Sunday, July 27, 2014

Rosalind Franklin and the Beauty of the DNA Structure

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
On July 25, 1920, British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born. She made the first clear X-ray images of DNA’s structure. Her work was described as the most beautiful X-ray photographs ever taken. Franklin’s ‘Photo 51’ informed Crick and Watson of DNA’s double helix structure for which they were awarded a Nobel Prize.

Rosalind Franklin was born in Notting Hill, London, as the second of five children into an affluent and influential British Jewish family. From early childhood, Franklin showed exceptional scholastic abilities. She was educated at St Paul's Girls' School where she excelled in science, Latin and sports. From the age of 15 on, she knew already that she wanted to become a scientist. Rosalind Franklin enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1938 and studied chemistry. In 1941, she was awarded Second Class Honors in her finals, which, at that time, was accepted as a bachelor's degree in the qualifications for employment. When she graduated, Franklin was awarded a research scholarship to do graduate work. She spent a year in R.G.W. Norrish's lab without great success. Norrish recognized Franklin's potential but he was not very encouraging or supportive toward his female student. She went on to work as an assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she studied the porosity of coal—work that was the basis of her 1945 Ph.D. thesis "The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal." [1] CURA was a young organization and there was less formality on the way research had to be done. Franklin worked fairly independently, a situation that suited her. Franklin worked for CURA until 1947 and published a number of papers on the physical structure of coal.

Franklin's next career move took her to Paris from 1947 to 1950. An old friend introduced her to Marcel Mathieu who directed most of the research in France. He was impressed with Franklin's work and offered her a job as a "chercheur" in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat. Here she learned X-ray diffraction techniques from Jacques Mering. In 1951, Franklin was offered a 3-year research scholarship at King's College in London. With her knowledge, Franklin was to set up and improve the X-ray crystallography unit at King's College. Maurice Wilkins was already using X-ray crystallography to try to solve the DNA problem at King's College. Franklin arrived while Wilkins was away and on his return, Wilkins assumed that she was hired to be his assistant. It was a bad start to a relationship that never got any better. [2]

Wilkins' mistake, acknowledged but never overcome, was not surprising given the climate for women at the university then. Only males were allowed in the university dining rooms, and after hours Franklin's colleagues went to men-only pubs. But Franklin persisted on the DNA project. J. D. Bernal called her X-ray photographs of DNA, "the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken." Between 1951 and 1953 Rosalind Franklin came very close to solving the DNA structure. She was beaten to publication by Crick and Watson in part because of the friction between Wilkins and herself. At one point, Wilkins showed Watson one of Franklin's crystallographic portraits of DNA. When he saw the picture, the solution became apparent to him, and the results went into an article in Nature almost immediately. Franklin's work did appear as a supporting article in the same issue of the journal.[3]

A debate about the amount of credit due to Franklin continues. What is clear is that she did have a meaningful role in learning the structure of DNA and that she was a scientist of the first rank. Franklin moved to J. D. Bernal's lab at Birkbeck College, where she did very fruitful work on the tobacco mosaic virus. She also began work on the polio virus. In the summer of 1956, Rosalind Franklin became ill with cancer. She died less than two years later.

Franklin was never nominated for a Nobel Prize. She had died in 1958 and was therefore ineligible for nomination to the Nobel Prize in 1962 which was subsequently awarded to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins in that year. The award was for their body of work on nucleic acids and not exclusively for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Watson has suggested that ideally Wilkins and Franklin would have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

At yovisto you may enjoy the video lecture 'You say you want a revolution: DNA analysis methods' by Prof. Dr. Qiang Zhou from Berkeley University.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Plays of George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
On July 26, 1856, Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics George Bernard Shaw was born. As a writer, his main talent was for drama, and he wrote more than 60 plays. He is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938).

George Bernard Shaw was born in Synge Street, Dublin, to George Carr Shaw, an unsuccessful grain merchant and sometime civil servant, and Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw, a professional singer. His education was irregular, due to his dislike of any organized training. When Shaw was just short of his sixteenth birthday, his mother left her husband and son and moved with Vandeleur Lee to London, where the two set up a household, along with Shaw's older sister Lucy. After working in an estate agent's office for a while he moved to London as a young man (1876), where he established himself as a leading music and theatre critic in the eighties and nineties and became a prominent member of the Fabian Society, for which he composed many pamphlets [1]. Together with Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Shaw had founded the Fabian Society, a socialist political organization dedicated to transforming Britain into a socialist state, not by revolution but by systematic progressive legislation, bolstered by persuasion and mass education. The Fabian society would later be instrumental in founding the London School of Economics and the Labour Party.

