The Art of Taking Credit

Some of the most challenging blogs I’ve written on Steemit have been about science. Usually I pick a topic with which I have passing familiarity. Then I hit the books (or Google Scholar) and study. This was the case with the blog I’m posting today. I think it turned out rather well. At least I achieved what I set out to do. I hope at least few people read this blog, and enjoy it.

Science advances not as much from the work of individuals as it does from collaboration. Isaac Newton once said, in homage to his antecedents, “If I see further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Democritus2 Hendrick ter Brugghen public.jpg

(Public Domain picture)

Democritus (460-370 BC) is considered to be one of the first ‘atomists’. He postulated the existence of a basic unit of matter, and called it ‘atomos’. Many centuries later, in the nineteenth century, John Dalton, (the “Father of Chemistry”,) proposed a remarkably similar concept of the atom–and he used the word ‘atom’ to describe what he envisioned.

And yet, despite the presumed collegiality between scientists, there have been squabbles–downright feuds–throughout history about sharing information and receiving credit for breakthroughs. These disagreements have stained the records of more than one luminary. What are the rules of scholarship in science? How does one share and not encroach?

Louis Pasteur, and the Hunger for Recognition

Louis Pasteur
pasteur Albert_Edelfelt Louis Pasteur 1885.jpg

Public domain picture

Louis Pasteur’s name is probably one of the most recognizable in science. We’re all familiar with Pasteurization. The rabies and anthrax vaccines–these are both credited to Pasteur. However, there seems to be another, less well-known side to this scientist’s biography.

In 1995 a Princeton University professor, Dr. Gerald I. Geison, published a book in which he described Pasteur as having a less than collegial approach toward scholarship. According to Geison, when Pasteur claimed credit for developing the anthrax vaccine, he was actually appropriating the research of a competitor, Jean-Joseph Toussaint.

Pasteur, Shown with a Rabid Dog and a Vial of Rabies Vaccine
Louis Pasteur Colourlithograph by Amand Wellcome 4.0.jpg

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Used under a CC 4.0 International license

One of Pasteur’s more discrediting rushes toward fame was his use of the rabies vaccine on nine-year-old Joseph Meister. Joseph had been bitten by a rabid dog. The parents begged Pasteur to use the vaccine, as yet untested on humans. Pasteur assured them that the vaccine he was about to use had been tested on many dogs. He lied. His notes reveal that a similar vaccine had been tested but not the one he used on Joseph. Everything worked out fine, but Joseph Meister and his parents were unwitting allies in Pasteur’s ambition to be first.

In The Subjectivity of Scientists and the Beysian Approach, authors James Press and Judith Tenur, explain that Pasteur wanted to be credited with priority in his work. In the science community, priority means being first. It means that the scientist has made an original, unique contribution. Being first means that a scientist will be mentioned in history books, and will win prizes.

Discovering the Structure of DNA

DNA2 double_helix_vertikal Jerome Walker, Dennis Myts.jpg

The issue of priority was at the heart of one of the most consequential scientific advances of the twentieth century: the ‘discovery’ of the double helix, the structure of DNA. History shows that one photo provided the final key to unraveling the secret of DNA’s structure. Who took that photo? Who owned the rights to that picture? How did Watson and Crick–credited with unraveling the secret of DNA’s structure–get their hands on this very consequential photo? Who ultimately deserved credit for being ‘first’?

Before this historic photo was produced, theories about the possible structure of DNA abounded. Several researchers were exquisitely close to solving the puzzle. The image in the photo–characterized ever after as Photo 51–was captured by using highly specialized technology, x-ray crystallography.

A review of the drama surrounding Photo 51 offers some insight into the issues of priority, attribution, and shared knowledge.

Photo 51

X-ray diffraction_pattern_3clpro Jeff Dahl 1,2,2.5 generic 3.0 unported.jpg

Credit Jeff Dahl. CC 3.0 Unported license

This is actually not Photo 51, but the image does show the kind of impression that can be captured through x-ray crystallography. What this picture shows is the x-ray diffraction pattern of a SARS enzyme. I cannot show you the original Photo 51 here because it is copyright protected. However, follow this link and you can view the famous photo.

The story of Photo 51 illustrates the tension that can and does arise between scientists sometimes in the race to achieve priority.

The Drama

The setting for the drama was England, in two research centers: Kings College and Cambridge University. The players: Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, Raymond Gosling, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins.

Cambridge and Kings College are so close to each other, that it’s no surprise some of these researchers had worked together. However, the critical link between Cambridge and Kings College in the instance of Photo 51 turned out to be Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Rosalind Franklin at Kings, and then moved over to Cambridge, where he worked with James Watson and Francis Crick.

Maurice Wilkins, With an X-Ray Diffraction Camera He Developed
Maurice Wilkins work of us govt employe public.jpg

Public Domain photo: US gov’t

As I read through the obituaries of the various personalities in this story, different versions of the events were presented. However, one element was unavoidable, at least in the bios of several: the urge to get credit, to be first, was a prime motivation.

