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DNA 50
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    About DNA 50

About the exhibition

Four Plus: Writing DNA
Writing DNA’ is an attempt to look at how the raw data – the human aspect of discovery – becomes history. The commissioned artists differ in their approach and ‘take’ on their subjects. One is a friend of James Watson. Another is the daughter of scientists who worked alongside Francis Crick. Another is simply intrigued by the comparable anonymity of Maurice Wilkins. The others have either responded to the iconic status of Rosalind Franklin (one making a Michael Moore-like journey involving coal, Chicago and dubious diamond making), or have chosen to comment on the social history of DNA. Such is the nature of passionate debate that the views expressed by the artists are their own. But all, in their own way, encourage us to think anew about a seminal scientific discovery and the people who made it.

Who would’ve thought science was about passion? About polemics, precision, problems but passion? Surely not. Artists supply passion whether through their own lives or via their visual, literary or digital media. Scientists provide the perfunctory – they reveal the truths inherent in nature. Or so we thought. For sheer drama, intrigue, accusations, conspiracy theories, not to mention a discovery that has dramatically altered the landscape of life, we have the four principals involved in the discovery of the structure of DNA: Francis Crick, James Watson, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins.

The discovery of the DNA double helix has entered folklore. In Cambridge, brash American James Watson and brilliant Englishman Francis Crick were single-minded in their quest to understand the structure of DNA and the clues it might provide to life’s most fundamental processes. In London, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were carrying out experimental studies on DNA, using X-ray diffraction techniques to gather insight into its three-dimensional shape. In what turned out to be the crucial episode, Wilkins showed Franklin’s X-ray results to Watson. Immediately, Watson realized the significance of the results, dashed back to Cambridge and, with Crick, built the model that revealed to human eyes the structure of the molecule of life – the double helix.

Franklin never knew Watson had been privy to her results. Watson and Crick were reticent, to say the least, to acknowledge her contributions. Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize; by then Franklin was dead – ironically, of cancer probably caused by exposure to X-rays.

Endless debate and argument about the case, ignited by Jim Watson’s pungent and racy book ‘The Double Helix’, continues. Should Wilkins have shared Franklin’s results? How important were they to Watson and Crick? Did they deliberately exclude Franklin from sharing the credit?

Science as the domain of the Einstein-haired white-coated boffin? No, science as four driven, brilliant individuals, three of whom won the Nobel Prize, and the fourth who died before she could be considered for the honour, but who has posthumously attained a Sylvia Plath-like cult status, with a movie biopic to boot. Serendipity, creative thinking, and the drama that’s been added by 50 years of post-discovery mythologizing. Now that’s passion.

Denna Jones
Curator, TwoTen Gallery and Contemporary Initiatives