Photograph 51: A Review

In November 2015, I was lucky enough to obtain tickets to see the award-winning and spell-binding play, Photograph 51, at the Noël Coward Theatre in London. The play takes its title from the name of the X-ray diffraction image taken by Rosalind Franklin and her assistant, Raymond Gosling, which ultimately played a key role in the determination of the double-helix structure of DNA.

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As a PhD student in the field of crystallography and structural biology at the time, Rosalind Franklin was a figure of great inspiration to myself and many other women working within this field. I have always been interested in her story, so when I found out about this play I was extremely curious, especially when I learnt that Nicole Kidman would be playing the notable scientist. A major stroke of luck occurred for me to obtain two tickets to the final performance of the play, which had been sold out for months.  The seats were in the Royal Circle, albeit on separate ends of the reasonably small theatre. However, as the play was 95 minutes with no interval, seats together was not a problem. In fact, meeting up with my mum afterwards following the extremely emotional performance felt even more poignant having spent 95 minutes apart experiencing the same emotions.

Yes, emotional would be the word I would use to describe this play. All the different aspects of the play contributed to these emotions. The script, the actors’ performances, the staging, lighting – everything. Upon first seeing the dark grey set, which had not had great reviews online, I was also slightly wary. However, as I sat waiting for the play to start I read a piece in the programme which stated that the set was designed to look like the underground laboratory at King’s College, London, in the aftermath of World War II (the play being set from the time Franklin started working there in 1951) – hence the dark and slightly sombre feel to the stage. This added an extra level of depth to the drama that would unfold upon it.

With only six main characters to the play, this was a play where less was certainly more. Knowing Nicole Kidman from Moulin Rouge fame, amongst other notable films, I was slightly concerned that she wouldn’t be able to understand Rosalind Franklin and the person she was, what it means to be a scientist, and a woman in science. However, from the very first few lines uttered by Kidman, I forgot that she was Nicole Kidman (I later saw an interview on the Graham Norton show where she spoke about the play and how her father was a biochemist). I was transported to the world of science and molecules, the way that I had learnt to love and experience science growing up. One of Rosalind’s first lines in the play are: “When I was a child I used to draw shapes. Shapes overlapping, like endless Venn diagrams…I drew patterns of the tiniest repeating structures. In my mind were patterns of the tiniest repeating structures.” These lines took me by surprise. Sitting in my seat at the back of the theatre, I almost let out a short gasp. I had forgotten that as a child at junior school, whenever I had finished the set lesson work early, I was given patterned sheets to colour in. I used to colour in endless numbers of these sheets of repeating patterns. I used to love it. And I had forgotten it, until now. I realised that perhaps I was meant to be doing a PhD in structural biology after all. Structural biology is repeating patterns. Crystals made up of repeating patterns. I knew I was going to enjoy this play.

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From the cold but, at times, heart-breaking, relationship with Maurice Wilkins, to the splashes of comedy provided by Ray Gosling and the DNA pair, Watson and Crick, this play was all I could have hoped for and more in portraying this important story. It is a story of a woman who is focused on her work, sometimes too focused to see what is right in front of her. It is also a story of a person; a person who is humble and unable to really sell herself or her findings, so the excellence of her talent went unrecognised.

The play makes use of individual thoughts of certain characters, lines intertwined with narrations and fast conversations to hold the interest of the audience and build excitement in what could be, for non scientists, perhaps a potentially daunting topic for a West End play. The play culminates to a dramatic scene where Watson and Crick are finally realising the structure of DNA, and the structure of life itself, at the same time as Rosalind is having a heart-to-heart with friend Don Caspar. Their conversation hints at Rosalind’s desire to be loved, to be kissed, to experience life with a man at her side. Her loneliness. Then, just at the moment Watson and Crick have found the secret structure of life, Rosalind clutches her stomach. I knew what was coming, as I knew that Rosalind Franklin died from ovarian cancer at just 37. One of the main reasons why she was not named on the Nobel Prize for the structure of DNA, as this award is not given posthumously.

The final scene of the play between Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins is truly heart-breaking. I was so overcome with emotion that I could just not hold back the tears. The way that the ending is written with the discussion by Franklin and Wilkins of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is sheer brilliance by the playwright Anna Ziegler.

Come, poor babe:                                                                                                                                    I have not heard, but not believed-                                                                                                 The spirits o’ the dead                                                                                                                        May walk again.

(The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare)

 Through this play, the spirit of Rosalind Franklin lives on, and hopefully now people will give her the recognition she deserves. Regret, hope, equality. These are the feelings and themes which run throughout the play. But with regret comes the knowledge that you can’t change the past. And if Rosalind Franklin hadn’t worked so hard and been so focused and short-tempered with Wilkins, then Photograph 51 might never have been taken, Wilkins might never have shown it to Watson and Crick, and the structure of DNA might never have been discovered. Let’s just hope that her memory and story continue to inspire scientists, both male and female, so that important breakthroughs in science can continue to be made everyday.

“ROSALIND: It’s strange, you know. That I can’t remember who played Hermione.

WILKINS: No…I can’t either. Not for the life of me.

ROSALIND: I suppose she simply didn’t stand out. And that’s that.

…Isn’t it.

