Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Crystallography's fourth woman?

Here is a book review just published in Nature, with some bits reinserted that got lost in the edit.


I Died For Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science by Marjorie Senechal
Oxford University Press
3 Dec 2012 (UK Jan 2013)
304 pages

X-ray crystallography and the study of biomolecular structure was one of the first fields of modern science in which women scientists came to the fore. Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin and Kathleen Lonsdale are the best known of the women who made major contributions in the face of casual discrimination and condescension. In I Died for Beauty Marjorie Senechal suggests that there was nearly a fourth: Dorothy Wrinch, a name that few now recognize and that is often derided by those who do.

The late protein chemist Charles Tanford, for instance, has poured scorn on Wrinch’s best-known work, the ‘cyclol theory’ of protein structure, proposed in the 1930s. It was, he said, “not really worth more than a footnote, a theory built on nothing, no training, no relevant skills”, which gained visibility only thanks to the “sheer bravura (chutzpah) of the author”. Of Wrinch herself, he proclaimed “she was arrogant and felt persecuted when criticized, but in retrospect her miseries seem self-inflicted.”

In an attempt to rebalance such attacks, Senechal, a former assistant of Wrinch’s at Smith College in Massachusetts and now coeditor of The Mathemetical Intelligencer, has written no hagiography, but rather, a sympathetic apologia. Whatever one feels about Wrinch and her research, she is a fascinating subject. Her circle of friends, colleagues and correspondents reads like a who’s who of early twentieth-century science and philosophy. Wrinch, a Cambridge-trained mathematician, was a student of Bertrand Russell, was championed by D’Arcy Thompson and Irving Langmuir, worked alongside Robert Robinson and knew Niels Bohr, G. H. Hardy, Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann. Several of them considered her brilliant, although one wonders how much this reflected her ambition and force of personality than actual achievements. Nonetheless, calling for mathematicians to interest themselves in biology, Thompson says in 1931 that “I do not know of anyone so well qualified as Dr Wrinch.” The polymathic mathematician and geophysicist Harold Jeffreys developed some of his ideas on statistical reasoning in collaboration with Wrinch at Cambridge, and wrote in Nature in 1976 of “the substantial contribution she made to this [early] work, which is the basis of all my later work on scientific inference.”

Senechal’s central question is: what went wrong? Why did so apparently promising a figure, a member of the pioneering Theoretical Biology club that included Joseph Needham, J.D.Bernal and Conrad Waddington, end up relegated to obscurity?

The too-easy answer is: Linus Pauling. When Pauling, in a 1939 paper, comprehensively destroyed Wrinch’s cyclol theory – which argued that globular proteins are polyhedral shells, in which amino acids link into a lattice of hexagonal rings – he finished her career too. Senechal clearly feels Pauling was bullying and vindictive, although her attempt at revenge via Pauling’s cavalier dismissal of Dan Schechtman’s quasicrystals doesn’t make him any less right about proteins.

But a more complex reason for Wrinch’s downfall emerges as the story unfolds. Part of her undoing was her magpie mind. Seemingly unable to decide how to use her substantial abilities, Wrinch never really made important contributions to one area before flitting to another — from Bayesian statistics to seismology, topology to mitosis. Warren Weaver, the astute director for natural sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation that funded Wrinch for some years, offered an apt portrait: “W. is a queer fish, with a kaleidoscopic pattern of ideas, ever shifting and somewhat dizzying. She works, to a considerable extent, in the older English way, with heavy dependence on ‘models’ and intuitive ideas.”

Senechal presents a selection of opinions the Foundation collected on her while assessing her funding application, many deeply unflattering: she is a fool, she is mad or ‘preachy’, she dismisses facts that don’t fit and poaches others’ ideas. Frustratingly, we’re left to decide for ourselves told how much of this is justified, but even Senechal admits that a little of Wrinch went a long way. Her wearisome habits were noted by science historian George Sarton’s daughter in an account of a London tea in 1937: “Dorothy Wrinch was there in one of her strange, simpering showing off moods, talking about herself constantly.” The evidence for a problematic personality gradually piles up.

She certainly had a talent for making enemies. “Everyone in England in on or near the protein field is more than antagonistic to her,” said one of the Rockefeller interviewees. Bernal was incensed when Wrinch tried to argue that the diffraction data obtained by his student Hodgkin supported her cyclol theory – an assertion that was sloppy at best, and perhaps dishonest. In retaliation Wrinch called Bernal “jealous, brutal and treacherous”. (Hodgkin, true to form, was charitably forgiving.)

Underlying all of this is the position of Wrinch as a female scientist. Like many educated women of the 1930s, she felt motherhood as a burden and barrier that only extreme measures could relieve. Her eugenic inclinations and call, in her pseudonymous The Retreat from Parenthood (1930), for a state-run Child Rearing Services that farmed out children to professional carers reinforce the fact that Aldous Huxley was only writing what he heard. Alarming though her behaviouralist approach to parenting might now sound (Senechal rather sidesteps Wrinch’s relationship with her daughter Pamela, who died tragically in a house fire aged 48), it is shameful that the professional structures of science have hardly made it any easier for mothers some 80 years on.

Her central problem, it seems, was that, working at a time when most male scientists assumed that women thought differently from them, Wrinch seemed to conform to their stereotype: headstrong, stubborn, strident, reliant on intuition rather than facts. It is clear in retrospect that those complaints could also be made of Wrinch’s arch-enemy Pauling: Senechal rightly observes that “Dorothy and Linus were more alike than either of them ever admitted.” She sees injustice in the way Pauling’s blunders, such as denying quasicrystals, were forgiven while Wrinch’s were not.

Was there a hint of sexism here? In this case I doubt it – Pauling of course, unlike Wrinch, hit more than enough bullseyes to compensate. But Senechal’s imagined scene of braying men and their snickering wives poring over Pauling’s devastating paper has a depressing ring of truth.

Primarily a mathematician herself, Senechal doesn’t always help the reader understand what Wrinch was trying to do. Her interest in “the arrangement of genes on the chromosome” sounds tantalizingly modern, but it’s impossible to figure out what Wrinch understood by that. Neither could one easily infer, from Senechal’s criticisms of Pauling’s attack, that the cyclol theory was way off beam even then. Tanford has pointed out that it predicted protein structures that were “sterically impossible” – the atoms just wouldn’t fit (although cyclol rings have now been found in some natural products). Fundamentally, Wrinch was in love with symmetry – to which the title, from an Emily Dickinson poem, alludes. It was this that drew her to crystallography, and her 1946 book Fourier Transforms and Structure Factors is still esteemed by some crystallographers today. But such Platonic devotion to symmetrical order can become a false refuge from the messiness of life, both in the biochemical and the personal sense.

Senechal’s prose is mannered, but pleasantly so — a welcome alternative to chronological plod. Only occasionally does this grate. Presenting the battle with Pauling in the form of an operatic synopsis is fun, but muddies truth and invention. The account of Wrinch’s first husband John Nicholson’s breakdown in 1930 is coy to the point of opacity.

It’s tremendous that Senechal has excavated this story. She offers a gripping portrait of an era and of a scientist whose flaws and complications acquire a tragic glamour. It’s a cautionary tale for which we must supply the moral ourselves.

1 comment:

JimmyGiro said...

Science's fifth column?