"…that is how science is done”
Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova has featured a fascinating piece of correspondence between physicist/man-about-town Richard Feynman and James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s double-helix structure and frequent mysoginist/racist/_____-ist. Watson had sent Feynman a copy of what was to become The Double Helix, Jim’s biographical account of the transformative discovery, seeking feedback. I suggest heading over to BP check Feynman’s advice out in full. My favorite part:
“Is the sudden transformation of all the relevant scientific characters from petty people to great and selfless men because they see together a beautiful corner of nature unveiled and forget themselves in the presence of the wonder? Or is it because our writer suddenly sees all his characters in a new and generous light because he has achieved success and confidence in his work, and himself?”
Basically he told Watson, “Haters gonna hate, bruh.”
It was clear that The Double Helix would be immediately controversial, not only because it represented one man’s subjective account of one of science’s most important discoveries, but because, well, James Watson kind of comes off as a dick for most of the book. I only need mention two words: “Rosalind Franklin”
Feynman advised Watson to push on through the criticism that was most certainly coming his way after The Double Helix, because beyond the entertaining tale of “brash young scientist steps on every toe in sight in order to achieve success" the book grappled with a key question of human discovery: Did looking the beauty of nature square in the eye transform these selfish men into selfless beings, or was that merely the revisionist account of a defensive scientist using a landmark accomplishment as a shield for his darker side? I’ll let you consider that question.
For that matter, which Richard Feynman wrote this letter? The poetic physicist and affable explainer? Or the flirty fella who often worked out of a topless bar near Caltech and sketched nudes on his equations? When you love a person in your own life, you love them warts and all. That becomes a bit more challenging when it comes to history, eh?
The neat and tidy historical characters we create rarely line up with the jagged edges of the real person. Mike Rugnetta tackled this issue recently on PBS Idea Channel: “Are There TWO Nikola Teslas?” Which one do we remember? Can you hold version of a man in esteem while hating the other? Who gets to decide?
Maybe I’ll be a more interesting version of myself one day. Whichever one you’ll like better.