Friday, December 16, 2011

Discussion Questions for The Double Helix

1. In The Gifts of Athena,Moyker discussed the drivers of both "propositional knowledge" and "prescriptive knowledge," including principles of sharing information. What role did Cavendish and Wheatstone play in this? What are disadvantages of scientists working near each other? Does advancement of scientific knowledge require that individuals explore the implications of their data with other knowledgeable individuals (e.g., Franklin situation versus Watson)? Is the double helix the propositional knowledge that leads to BioBricks (see attached Economist article)?

2. Should a good history of science favor objectivity over first-hand insight into the thought process of the scientists?

3. In what sense is the development of the double helix "model" a scientific discovery? Would the development of the DNA sequence have been sufficient?

4. Tom Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,suggests that scientific discovery is a process, a large part of which is the resolution of various anomalies. Discuss importance of Watson's attempt to ignore the Chartoff rule as he tried to fit his "like-to-like" theory (e.g., adenine to adenine) into the structure of DNA prior to his embrace of similarity of shape of "non-like" pairings.

5. Watson and Crick read everything related to DNA research, brainstormed various ideas and models of DNA, attended a multitude of cocktail parties and conferences where DNA was discussed, synthesized the data of others, thought up a solution to the molecular structure of DNA and actually sat down and published the solution. Others, particularly Pauling and Franklin, did a lot of the hypothesizing and data legwork. Who are the real geniuses in this story? Should Rosy have had a piece of the Nobel?

5. What qualities of Watson remind you of:

a. A lunar man

b. Augie March

c. Ulrich?

d. Wittgenstein (similarity of hairstyle too easy)

e. Lincoln

f. Popper

g. Chuck Pierce

6. In what sense is the double helix an "elegant" solution to a scientific problem?

7. Watson notes that Wilkens showed some interest in his sister during their visit to the temples at Paestrum. Vitruvius noted that the Paestrum temples (third century B.C.) had elements of both Etruscan and Greek design. Any similarities to Watson's methodology?

8. Does the DNA model have "significant form" pursuant to Bell's definition? To what extent is Watson's embrace of symmetry important to his solution?

9. Is it fair to say that Watson follows in the tradition of other Cambridge scientist/authors of compelling subject matter trumping dull writing? Discuss the implication of the structure of DNA on Rees' caution concerning biotech in The Final Hour.

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