those whose ambition in this regard is left unfulfilled; we don’t care about, nor do we remember, those who devoted a lifetime to discovery but came up short.
Is this fair, and is this the right way or even a useful way to think about science? Marjorie Senechal’s biography I Died for Beauty implicitly begs the question. Its subject, Dorothy Wrinch, was not strictly-speaking a scientist. Though a mathematician by training — her methods were theoretical rather than empirical — she claimed in the 1930s to have answered one of the great scientific questions of her time. In those days, the composition of proteins was known (proteins are molecules built from smaller subunits called “amino acids”), but not their greater architecture; the floors were in place, but no one knew what the building looked like. Finding the answer might explain life’s biological foundations. Wrinch eschewed experiments and arrived at a shape purely through mathematical calculations. She proposed that proteins were amino acid nets folded into Platonic shapes — “cyclols,” as she called them. These constructs have in fact never been found. Protein's structures were later elucidated — even Wrinch’s biographer admits that their true shapes “looked nothing like cyclols.”
We are, then, not disposed to care much about Wrinch, the originator of a discredited theory. We might more quickly empathize with Wrinch as someone who lived a life replete with the joys and sorrows common to human experience, but made unusual by personal circumstance.
Wrinch had exceptional accomplishments: born in Argentina to English parents, she was among the earliest of the university women at Cambridge. She graduated with first class honors in mathematics in 1916, a notable achievement; she was a protégé of Bertrand Russell, and had a hand in getting Wittgenstein’s Tractatus published; she became the first woman to receive a D. Sc. in mathematics from Oxford. Wrinch published papers on the scientific method, seismology, mathematics, and philosophy before turning, mid-career, to proteins. This last interest endured longest and became the one on which her reputation would rest.
Her interest in proteins was not arbitrary. Cyclols were a ticket to employment, which Wrinch desperately needed at that point in her life. A few years into her marriage to John Nicholson — a fellow at Balliol College, Oxford — in 1922, he suffered a breakdown and was committed to an institution. Wrinch herself had only a part-time salary. The cause of Nicholson's collapse is unknown, but his hospitalization in 1930 left her alone with their young daughter, Pam, and largely without income.
She applied unsuccessfully for the Rhodes Scholarship (they rejected her because women were deemed ineligible) and for Rockefeller funding (she applied for two grants, in di...read more