Recommended viewing: Photograph 51 at Central Square Theatre.
It’s a quick 90-minute (pee first, no intermission) play by Anna Ziegler that tracks the period in 1951-53 leading up to the publication of Watson & Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA. I feel like most people by now were at least taught the basics of the story – a number of labs were working out the structure of DNA, but Watson and Crick got there first and shared the Nobel prize with Maurice Wilkins. This prize completely left out Rosalind Franklin, who did most of the x-ray crystallography that eventually proved out the model.
image from centralsquaretheatre.org
It’s a clear injustice, amplified by the fact that Dr. Franklin died of ovarian cancer shortly after Watson and Crick’s paper was published. Despite this, Rosalind Franklin is far from a sympathetic character. She’s actually fairly horrible. The male characters repeatedly insist that they’ve been nothing but “nice” and have done all the appropriate things that “women always like” but she remains hostile and defensive.
Of course it’s clear that acting like a woman isn’t an option – the men have no real regard or respect for any other women in the play, all of whom exist only referentially in vague off-stage locations.
But she can’t be one of those boys either. Watson and Crick are portrayed in a raucous bromance starkly contrasted to Dr. Franklin’s scientific tunnel vision. They share similar backgrounds, similar work styles and have a similar sense of humor. It’s clear that nothing in Dr. Franklin’s upbringing would have prepared her to be a woman in the boy’s club. She’s left in an isolated lab of her own making.
At one point Jim Watson does approach Rosalind to suggest that maybe they’d find the answer sooner working together. But by that point Dr. Franklin has already hermetically sealed off her science.
Photograph 51 was about more than gender, I think, and as we become more gender- and color- and nationality-blind as a society (hopefully) we still have to remind ourselves – maybe even more strongly – that it’s important to actively seek out people with different life experiences, different backgrounds and different points of view. Dr. Franklin was ostracized because she made the men feel uncomfortable and awkward in their own world.
It’s easy (and fun!) to find a tribe and then sit around self-congratulating each other all day. While historically interesting, (and mad props to all the ladies who paved the way in science and business) I left Photograph 51 with a more modern reminder to strive for uncomfortable and awkward situations as often as possible. If it feels easy, I’m probably doing it wrong.