ACTRESS Nicole Kidman is superb as Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51, which played at the Noel Coward theatre in the West End. For me, Kidman has always exuded a very complex and particular feminine dignity (her performance, for example, in Stanley Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut is devastating in exactly these respects).
And it is this that brings Franklin’s character to life – with all her pride and yearning, her love of beauty, her high standards of human interaction, and her great passion for science.
Who was Rosalind Franklin, anyway? I’m ashamed to say that, until recently, I did not know much about her beyond that she had been involved in some mysterious way in deciphering the structure of DNA.
When I received The Rosalind Franklin Award from The Royal Society, it came with a certain sum of money to be spent on promoting women in science.
And so I teamed up with the artist and writer, Ted Dewan, to produce a website (http://www.shooting- stars-women-scientists. com) to acquaint children with the extraordinary lives of women like Franklin who found ways to pursue their ideals in a time when the words “woman” and “scientist” were not seen to have any valid intersection.
It was no easy task to condense her story into a few pages: her childhood in London, student years in Cambridge, a magical postdoctoral experience in Paris, and then back in London again to work at King’s College, which is where Photograph 51 is set, and where she played such a vital role in unraveling the structure of DNA.
To my mind, there are two important things that the play has got right. The first has to do with the quality of Franklin’s life, which was varied and rich.
This is conveyed very effectively in simple brushstrokes – her mention in a farewell speech of how much she will miss French food, an awkward conversation with Maurice Wilkins about Shakespeare, her occasional ecstasies about hill-walking.
The second has to do with her attitude to science, which is a difficult subject to approach within a play, particularly one as slight as this. Rosalind believed in arriving at a scientific truth by slowly and meticulously accumulating all the measurable facts; she felt that to build a model for DNA (as her rivals, Watson and Crick, in Cambridge were doing), based only on what was known already, to be premature.
The history of the discovery of the structure of DNA is as much a clash between these two different “philosophies” of science as a simple race for the right answer.
Making models is what I also do for a living, although they are of infectious diseases, rather than the molecules of life. My particular interest is in the evolution of organisms which cause diseases like influenza and malaria.
I take great pleasure in piecing together very different kinds of data, ranging from the clinical features of a disease to its geographical distribution, into a coherent framework that explains how these infectious disease agents have become so successful in exploiting us.
I do not know whether Franklin would have approved of this activity, although I’d like to think that she would appreciate how careful I am to restrict the ingredients of my models to known facts or entirely defensible assumptions.
I feel sure, however, that she would approve of my courage to stand by those of my theories which have challenged the current orthodoxy, even though it comes at a cost.
My ideas about influenza, for example, go against the dogma that it is constantly changing its form – I believe, instead, that this virus is struggling to find ways to hoodwink our immune systems and, if we can find those weak points in its constitution where it has run out of options, we may be able to find useful new ways to vaccinate against flu.
My own struggle in science so far has been one of trying to get people to accept my unorthodox ideas, rather than any obvious barriers imposed by gender or race.
Fortunately, one can rely on time – and experiments – to reveal the truth. Franklin’s story is a testament to that. It is refreshing the issues of gender discrimination that thread through the play seem to be there to support the much stronger central theme that there is something extraordinary about the indomitable human spirit, and Kidman brings this across with astonishing economy.
At times, one is reminded of Antigone, in whom arrogance and humility had the same fatal blend. Unfortunately, Photograph 51 does not fulfill its potential in its final moments, when the suggestion is made that redemption might have been found through the pursuit of romance.
This is, in some ways, the opposite of the message conveyed by Tim Hunt this summer concerning the dangers of falling in love while engaged in scientific endeavor.
It is certainly equally as ridiculous to suggest that if Franklin had let down their guard and fallen in love with Maurice Wilkins, or at least enjoyed a fulfilling platonic relationship, that she would somehow have led a better life.
What is so life-affirming about Franklin’s story is that she lived exactly as she wanted so, did exactly the kind of science that suited her, and had a great deal of fun doing it.
She certainly had to struggle against a largely male establishment, many egregious aspects of which (like women not being allowed to lunch in the King’s College Senior Common Room) are now history.
She also had to face resistance on account of having her own opinions and ideas, and not being willing to make compromises, which continues to be a problem in science for men and women alike. Finally, there is Franklin’s relationship with her father, portrayed by Kidman with stern tenderness, that strikes a chord with my own experience of the intellectual and emotional nourishment I received from my father.
Kidman was also close to her father, who was a research scientist, and has talked of her role in this play being a tribute to him. My father (who was a historian and an art critic) was actually quite disdainful of science, and Franklin was also warned by her father of the awful burden carried by science of always having to be right.
But neither of us was told that science was a man’s world in which we did not belong. We were the lucky ones.
Sunetra Gupta is Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University.
She is a winner of the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award for women in science and also a novelist.