A Rant Roundup!

Last week saw Steve King a Member of the US House of Representatives make a really stupid white supremacist statement on television, which the media caught up with and went to town on. I don’t intend to discuss his stupidity here as there are two good blog posts from Sarah Bond on Forbes and Rebecca Onion on Slate that deal with different aspects of it much better than I could. However, I would like to comment briefly on the coverage and comments on the VOX website. Under the title US Rep. Steve King preaches literal white supremacy on national television VOX reported on the incident and included a list of non-white, non-Western achievements, which include the following claim:

Egyptians helped bring paper and ink pens to Western civilizations

Now if you are going to criticise somebody’s undeniable ignorance then it helps if you are not ignorant yourself. The Egyptians gave us papyrus and not paper, as in actually explained in the link provided by VOX to the word paper. Paper as they should have known came to Europe from China via the Islamic Empire in the thirteenth century CE. Now papyrus and paper are both made of plant fibres but their fabrication processes and their physical properties are substantially different, which is why we now write on paper and not papyrus.

 Another major Internet so-called news website that allowed itself a bit of #histsci related stupidity last week was BUZZFEED with an article with the click bait title, 17 Maps That Will Change The Way You Look At The World Forever. This article illustrates the cartographical distortions produced by the Mercator projection the further that you move away from the equator. In itself this is not a bad demonstration of a fact that everybody should be aware of but BUZZFEED rather spoiled its article with the introduction, which reads:

Historically it’s been very hard to represent a 3D planet on a 2D map. The Mercator Projection was created as a way around this

Yes it is very hard to represent a 3D spherical planet on a 2D map and not just historically (a 3D cube planet would not be a problem) and numerous solutions to this problem had been developed long before Mercator came along, three alone from Ptolemaeus in the second century CE. All of them have their advantages and disadvantages. However, and this is a very important point, the Mercator projection was not developed initially to solve this very general cartographical problem. The Mercator projection was originally developed to solve the much more specific problem of how to represent a constant compass bearing as a straight line on a 2D map.

The 1569 Mercator map of the world based on the Mercator projection Source: Wikimedia Commons

The 1569 Mercator map of the world based on the Mercator projection
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For this very specific function the size distortions that the Mercator projection produces are completely irrelevant. The problems come about because this projection, conceived as an aid to marine navigation, is misused for general geographical and political maps of the world. This cannot be repeated oft enough in the extremely tedious debate about the so-called shortcomings of the Mercator projection.

 

Gerald Mercator Source: Wikimedia Commos

Gerald Mercator
Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Yesterday was the ninety-sixth anniversary of the birth of Rosalind Franklin brilliant x-ray crystallographer and physical chemist.

Rosalind Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rosalind Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is certainly a #histSTM anniversary that should be widely acknowledged, as indeed it was, but unfortunately nearly all the people acknowledging it did so by repeating or linking to the same old factually and historically false myths about her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Yes, she did play a very central role in that discovery, but it was her publically available data on the physical measurements of the DNA structure that Francis Crick used to complete his and Watson’s model and not the legendary ‘Photo 51’.

Photo 51, showing x-ray diffraction pattern of DNA Source: Wikimedia Commons

Photo 51, showing x-ray diffraction pattern of DNA
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On Photo 51 itself, this was made by Raymond Gosling and not by Franklin.

Professor Raymond Gosling in 2003 "DNA at King's - the continuing story: 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA" Source Wikimedia Commons: Image seen on Kings College website and permission sought from public relations office. Image not their copyright but that of Professor Gosling himself who in email stated: Re the photo. Feel free to use it. My wife took it so it does not need any acknowledgements! Kind regards, Ray Gosling

Professor Raymond Gosling in 2003 “DNA at King’s – the continuing story: 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA”
Source Wikimedia Commons: Image seen on Kings College website and permission sought from public relations office. Image not their copyright but that of Professor Gosling himself who in email stated: Re the photo. Feel free to use it. My wife took it so it does not need any acknowledgements! Kind regards, Ray Gosling

Gosling had been Franklin’s doctoral student for a time but because she was due to leave the King’s College laboratory he had reverted to Maurice Wilkins as his supervisor when Wilkins showed James Watson the infamous photo. As Gosling’s doctoral supervisor Wilkins was fully entitled to show the photo to Watson, whether his actions were wise or ethically correct when he did so is another question. However it is a myth that Watson’s seeing Photo 51 led to the discovery of the structure of DNA, a myth unfortunately set in the world by Watson himself.