In 1891, at the invitation of J.T. Grein, a merchant, theatre critic, and director of a progressive private new-play society, The Independent Theatre, Shaw wrote his first play, Widower's Houses. Shaw's first plays were published in volumes titled "Plays Unpleasant" (containing Widowers' Houses, The Philanderer and Mrs. Warren's Profession) and "Plays Pleasant" (which had Arms and the Man, Candida, The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell). The plays were filled with what would become Shaw's signature wit, accompanied by healthy doses of social criticism, which stemmed from his Fabian Society leanings. These plays would not go on to be his best remembered, or those for which he had high regard, but they laid the groundwork for the oversized career to come [2]. In 1897 Shaw attained his first commercial success with the American premiere of The Devil’s Disciple, which enabled him to quit his job as a drama critic and to make his living solely as a playwright. In 1898, after a serious illness, Shaw resigned as theatre critic, and moved out of his mother's house (where he was still living) to marry Charlotte Payne-Townsend, an Irish woman of independent means. Although Shaw was occasionally linked with other women, this marriage lasted until Charlotte's death in 1943 [3].

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen had a great influence on Shaw's thinking. For a summer meeting of the Fabian Society in 1890, he wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), in which he considered Ibsen a pioneer, "who declares that it is right to do something hitherto regarded as infamous."

Pygmalion, by Bernard Shaw, by far his most popular work, was first performed in 1913. "Although Shaw claimed that he had written a didactic play about phonetics, and its anti-heroic protagonist, Henry Higgins, is indeed a speech professional, what playgoers saw was a high comedy about love and class, about a cockney flower-girl from Covent Garden educated to pass as a lady, and the repercussions of the experiment... The First World War began as Pygmalion was nearing its hundredth sell-out performance, and gave Shaw an excuse to wind down the production.", according to one of the leading experts on Shaw, Stanley Weintraub [4].

 During World War I, Shaw’s anti-war pamphlets and speeches made him very unpopular as a public figure. In Heartbreak House (performed 1920) he exposed the spiritual bankruptcy of the generation responsible for the carnage. Next came Back to Methuselah (1922) and Saint Joan (1923), acclaim for which led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1925. Shaw continued to write plays and essays until his death in 1950 at the age of 94.

At yovisto you can learn more about George Bernard Shaw in the educational Encyclopedia Britannica production 'Shaw vs. Shakespeare I: The Character of Caesar'

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Thomas Say and his Love for Beetles

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
in: American entomology :
A Description of the Insects of North America
by Thomas Say
On July 27, 1787, American self-taught naturalist, entomologist, malacologist, herpetologist and carcinologist Thomas Say was born. A taxonomist, he is widely considered the father of descriptive entomology in the United States.

Thomas Say attended Westtown Boarding School near Philadelphia and his father discouraged him from the pursuit of natural history, trying to interest him instead in the family apothecary business and around 1812, Say even entered into partnership with apothecary John Speakman, but the enterprise failed very soon [2]. His interest in natural history was stimulated by his great-uncle, William Bartram. Say was a cofounder of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812 and served a curator from 1812 to 1826 and as professor of zoology in the Museum of Philadelphia from 1821 to 1825 [1]. During his career, Thomas Say took part in several expeditions. In 1819 - 1820, Major Stephen Harriman Long led an exploration to the Rocky Mountains, which Say accompanied as a zoologist. The expedition party searched for the headwaters of the Red River, made maps of the uncharted Louisiana Territory, and located areas for military posts to protect the American fur trade. Unfortunately, Thomas Say's journal entries from the expedition were stolen by soldiers, who apparently left the party during the expedition. However, records of the expedition were still published and large collections of the flora and fauna of the area were described. Say himself, collected and described several species including the collared lizard, which is on this day the official state lizard of Oklahoma [1].

The scientist became curator of the American Philosophical Society and then professor of natural history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1822. He took part in another expedition the year after, functioning as zoologist and paleontologist to St. Peter’s River at the headwaters of the Mississippi. The expedition made it all the way up to Lake of the Woods in Canada and across the northern portion of Lake Superior. Say managed to collect enough insect specimens to accurately represent North America in his American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America, which was published in three volumes between 1824 and 1828 [2].

Say's scientific reputation grew after he published the first volume and he is now considered as the father of American entomology and conchology. After finishing this work, Say went on to publish another definitive work, on American shells, and approached the subject with the same spirit of adventure and reverence that informed his work on insects. As he wrote, "It is an enterprise that may be compared to that of a pioneer or early settler in a strange land," and he did much to advance Americans' understanding of the natural world they encountered as they moved inexorably across the continent [3].

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on "International Entomology: Changing the World, One Bug at a Time" by Rick Foster.

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