A Pioneer’s Views on Science and Life

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On July 25, Google’s homepage doodle commemorated the birthday of Dr. Rosalind Franklin, who would have been 93 years old. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know who Dr. Franklin was before seeing the doodle, but fortunately the Internet was able to fill me in on the fascinating details of her life.

For starters, she was born in the Notting Hill part of London, which is the setting of one of the three romantic comedies in the world that I have watched in its entirety. But a lot more importantly, Dr. Franklin was a pioneering x-ray crystallographer, someone who investigates the intricate molecular structures of things (and also one of the coolest titles on the planet). Famously, Dr. Franklin is credited with taking the earliest x-ray pictures of DNA’s double helix structure, though her contributions to that research were overlooked for decades. She also did some of the earliest work on the structure of RNA, viruses, and substances like coal and graphite. Her life was tragically cut short at the age of 37 after battling ovarian cancer.

You can (and should) read a lot more about Dr. Franklin on her Wikipedia page or here, but I thought that one of the most interesting bits of information about her was her stance on the role of science in our everyday lives. Robert T. Gonzalez from io9 shared this great quote from a correspondence between Dr. Franklin and her father:

“You look at science (or at least talk of it) as some sort of demoralising invention of man, something apart from real life, and which must be cautiously guarded and kept separate from everyday existence. But science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment… In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining."

I absolutely agree with Dr. Franklin’s position. Too many people want to separate science from the rest of their lives, or worse, think that science is some sort of evil tool created to deceive and control the unlearned masses. But as Dr. Franklin wrote, “science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” She explains that science “gives a partial explanation of life,” inasmuch as “it is based on fact, experience and experiment.”  Science is a tool, yes, but it is a tool developed to explain and test beliefs and ideas from all facets of our lives, so long as those beliefs and ideas are observable and verifiable. The notion that science has some end goal of controlling people’s lives is absurd - sure, there are scientists who have bad intentions, but that doesn’t make the tool of science any more evil than it would a hammer that was used by a carpenter to commit a crime.

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