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But in every case where a new technology or scientific idea is emerging, there will be many people working on it, and nearly as many claims to have originated it.

Some have argued, for example, that James ­Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA with Francis Crick, never properly acknowledged his inspiration for the idea that that structure was a double helix. Famously, ­Maurice Wilkins of King’s College London showed Watson research that belonged to Rosalind Franklin, a chemist and crystallographer then working at King’s, without her knowledge or permission. According to ­Watson, whose account can be found in this month’s essay (see “Letter to a Young Scientist”), the x-ray photograph of DNA he saw “displayed unequivocally the large cross-shaped diffraction pattern to be expected from a helical molecule.” That information, in part, led to the Nobel Prize that ­Watson shared with Crick and Wilkins in 1962.

In his essay, Watson discharges his debt to Franklin, writing that “we would not have found the DNA structure without knowledge of x-ray results from King’s.” He argues, however, that scientific and technological innovation occurs when competitive researchers and innovators, all avid for success, confront a problem separately. Each failure or advance contributes to the larger project. He’s right, but it is a melancholy fact that while many may help develop a bright idea, our prizes, copyrights, patents, and financial markets recognize just a few.

Watson and Crick would not have discovered the structure of DNA without Franklin. Without ConnectU, Facebook almost certainly would not look as it does. In hindsight, and after rancorous controversy, we have come to better understand the contributions of Franklin and others at King’s. In the case of Facebook, will a lawsuit clarify what is confused? Write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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Credit: Mark Ostow

Tagged: Communications

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