(Photograph 51, Anna Ziegler)

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Portrait of a Scientist

Antoine Lavoisier. Most people might remember this name from their school Chemistry lessons when learning about stoichiometry in reactions, or the law of conservation of mass. This principle states that, for any system, mass cannot be created or destroyed, only changed from one form into another. Lavoisier also disproved the phlogiston theory, common amongst chemists and alchemists of the time (eighteenth century), that all combustible materials released a ‘fire-like element’ known as phlogiston during combustion. However, Lavoisier, including the English chemist Joseph Priestley, studied the elements involved in combustion reactions. Lavoisier discovered that the element oxygen, along with hydrogen, were involved in combustion processes. These discoveries, including many other  observations made Lavoisier a well-respected and influential scientist, whose name is still spoken of today.

However, as they say,”behind every great man, there is a great woman“. It has been widely reported that Lavoisier’s wife, Marie-Anne Lavoisier, assisted him in the laboratory, wrote up his findings and translated English documents for him. But, is this all she did? Who was the real brains behind the science in their home? Was there more to this notable couple than meets the eye?
(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Well, let us look at this portrait of Lavoisier and his wife painted by Ernest Board in the 1920s. The description of this painting states: Antoine Lavoisier explaining to his wife the result of his experiments on air (wellcomeimages.org). This seems to be the general view of his wife. The simple laboratory assistant who helped her husband with his experiments, but who did not understand the science behind the work herself. This notion could be taken from Board’s painting, as Marie-Anne is depicted as listening intently to her husband, perhaps taking instructions, or indeed hearing the results of his experiments. However, I struggle with this interpretation. The quizzical look on Antoine’s face, and the fact that he is holding his pen the wrong way round (!), lead me to believe that even in this portrait (painted decades later), the artist wishes us to see something different. That it could be the other way around. Marie-Anne is trying to explain something to him.

This idea that she knew more than people thought, that she was perhaps the brains behind all of his scientific breakthroughs, and thus legacy, maybe changes the way we should think about scientists of the past and their female, so-called ‘assistants’. We can see this idea even more clearly in the more well-known portrait of Antoine Lavoisier, commissioned by Marie-Anne in 1788, from the French painter Jacques-Louis David.

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This beautiful painting, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is not only a much more exquisite piece of art, but also allows the viewer to see much more clearly the larger role Marie-Anne played. In this portrait, Lavoisier is seated, looking up to his wife, clearly taking direction and notations from her. She is centre of the portrait, looking to the viewer, with a directorial hand upon his shoulder.

There are many notable scientists of the past who had female laboratory assistants. This one portrait may shed some light on their roles within the understanding and actual significant breakthroughs within science over the years. But their names have been lost whilst their employers’, masters’ or even husbands’ names live on. I look forward to rediscovering who they were, their stories and reigniting their memory.

One may look at David’s painting and think that it is a portrait of Lavoisier – the scientist. In fact, it is a portrait of his wife – the scientist.  

Museo Galileo Visit

img_0041Last October I was very lucky to go on a trip with my research group to the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Florence has always been one of my favourite cities, but I had never visited their Museum of the History of Science before. So, naturally, being a group of scientists, this was top of our list and indeed our first stop!

Situated on three levels (and a basement!) overlooking the river, the Museo Galileo houses an extensive range of scientific instruments and equipment from both the Medici (15th-18th centuries) and Lorraine (18th-19th centuries) dynasties. The collections consist of a number of detailed and exquisite armillary spheres (the most breathtaking featured in the picture here), globes, thermometers, telescopes and the largest collection of scientific experimental apparatus I’ve ever seen. These apparatus portray just how inspiring the area of Tuscany was during the Medici period and how much they contributed to the progress of areas of science such as astronomy, chemistry, electricity, electromagnetism and physics.

Another draw to this museum (and something I was looking forward to seeing!) is the fact that it is the home of Galileo Galilei’s finger! In fact, in 2010, the famous astronomist’s finger was joined by his thumb, middle finger and one of his teeth when the bones turned up at an auction in 2009. They are now showcased in a small and delicate glass egg, as well as in a bell jar, all together in a small cabinet in the middle of the museum’s collection of scientific equipment and apparatus. Having seen many religious relics of saints which are venerated and take pride of place in churches and cathedrals, I was surprised that Galileo’s finger wasn’t given more importance within the museum – I almost missed it, and people were just walking past it! However, with his remains now interred at the Basilica di Santa Croce just around the corner, I suppose he would find some humour in the fact that his middle finger was removed so that it could sit defiantly within the telescopes that made him so hated by the church!

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One final thought – the large number of scientific equipment from the later centuries that were used to demonstrate the various laws of physics made me realise how we have lost the art of teaching science by these beautifully crafted apparatus. If these methods of scientific teaching could be adopted in schools, at universities and amongst the general public in open lectures more often, then perhaps more people would be interested and inspired to pursue careers in the more ‘tougher’ STEM subjects like physics and engineering. As the French clergyman and physicist Jean-Antoine Nollet once said, “Experimental physics cannot do without instruments”.

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First post!

So, I thought I would just make an introductory post to begin with to explain a bit about what I intend this blog to be and why I have decided to do it.

I am currently a fourth year PhD student, starting to write up. So I am hoping that I can use this blog to provide a bit of light relief writing for myself, whilst still providing a way of staying tuned to the writing and research process.

The subject of the history of science has been a passion of mine for a while now, ever since school Chemistry days, when we watched a video on Sir Harry Kroto and the discovery of buckminsterfullerene. Stories of discoveries and the scientists behind them have since been very interesting to me, so I hope that I can tell people these stories, and perhaps inspire some readers in the process!