Image: Photo of Rosalind Ellis Franklin. I have been unable to obtain rights information for this photo; if any reader is aware of the owner, I would appreciate that information.

Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience, and experiment. . . . I agree that faith is essential to success in life, but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e., belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining. –Rosalind Franklin in a letter to her father, 1940.

These words were written by one of the discoverers of DNA. I’ve been reading her biography, Rosalind Franklin: Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. It is a well-researched and highly readable account of the tragically short life of a scientist whose work in the 1950’s has changed all our lives.

If you are thinking, “Didn’t Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA?” you are partly correct. However their work would have been impossible without the data and the images produced by Franklin’s methodical experiments. Some scientists today feel that she was unfairly robbed of credit she should have been given at the time. (Read the book or follow the links for more information about Franklin and DNA.)

I was fascinated by this young woman. She was the daughter of one of the most influential Jewish families in Britain, a descendant of King David, no less. She was a brilliant scientist known not only for her work with DNA but also for work on RNA and viruses, and one of the leading experts on the structure of coal in her day – all before her death at 38!

I can see in her words above that she had done some serious thinking about an issue that troubles many of my students, who find most of their childhood notions of God completely blown up by science. If science is true, then religion is … what? Bunk?

This young Jew (she was about 20 when she wrote those words) must have felt the tension between the religious language she learned as a child and scientific truth. I find her statement above impressive.

Since the scientific revolution it became difficult to talk with a straight face using  much of the language that we traditionally used to talk about topics of ultimate meaning. There is no big man in the sky. Life evolved on earth, it did not appear neatly organized over six days. No angels. No heaven in the sky. No hell under the earth. No “book of life,” not really. So why not just throw out all that religion stuff, all the fairy tales?

Rosalind recognized that real religion is the recognition of something greater than one’s self. For her, that Greater One is “the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future.” She knew that she was not the center of the universe, no matter how brilliant she was, no matter how fancy her pedigree. She was not distracted (and in fact, she seems mildly annoyed) that others cling to impossibilities.

If you find her and her ideas interesting, I recommend the book. I felt that every moment of reading it was well-spent.