A Response to Boer Deng’s “Forgetting Dorothy Wrinch”

The following is a letter to the editor written by Marjorie Senechal in response to Boer Deng’s article in LARB, “Forgetting Dorothy Wrinch: Science and the Culture of Correctness.” 

Boer Deng’s response to the letter can be found immediately below it.


A Response to Boer Deng’s “Forgetting Dorothy Wrinch”

by Marjorie Senechal

To the editor:

MS. DENG WISHES I had written a different book. I wish she had read the one I wrote. She begs the question explicitly, declaring at the outset, “We accept that, in science, being right and getting there first constitute the metrics of worthiness.”

Who are “we”? Not I, and not the philosopher Karl Popper:

Even if a new theory […] should meet an early death, it should not be forgotten; rather its beauty should be remembered, and history should record our gratitude to it — for bequeathing to us new and perhaps unexplained experimental facts, and with them, new problems; and for the services it has thus rendered to the progress of science during its successful but short life.

In the late 1930s, Dorothy Wrinch’s protein model excited scientific imaginations on both sides of the Atlantic and catalyzed protein structure research. I wrote I Died for Beauty in part to understand why. What were the arguments for and against her model, and why did it take years to resolve them? What did Irving Langmuir, Niels Bohr, Harold Urey, Albert Szent-Györgyi and other great scientists see in it, before experiment finally proved it wrong?

Since “we are, then, not disposed to care much about Wrinch, the originator of a discredited theory,” Deng misreads my book. “Wrinch as ‘the wronged heroine’ is a story entirely at odds with the accounts Senechal herself presents,” she says. Of course it is at odds: “Wrinch as the wronged heroine” is not the story I tell. I braid biography, history of science, and memoir into a story of scientists and scientific ideas. “Personalities and ambitions and who’s right, who’s wrong aside, I came to see [her] protein model as a lightning rod for a clash of scientific cultures. The clash is the eternal dialogue between truth and beauty, between complexity and simplicity, a dialogue both profound and productive. Indeed it is an engine of science.”

Most of Deng’s ire seems directed at Chapter 16, though it’s hard to be sure, as she cites neither chapter nor verse. For example, she criticizes me for calling Wrinch “beautiful” but omits the context. Here it is. “Dorothy Wrinch’s epic battle with Linus Pauling is the stuff of opera,” the chapter begins. “There is no other way to tell it. Two brilliant, arrogant, competitive antagonists with a flair for publicity and a touch of the devious! And what a plot!”:

Act I, 1936. Dorothy, a beautiful young British mathematician, proposes a model for protein architecture, a simple cage of such Platonic beauty that chemists of all stripes drop their research and rush into proteins.

Act II. 1938. Linus, an ambitious young American chemist, appalled by her claim that geometry trumps chemistry and her affinity for the media, publishes an erroneous list of her errors and drums her out of the field.

Act III. 1946. Dorothy, exiled to a small New England college, insists that beauty is truth and truth will out. She defends her model against the mounting evidence. Partial — very partial — vindication arrives too late. She collapses to a footnote in the history of science.

Act IV. 1968. Linus, now twice a Nobel laureate, claims that chemistry trumps medicine. He defends his views on vitamin C, against the mounting evidence, for the rest of his life.

Next I sketch (only) Act II and conduct a talkback at the end. “The dialogue is largely verbatim from Rockefeller officials’ diaries, science journals, and the Wrinch papers,” I explain. “I’ve compressed a few scenes, paraphrased a few speeches, reconstructed missing fragments, incorporated echoes of memory, even invented a little. But the gist is detailed in the sources.”

Deng claims I make “vague attempts at denouncing a general air of sexism.” She is welcome to check my sources. Nor did I “cast about for a villain” and “ultimately settle on Linus Pauling for the part”; the Wrinch-Pauling battle is well-documented history. Just as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique does not speak to today’s young women, the blatant bias Wrinch encountered may be unimaginable to them. Coincidentally, Wrinch began teaching at Smith College when (the then) Bettye Goldstein was a senior there.

Although a reviewer is entitled to her opinions and, arguably, to her misreadings, she is not entitled to ignore, occlude, misrepresent or invent the facts. Consider Deng’s coup de grâce:

She wrote to E. H. Neville: “what angered everyone most was our attitude that WE [Langmuir and Wrinch] had started the proper treatment of [proteins]. Well I reckon we did […] [M]ost of the anger is against Irving. But they don’t dare attack him, so I get it.” Surely such material should dissuade her biographer from more finger-pointing.

What’s wrong here? Quite a bit. By not stating her source Deng gives the impression that I quoted that letter in my book. I didn’t. Deng also omits that Wrinch was reporting, to her closest confidante, what another friend had told her. This does add nuance. And why does Deng insert “[proteins]” into the quote? Wrinch wasn’t talking about proteins; in fact she wrote “the proper treatment of S2s,” which was her shorthand for diffraction patterns. Her innovative method for deciphering their geometry was scoffed at then but appreciated later (see chapters 17–19). I will post the some three dozen factual errors in Deng’s review on my website.

