Pity the industry bias toward success. When it comes to technological progress, much is learned from failure, but those stories are hushed up, overshadowed by the stories of “winners” that may have some amount of the fabulist in their telling.
Even in the annals of science, the winners write the history.
In scientific history, people are more likely to beat it down the path to the successful, than to take the rainy but scenic route mottled with failure. Yet, to find the thought process behind successful discovery, one is best served by studying both failures and the successes along the way.
Unless you have an easily tapped well of curiosity, you don’t want to look at all the missteps on the way to the double helix, and will instead pick up the story of the genetic blueprint with Watson and Crick, with perhaps a nod to Mendel, Darwin, and a few others that went before.
A close precursor – An interesting misstep quite near to Watson and Crick effort was Linus Pauling’s failed prediction of DNA structure. He visualized a triple helix model, which was wrong. The successful duo was quite aware of Pauling’s work, guessed right that he was wrong, and took a different but not unrelated path to success.
A look back at the search for the structure of DNA proves interesting for what it shows about what we didn’t know we knew, and for the thinking we had to unthink, to know what we did know. The search shows how advances far afield can focus new attention in other realms.
Stepping back further into time – Those who studied the cell had dead-ended in the hunt for the code late in the 19th century. The unlocking of the code required an understanding of chemistry that few of them had. It took a good number of years, and the creation of the discipline of biochemistry (and radioactive crystallography, and more), before the search bore fruit. A natural cultural bias against the simple DNA molecule had it that a more complex molecule had to be the basis of inheritance.
Crick and Watson were not necessarily experts in their fields. They did, however, ask a lot of questions of other people both in like and unlike fields, and they had a puzzler’s enthusiasm, relying on deduction, intuition and endless work with wooden models of molecules to uncover the double helix formula. A great resource on this topic is Ernst Mayr (The Growth of Biological Thought – 1982). – Jack Vaughan
Afterthought – Of course, Crick’s and Watson’s questioning in the realm of crystallography bordered on theft, and can’t be referenced without additional comment. There is some nuance, sure, but they were basically unfair to researcher Rosalind Franklin. Would she have shared the Nobel if she had not died young from cancer?