Saturday, March 07, 2015

Bob Goldstein: The Thrill of Defeat

In Nautilus, he tries very hard, perhaps too hard, to convince us that people whose research gets scooped would always feel bad -- horribly, horribly bad; his article has quite a few sentences like this one: "Months or years of work can become redundant, or worthless." He then goes on to show that the reaction of Francis Crick and Sidney Brenner was totally the opposite of sadness or bitterness. Maybe this is some sort of a narrative ploy to make Crick and Brenner look more noble and almost superhuman (which they probably are!).

The rest of the story is quite good, actually. Along the way, you get some interesting science as well (and some inside dope about how the biochemists and geneticists hated each other).

Anyways, here it is:

Crick would later write that the audience in Moscow had been “electrified” by Nirenberg’s result, changing the word later to “startled.” Crick may have felt both startled and electrified. But disappointment? If Crick felt some disappointment, it wasn’t apparent to Meselson, who characterized Crick’s initial reaction to the news as “joy.” “What else could it be?,” Meselson explained to me by phone, “by god, we’d know the answer in our lifetime!”

Even Meselson, who had his own research program on DNA, had impulsively hugged Nirenberg at the end of his talk. I tried to imagine two men of that era spontaneously hugging in a lecture room at a conference, particularly when one was a geneticist and other a biochemist. Maxine Singer, a biochemist who gave Nirenberg the RNAs he needed for his experiments, told me that the “biochemists and geneticists were suspicious of each other,” something that Brenner echoed to me in person.