February 10, 2016

#54 Apologies to Dr. Rosalind Franklin

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

This week, we fix an embarrassing oversight.



PJ VOGT: Okay, so if you listened all the way through to the end of the credits last week, you know that all of Gimlet is closed this week. Nobody's putting out shows. Instead everybody is working with different people in different roles doing jobs that they don't typically do and we're making a bunch of like secret experimental weirdo shows.

And it's been really fun and one of those things I think is actually going to go out to Gimlet members. So, if you're a member, look for the next like week or two. If you're not a member you can be a member. It's on the website. Also you can get a Reply All t-shirt. It's really nice. I wear them all the time. I don't care what strangers think.

Anyway, if you listen to the credits the other thing you heard is that we were planning on breaking the rules and putting out a short bonus episode. Which we are doing. Please don't tell our bosses. Thank you.

PJ: Alex.


PJ: is there anything that you messed up recently that you would like to apologize for?

ALEX: Oh, this sounds like a very loaded question.

PJ: Do you remember, do you know what I'm talking about right now?

ALEX: No, I have no idea.  

PJ: Couple episodes ago.

ALEX: Oh. . .

PJ: Any important scientist who you neglected to mention. . .

ALEX: Oh, yes, okay, there is something that I deeply deeply screwed up.

PJ: We got a bunch of e-mails and tweets about this. Episode 52, Raisiing the Bar, was about Sillicon Valley’s diversity problem. And we made a mistake in it. And we went to go fix the mistake, we discovered this very surprising story. Okay, so to tell it, I Skyped without of hte people who e-mailed with us telling us that we'd screwed up. She was very nice about it. Her name's Melissa Mark. She lives in Sao Paolo.

PJ on Skype: Were you able to find the e-mail?

MELISSA MARK: Yes. Do you want me to read it back to you?

PJ: Yes, please.

MELISSA: The subject is "Episode 52- minorities help solve problems, but don't get the credit, even in your show."

Sorry that seems a bit harsh now I'm reading it back.

I said:

"I am a new listener to your show, and so far I have enjoyed it very much. I was, however, very irked that in an episode about the importance of diversity in solving complex problems, you failed to mention the female chemist whose work was integral to the discovery of the double helix (you cited "a zoologist and a physicist”). While Rosalind Franklin died before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson and Crick (and Wilkins, who you also failed to mention), it is well established that her work was integral to the discovery. This omission highlights the very real problem that even when you can convince the establishment to allow women and minorities to participate, the credit is not equally shared among team members.

"signed, an underrepresented scientist"

PJ: Can you tell me who Rosalind Franklin was, this person who we accidentally wrote out of our podcast.

MELISSA: So, Rosalind Franklin, I think that's the other reason I sort of noticed it. Rosalind Franklin, in addition to being a woman, was also Jewish. So she was a Jewish woman working at a, you know, Anglican male dominated institution, yeah. So sort of a really good example of an outsider. So she was a chemist. And she specifically, in this context, worked with x-ray crystalography. That's what she was doing at King's College working with Dr. Wilkins.

PJ: So it's almost like, you're taking pictures of molecules.

MELISSA: Yeah, they're, they were called photographs. So they're like x-ray photographs. So basically you bombard these molecules with x-rays and some of them bounce off and stick back to that sort of photographic x-ray paper.

PJ: Got it.

ALEX: Like, it would help you visualize DNA.

PJ: Well, you could actually see it. You could see the molecule and that would help you figure out if it was a double helix or not. It would help you map, like, DNA.

ALEX: That's cool as hell.

PJ: And Watson and Crick, their thing was sort of like, they didn't, they were a little bit fast and loose, like they wanted to be first and they were less worried about being right then Rosalind Franklin was.


PJ: So they asked if she wanted to collaborate with them and she said, "No," because of that. They kinda like got access to her stuff anyway. And they used it to help their case basically. And they were first to publish and they did get all the credit. And the other thing was like, their theory wasn't really proven true for a while and by the time it was and all the Nobel Prize stuff happened she had died. And she died of ovarian cancer very young and one of the things people believe might be true is that she may have gotten cancer because she was being exposed to all these x-rays while she was doing this photography.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: So it really sucks.

ALEX: That does suck.

PJ: So the other thing that I learned about Rosalind Franklin. You remember how in the episode where we screwed this up, you talked to Leslie Miley. He had talked about how being an African American man working in tech, he sort of got labled as like. . .