Yes Franklin certainly deserves to be acknowledged as one of those who made substantial contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA. No, Watson and Crick did not steal the discovery of the structure of DNA from Franklin. No, Franklin did not take Photo 51 Gosling did, and no Photo 51 was not crucial to the discovery of the structure of DNA. And finally for those who refuse to pay attention, the Noble prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA was awarded in 1962; Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 and so could not, according to the rules for Noble prizes, be considered for the award.

One final plea, stop referring to Rosalind Franklin as unsung! This might have been true in 1965 or even in 1985 but it is certainly in no way true today.

For the accurate historical details on the discovery of the structure of DNA read Matthew Cobb’s excellent Life’s Greatest Secret.

9781781251416

11 Comments

Filed under Myths of Science

11 responses to “A Rant Roundup!

  1. As far as the papyrus versus paper, I think the key word with this was “helped”. They didn’t claim Egyptians actually invented the paper themselves. One invention is almost always just building upon the foundation of another.

    • Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see how papyrus had anything to do with the invention of paper since the Chinese didn’t use papyrus. The Chinese used to write on bundles of split bamboo, which meant that you needed an ox cart to carry around a longish book. Maybe that’s what inspired the invention of paper!

      • I was taught in history that papyrus was a type of paper and google says the same. So I guess it depends on what you call ‘paper’.

      • On the not insignificant difference between papyrus and paper read the Wikipedia paragraph paper/etymolgy. It is also relevant that papyrus was not used in Europe, where velum and parchment were used instead. Also papyrus disappeared completely, even in Egypt, in the sixth century CE, whereas paper did not enter Europe until the thirteenth century CE. There is no historical connection between the two materials.

  2. Jeb

    ” papyrus was a type of paper”

    A portable substance that can retain ink and can be manufactured in sheets or rolls.

    Works as long as you clearly define what you are talking about.

    Paper- like is perhaps better and it keeps the myth busters from the Ministry of Science and Civilisation happy and feeling included and won’t upset the Minister of Egyptian tourism too much or the Chinese cultural ambassador.

  3. “Last week saw Steve King a Member of the US House of Representatives make a really stupid white supremacist…”

    King’s statement was rather muddled, but to call it “white supremacist” is the sort of stupid thing you are constantly debunking! And the silly person writing at Forbes kept putting “subgroups” in scare quotes, as though KIng were saying they are “sub” white people, when clearly what he meant was “subgroups of humanity” (among which whites are one).

    • With I find funny about Steve King’s remark is not so much the notion that white people are responsible for civilization. That’s just a reflection of routine ignorance What gets me is the vanity involved in the implication that he, Steve King, has something to do with the various white culture heroes as if he magically participated in the mojo of the Ionian Greeks or the Italians of Florence because he is officially caucasian.

      • Given the spread of Greek settlements around the Mediterranean in the first millennium BCE it’s highly debatable just how caucasian many of them were.

  4. Johan

    The forbes article is poorly written. I’m surprised that a careful historian such as yourself would cite it with approval. She wrote that Muslims invented Algebra, and Chinese invented paper (without mentioning the fact that Europe was first to mechanize its production), thinks north African Berbers is essentially the same as Nigerians, by saying “look Emperor of Rome was from Africa!”

  5. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol, #50 | Whewell's Ghost

  6. The content of the posts in this blog remind me why I have a BS in History (as in ‘love the subject’). But I would also like to thank you for this one: “Now if you are going to criticise somebody’s undeniable ignorance then it helps if you are not ignorant yourself.”, it is just perfecct.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s