Let’s return to larger themes. “E.O. Wilson summed it up nicely,” says Ms. Deng. “’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.’” Since again she does not cite her source, I note for the record that these words appear in his best-selling Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, in a brief aside to young scientists (pages 61-64). But the “culture of correctness” is not what Consilience is about. By “consilience” Wilson means the belief, a belief he shares with Wrinch, that the complexity-simplicity dialogue will one day lead to the unity of all knowledge. I show, in my book, how Wrinch’s version of this vision destroyed her in the end; that is the meaning of my title. Yet, like Popper, Wilson (page 7) sees greatness in this failure:

Ignoring the warnings of his father, Icarus flies toward the sun, whereupon his wings come apart and he falls into the sea. That is the end of Icarus in the myth. But we are left to wonder: Was he just a foolish boy? Did he pay the price for hubris, for pride in sight of the gods? I like to think that on the contrary his daring represents a saving human grace. And so the great astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar could pay tribute to the spirit of his mentor, Sir Arthur Eddington, by saying: let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings.


A Response to Marjorie Senechal

by Boer Deng

THE UNSUCCESSFUL CAUSE is oft least appreciated. Science exemplifies this better than any other human endeavor. Dr. Senechal misunderstands me; I state this not to advocate the standard, but to name it. There are dozens of volumes on the life of Darwin. There are considerably fewer on the life of Lamarck.

Senechal’s book is paradoxical in how it addresses “right-ness.” On the one hand, she reinforces the idea that scientific legacy should be based on being right. Look at all that Wrinch got right, she tells us again and again, implying that this is why we should remember her. Yet, at the same time, Senechal avers that the champion of a theory that met with “an early death” ought not to be forgotten, because there is beauty in wrong ideas. Her book, as a result, is neither persuasive about the merits of Wrinch’s career nor about the supposed beauty of its failure. But persuasion is a necessary authorial task precisely because history has not “recorded our gratitude”; “we” readers are not Senechal, and most of us are not Karl Popper.

Furthermore, no clear picture emerges of how Wrinch experienced her life: her motives, her sensibilities, who she was, how she dealt with failure — all these remain opaque. My review criticizes the incoherence of Senechal’s contradictory positions, and of her portrayal of her subject.

It is to her credit that Senechal treats citation in her book with meticulousness; I do not doubt her scholarship. But, in criticism, value lies in interpretation, not in summary and quotation. Senechal objects that I reference “neither chapter nor verse” when characterizing her treatment of Linus Pauling. Surely the critic must take into account the general reader’s appetite for citation and scholarly detail.

This said, “casting about for a villain” is an apt description of Senechal’s formulation. In the chapter Senechal outlines in her letter, the “opera scenes” she devises include a chorus of men chortling over Wrinch’s diminished credibility, followed by women denouncing Wrinch as un-ladylike, and all cheering Pauling for publishing his take-down. “Beautiful” Wrinch then enters to mount a defense; her daughter hands Pauling a letter decrying his meanness. Senechal later writes about Wrinch being turned down for Guggenheim funding: “Dorothy’s proposal was rejected; the foundation won’t say why […] One thing is for certain. Linus Pauling was a member of the selection committee. This could have been his moment of grace. He chose not to take it.” Rather than give these details, I gave the general sense they impart.

What I do quote in my piece is Senechal’s own prose (not Senechal’s excerpts from her sources), and it abundantly illustrates her book’s salient themes: “Wrinch as the wronged heroine” and Pauling as villain. If these were not what Senechal wished to convey, then what she has written suggests otherwise.

In examining Senechal’s source material, as is the reader’s prerogative, I found her depiction to be in the very spirit decried by Wrinch, who felt herself to be the victim of misdirected attacks. To attack Pauling reads as churlish. Whether Wrinch’s letter to Neville expressing her umbrage appears in Senechal’s book is immaterial to that point.

Readers are left to piece together a more convincing message than the one offered by Senechal. For example, Senechal regularly brings up Wrinch’s salaries, when funds were extended and what was unpaid, without commentary. Yet Wrinch must have felt uncommon financial and social pressures during her years of working on cyclols, especially as she had become her child’s sole support.

My review acknowledges that she received monies because funders saw potential in her mathematical approach to biology. That she then quickly proposed cyclols resulted in subsequent opportunities for collaborative work. Pnina Abir-Am’s essay “Disciplinary and Marital Strategies in the Career of Mathematical Biologist Dorothy Wrinch” (one of Senechal’s sources) discusses how cyclols allowed Wrinch to leverage the funding she had received for greater support, writing that, “Wrinch’s model was featured prominently” because it “brought coherence to the Rockefeller Foundation’s new policy of assisting biological progress” through linking the physical and biological sciences. “Hence, the foundation not only gave Wrinch a long-term grant, but also undertook the coordination and funding of her numerous trips.” By the time cyclols had been proven incorrect, her Rockefeller grant was ending, and afterwards, the foundation, in Senechal’s words, “refused to help her.”

Abir-Am also raises the issue of how marital status influenced Wrinch’s career: single women, she argues, would have been denied access to the scientific establishment. Obviously, the scientific life does not exist apart from the lived life. Uncovering the humanity beneath the pursuit of science might well have better demonstrated the subject’s beauty than Senechal’s under-articulated notion of the romance to be found in failed theories.

As for the book from which I take E. O. Wilson’s observation, it is hard to understand Senechal’s objection; I do not claim that Consilience is about scientific failure. Senechal’s “story of scientists and scientific ideas” does not, incidentally, offer any conclusion on the larger subject of consilience either. But more pertinently, the issue is that Senechal promises to tell Wrinch’s story, yet in her book mistakes what Wrinch did for what her larger story is.