ALEX: Aggressive.

PJ: Yeah. Melissa told me that a version of that happened to Rosalind Franklin.

MELISSA: She was haughty. She was difficult to work with. She was stubborn. All of these things and these sort of trigger words that you hear in any, and even the original book, The Double Helix, I think, that Watson wrote. She challenged people directly. She made eye contact, which. . .

PJ: That was one of their complaints?

MELISSA: Yeah, they described that she made eye contact and challenged people or something to that extent. God forbid that a woman makes eye contact with you in 1953. You know. . .

PJ: We're modern people, but certain things. . .

MELISSA: It's too much. Too much.

ALEX: That was, that was what made her difficult.

PJ: That was one of the things that made her difficult. Which is so crazy. But she was like this genius who, she got credit, but she didn't get as much credit as she deserved.

ALEX; Including on our show.

PJ: Including on our show.

ALEX: Until now.

PJ: Until now.

Ok, so the other thing, totally separate from Rosalind Franklin, you remember the other segment on that show was a "Yes, Yes, No" where we, to use your phrase, "Dove into the manosphere." And that led to a conversation about how there are parts of the internet that are very misogynist where people are constantly saying that other peoples' wives are cheating on them. Okay, this is going to connect. So, I happened to ask Melissa what she does professionally and she said that she studies birds. But specifically she studies cuckoo birds. You don't know why this is interesting, yet. Do you know anything about cuckoo birds?

ALEX: They make the noise, "coo coo?"

PJ: That's not true, that's cuckoo clocks.

ALEX: I'm pretty sure. . .

PJ: Do you know anything about cuckoo birds. . .


PJ: Ok, so cuckoo birds are, I think we have this idea that they're like goofy birds or something. They're evil as hell. So what cuckoo bird does is it lays its egg in the nest of another kind of bird, like not a cuckoo bird.

MELISSA: So the parent, cuckoo, when the female comes in. She will remove one egg and then in Europe when a chick hatches it pushes the rest of the eggs out of the nest. . .

PJ: Oh my, God.

MELISSA: . . .so it's raised by itself. Yeah, they're kind of evil little dudes.

PJ: So, wait, so if if you're a, if you're a, a bird and you have kids. . .

MELISSA: Uh huh. . .

PJ: And then. . .

MELISSA: Yeah. ..

PJ: A cuckoo sneaks one of their kids sneaks one of their kids into your bird, when the cuckoo hatches it'll immediately murder all of your kids.

MELISSA; Well, when the cuckoo chick hatches, it'll push the eggs out of the nest. That's for some species of cuckoos. So for other species, like the one I study because the nest are like closed like a ball, they can't push the eggs out so what they do instead is that the chick waits for the other chicks of the host to hatch and then it pecks them to death.

PJ: Oh my God.

MELISSA: So, yeah, it murders them. But, the parents don't know. The parents think that that cuckoo chick is their own baby so they're like, "Oh, I got one that's cool. That's all right." And then they feed it for a very long time and the cuckoo gets about two to three times as big as the host. So you see these like tiny little parents feeding food to this giant, greedy cuckoo.

PJ: It's such a horror story.

MELISSA: But but incredibly, like, brilliant at the same time.

ALEX: That's messed up.

PJ: Okay, so this is where it starts to connect. In the "Yes, Yes, No" segment from a couple weeks ago, the insult that people were using was "cuckball." Cuckball is a reference to "cuckolding" which is actually like what is happening with these birds.

MELISSA: Yeah, to lay a egg in the nest of another bird and the bird raises it. So if you're a husband and you've been a cuckold it's because you're raising another man's child.

PJ: So it comes from "cuckoo."

MELISSA: Yeah, it comes from "cuckoo."

ALEX: And we are full circle.

PJ: Full circle.

ALEX: Oh my God.

PJ: Do you find this as exciting as I do?

ALEX: I mean, I hate to get weird. . .well. . .I mean.

It's just, that's just shocking.

PJ: Shocking.

ALEX: It's shocking.

I want to thank everyone who sent us e-mails about this and Melissa Mark for saying something. It was an oversight that I wish that we hadn't made. And. . .

PJ: But we got to learn a bunch of stuff.

ALEX: Sure. But keep sending us e-mails. Correct us.

PJ: Correct us. All right. Cool.