Here’s the broad outline of events: Wilkins was a researcher at Kings College, where he worked at perfecting x-ray diffraction in the hope of unraveling the mystery of DNA. During Wilkins’ tenure, Franklin was taken on to work in the same area of research. Gosling, a PhD student, was assigned to be Franklin’s assistant. Together, Franklin and Gosling, using x-ray crystallography, captured a clear, long–sought image of DNA–the historic Photo 51. This image revealed, indisputably, the double-helix structure. It was actually Gosling who took the picture.

Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology 4.0.jpg

MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology: CC 4.0 International license

This very important photo came into Wilkins’ possession. He recognized its significance. Without telling Franklin or Gosling (this part is undisputed), he brought Photo 51 to Watson and Crick. This gave them the missing piece to the puzzle they had been working on. They published their findings: a description of DNA’s double-helix structure. Neither Watson nor Crick attributed the photo to Franklin. Neither did Wilkins.

Watson, Crick and Wilkins eventually shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. None of them mentioned Franklin, or Gosling. Not until Watson published his memoir, The Double Helix did Rosalind Franklin become known to the public. And that only happened because Watson’s portrayal of her in his book was so mean-spirited that it drew criticism from colleagues, including Crick and Wilkins. As a matter of fact, there were such strong objections to the book that Harvard University Press, which had originally agreed to publish, declined.

After the role of Franklin, and to a lesser extent, Gosling, became known, a London stage play and TV series were created based on the story.

Raymond Gosling, in His Later Years
Raymond_Gosling Davidruben at English Wikipedia 3.0 Unported.jpg

David Ruben, CC 3.0 Unported license

Raymond Gosling went on to have a distinguished career in medicine and was credited with making significant contributions to the field of diagnostic radiology.

While the outline of events surrounding Photo 51 seem clear, the story gets ambiguous in parts. Where does an idea originate? Who has the right to the results of research? Was it Wilkins’ ideas and research that enabled Franklin to take Photo 51? Were earlier photos that he took progenitors of Franklin’s photo? Was Wilkins entitled to Franklin’s photo because he had been working in the same research facility on the same technology (radioactive crystallography) that gave rise to it?

There’s another piece to this drama that adds to puzzlement over Watson’s role.

It turns out that Watson had attended a lecture given by Franklin, at which she described her work and her interpretation of the images she had captured. Later on, Watson said he hadn’t paid attention during the lecture.

James Watson
James D Watson Cold spring harbor unknown date public NIH.jpg

National Institutes of Health Photo: public domain

While he has been the target of much criticism in his life, not only for the Franklin affair but also for charges of racism, he has also been willing to stand on principle. While at Cold Spring Harbor (NY, USA) he resisted the policy of patenting the human genome. He believed that the human genome belonged to the people of the world, and not to nations. He lost his post at the laboratory over this issue.

Science as a Collaborative Discipline and the Issue of Priority

Throughout history, the urge to be first has spurred research. This was true when the Curies were investigating radioactivity. It was a time of great excitement and activity in science. Within the span of a few years, Roentgen, Becquerel and the Curies all investigated and worked on the mystery of radiation. They learned from each other’s work and each strove to be the first to make a breakthrough. Ultimately, the Curies ended up sharing their 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with Becquerel.


In what is considered a classic paper on priority Robert Merton analyzes the sociology of science. Merton states that “Science, with its emphasis on originality, and its assigning of large awards for originality, makes recognition of priority uppermost.” He explains that, unlike in other areas of ownership, once a scientist has shared knowledge, the scientist no longer owns it, so that “property rights get whittled down to just one thing: recognition.” Merton concludes that because a scientist’s only property rights, in the end, are focused on this one reward, recognition, the importance of priority becomes paramount, and even distorted.

Galileo2 Justus Sustermans Galileo Galilei 1636.jpg

Public domain: 1640

A famous argument over priority arose between Galileo and a Jesuit priest, Christoph Scheiner. Each claimed to have been the first to discover sun spots. Some historians believe this dispute added to Galileo’s difficulties with the Catholic Church.

Patents, Copyrights and Open Source

Distinctions Between Science, Commercial Research and Open Source

In an era when living organisms have been patented, it’s a tricky business separating science scholarship from commercial endeavors. An organization, the IEEE tries to do just that. In a paper entitled, “Patents and Scientific Papers: Quite Different Concepts”, the IEEE describes scholarship that leads to copyright and trademark as being motivated by a desire to conceal, whereas pure science scholarship strives to explain everything clearly. Another distinction the organization makes is this: patent and copyright endeavors tend to be “greedy”, while pure science endeavors tend to be “generous”. If we think about the many battles throughout history over priority, we might view these distinctions as not exactly precise.

