Quick review: Life Story: The Race for the Double Helix

For my first post on this (mostly) science blog I’d like to combine two of my favorite things; science and film. I have an excellent science movie to recommend, and a drinking game to go along with it. Then I will drone on a bit about my personal views on science. Hooray for blogging!

This is Jeff Goldblum, who hardly ever plays scientists
This is Jeff Goldblum, who hardly ever plays scientists

Life Story: The Search for the Double Helix is part of a long-running series on the BBC called Horizons; this installment recounts the story of the first accurate description of the structure of DNA. I was introduced to this film in grad school as part of a course on large biomolecular assemblies, and it turns out it’s frustratingly hard to find a copy.  Daily Motion appears to have a couple of copies here, which are about as good as you can expect VHS rips to be.  The dub is awful, but if you like a) science; b) history; and c) Jeff Goldblum; by all means treat yourself. I still have my notes, and managed to extract a shaky drinking game from it that I have yet to try, see below if you want to make a night of it.

Life Story follows James Watson (Jeff Goldblum), Francis Crick (Tim Pigott-Smith), Rosalind Franklin (Juliet Stevenson), and Maurice Wilkins (Alan Howard) as they navigate the unsteady balance between collaboration and competition in pursuit of one of the biggest biological questions of our time. Watson and Crick are well known for their description of the structure of DNA, and, together with Maurice Wilkins, they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their work in 1962. A notable omission from the award nominations was Rosalind Franklin, whose crystallography work, particularly the questionably shared “photo 51,”  provided the basis for the discovery. However, Franklin died in 1958, making her ineligible for nomination (it should be noted that nomination records show that she was never nominated for her work on DNA, even prior to her death). This omission has long stood as emblematic of unfair treatment of women in science. Life Story provides a sympathetic portrayal of the professional challenges posed to Franklin by her male colleagues, showing the sexism of science by incorporating it into the fabric of the narrative.  It becomes clear in early scenes with Franklin that she was transposed from a group in which she was treated as an equal to a well-established ‘boy’s club’.  The filmmakers work this in beautifully by contrasting a breakfast with her French colleagues with a meeting among her English colleagues at a pub, to which she was definitely not invited.  Ew, women in the pub?  Next they’ll be in the faculty lounges!

Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin

However, what really struck me about this film was its portrayal of the atmosphere of competition in science; it’s the background against which all of the characters are working. Watson and Crick panic whenever Linus Pauling is mentioned; Pauling was the only other scientist who seemed to have an edge comparable to their own.  There was a real possibility that he would crack the code before they did.  Watson and Crick are incensed by the idea that someone might produce the answer before them, and are driven by the competitive need to be first to solve the structure of DNA. Watson’s desire for fame is stated early in the film, and the boyish ribbing Crick receives from his colleagues for his seemingly terminal graduate student status* provides his impetus for making this discovery. Franklin, on the other hand, seems more concerned with being right; her careful methodology and annoyance with Watson and Crick’s unsupported leaps create the major source of conflict among the characters.  She is in competition too, and her fight to maintain the right to interpret her own work loses out to the pressure that Watson and Crick are able to bring on Wilkins.

In a simple way, this encapsulates science as it plays out today. Funding is hugely competitive, and one method of guaranteeing funding is by creating a name for yourself by making a key discovery in your field. In the best scenario, this drive produces astonishing results and pushes forward human achievement by leaps and bounds. The space race and its accompanying advancements in everything from kitchen appliances to computing is the iconic example of this phenomenon. At its worst, on the other hand, the competitive drive leads to sub-standard practices that range from an inattention to reproducibility to outright fraudulent behavior and personal attacks. The recent high-profile case that exposed falsified research in the stem cell field is an example of what happens when scientists are driven to over-reach in an attempt at fame and glory.   Scientists who work in a more Franklin-ish mode, in contrast, run the risk of running into serious problems finding funding for their work.  Unfortunately, the impact of their results are not immediately apparent, and they may be slower to produce a product (intellectual or tangible) that can be applied in the field.

The films makes it clear, however, that the driving force of competition and the careful dedication to method and reproducibility complement each other in leading to the most impactful discoveries in science . This is best expressed in Franklin’s final speech, in which, in response to a colleague’s criticism of the new competitiveness in research she says: “Doesn’t matter. This…is what matters. Life is the shape it is for a purpose. When you see how things really are all the hurt, and the waste, falls away. What’s left is the beauty.” In the end, it’s not the big egos and the fame that matter; good science will out, and that is to the benefit of everyone.

Toward the end of the film, the camera spends a lot of time spiraling around the completed large-scale model of DNA against a backdrop of gobsmacked scientists while the dramatic strains of Delerue’s Le Grand Choral swell in the background. It could have been corny or overdone, but instead it works.  The structure of DNA was a keystone revelation in science, providing a giant surge forward in our understanding of genetics and cellular biology as well as biochemistry.

You're beautiful, it's true - photo 51, Franklin's code-breaking image of the DNA double helix
You’re beautiful, it’s true – photo 51, Franklin’s code-breaking image of the DNA double helix

Now, the drinking game

One drink (sip, gulp, or slurp): when a wild Jeff Goldblum appears. Please feel free to toast your drinking buddies, but only if you, ummmm, uh. Goldblum the toast.

Drink to Watson reading paper at lecture, because he’s too awesome to really listen.

Phrases to drink to: “Welcome to the land of irony”, “Softly, softly catchee monkey”, “A curious sport, stab stab stab but no penetration”, “Why is it men-only, what do you do here…is it a…toilet, er.” (I should mention that the instructor for the course said that men-only faculty lounges were still common at Cambridge into the 1970s…no wonder poor Tim Hunt has had so much trouble adjusting to his female colleagues – see, I can be topical…ish)

Every time Linus Pauling is mentioned, shout “Paulingggg!” like Kirk at the end of Wrath of Khan and take a drink. Take an extra drink if a Goldblum reaction shot is shown. (There are a few of these; JG really nails his reaction shots. Then he shoots them, runs over them with heavy machinery, and beats them with a stick. Did I mention how much I love Jeff Goldblum?)

Drink when Franklin points out the “obvious” flaw in the first model, because she’s just so damned pleased about it.

Drink whenever Watson is shown striking out with the ladies (Are you a real vicar?).

Every time the B form shows up, imitate a celestial chorus and drink

Finish whatever drink you are on and pour a new one to celebrate the completed model!

Good job boys, now clear up those popsicle sticks before someone loses an eye
Good job boys, now clear up those popsicle sticks before someone loses an eye

*surely this is a ray of hope for every sixth or seventh year PhD student, however slim