December 2014

Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling, Photo 51, courtesy King’s College London.

Tell us what you think about this picture.

Woman's Work: How Rosalind Franklin's 'Photo 51' Told Us the Truth about Ourselves

Beautiful, isn’t it? Peer deep into this photograph’s heart, eye, vanishing point. Despite the beauty, no hammered stare, of any length, unlocks meaning or maker. The image (inviolate) defies casual analysis. Perhaps, you wonder, identification of topic or photographer is irrelevant. No clues visible (except perhaps to a biologist). Ah, now you read the label. The shoulders sigh (aesthetic surmises fade), the eye winks (no joke), and a scientist strides onto the stage and grips the podium (serious stuff).

This month’s choice of the iconic X-ray diffraction photograph of DNA taken by physical chemist Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) might seem timed to the season. Auld lang syne, and all that. The genetic material glimpsed in Photo 51 connects all living things and the image thus metaphorically captures human past, present, and future. It also marks an important milestone in science. In the last half-century, research that drew