A less ambiguous distinction might be found between the open source movement, and the other two areas of endeavor. Open source authors seek neither priority nor compensation. Their contributions are often anonymous. For example, all the blogs I write for Steemit, are drafted in an open source program, Open Office. I’ve no idea to whom I owe a debt for this great service. And, when I format pictures, I use GIMP, another open source program. My benefactors, once again, are unknown to me. Open source culture not only allows me to research and function without cost, but it also allows me to share what I discover.

According to, the open source movement began at MIT in the 1970s when a programmer, Richard Stallman, found he did not have access to essential software to fix a malfunctioning printer. The open source culture is motivated by intellectual growth and sharing.


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Please Note: all images are either in the public domain or are CC licensed. The label for each is on the photo itself, and also added underneath. Can’t be too careful 🙂

Obituaries (As of this writing, James Watson is still alive)

Maurice Wilkins

Francis Crick

Raymond Gosling

Rosalind Franklin

Some Other Sources Used in Writing this Blog


Culture vs. Copyright: A Diary of a Naive Philosopher, Book Review

By Anatoly Volynets

This was the mark of the Stationer’s Company,
which had a monopoly on printing rights in England from
1557 to 1710.  The image is in the public domain.

Innovators often have a hard time convincing people to change the way things “have always been done”. History offers startling examples of how tightly people hold onto entrenched views. In the 1950’s, for example, early models of the kidney dialysis machine were considered “abominations” by some doctors at Mt. Sinai Hospital. And in the nineteenth century, Ignaz Semmelweiss was derided by medical colleagues for suggesting doctors should wash their hands before assisting at childbirth. So prepare yourself to resist the notions of Anatoly Volynets when you read his book, Culture vs. Copyright. In the book, Mr. Volynets suggests that artists, and the public, would benefit if copyright laws were eliminated.

Many readers may feel this discussion has little to do with them. They’re probably wrong. Just about anyone who engages in commerce or communication is affected by copyright laws. Posting a picture on Facebook may easily violate those laws, if the picture is lifted from a copyright-protected source on the Internet. Quoting extensively from a book or article also may be a violation. Of course, professional artists–authors, musicians, photographers, for example–are acutely aware of the protection and limitation that copyright law places on their actions. Most of these professionals cannot imagine operating in a system where copyright does not exist. They imagine that absent copyright protection, they will lose income from the product of their unique talents. Mr. Volynets labors to convince them–and us–that the reverse is true.

In service of his argument, Mr. Volynets traces the history of modern copyright laws. He points to a time in France (Jacobin era) and England (before 1710) when these laws did not exist and explains that their application was designed to benefit businesses and governments, not individuals. It is Mr. Volynets contention that this is still the case. He explains in detail how eliminating copyright laws would give artists greater freedom (in his opinion) to market their wares in a competitive environment. He also explains his belief that without copyright laws, competition between business would increase and this would potentially increase profits.

Mr. Volynets puts forth an interesting argument. Whether or not the reader is persuaded is almost beside the point. The aspect of this book that is most important is that it requires readers to examine an accepted custom. It asks readers to throw out established notions about the necessity of copyright laws.

Copyright laws are not written in stone. They are constantly amended. If the public does not understand who is served by the law and by the amendments, then the public cannot meaningfully participate in the discussion about these very important regulations. And if the public doesn’t participate, then the regulations will be written by powerful, vested interests. That, in my opinion, is never a good thing.
Although this book serves a worthy goal and may elicit a response from readers, it is not perfect. A device Mr. Volynets employs, for much of the book, is an imagined dialogue between first graders and a teacher. My patience was tested by these exercises. At one point I simply stopped reading the dialogues and only considered sections that had straight exposition. It is possible I lost some of the book’s significance by taking this route, but I was willing to give that up.

One of my standards for recommending a book of nonfiction is whether or not I came away with insight or information I did not have prior to reading. That is the case here. In addition to discussing the development of intellectual rights legislation in France and England, the book also addresses the origin of this class of regulation in the United States. Volynets explains that the framers of the United States Constitution looked to Europe for a model when they provided (in Article I, Section 8) for protection of intellectual property rights.

Mr. Volynets’ writing style is clear and not overly pedantic, considering the subject under consideration. I do recommend Anatoly Volynets’ Culture vs. Copyright.

A. G. Moore  3/2017

Approaching the Common Core from an Uncommon Perspective

TheNationsReportCard small letters

By A. G. Moore

A Fractious Public Rejects the Common Core
The Common Core has become a lightning rod in communities across the U.S. New York Newsday, for example, recently ran an article describing a “Tsunami of test refusals” that targeted the Common Core. Despite such popular protests, a strong belief in the need for education reform continues to drive government commitment to the Common Core curriculum. Into the fray this past week came a contrary voice that supported neither Common Core nor its opponents.

Euardo Porter, writing for the New York Times, suggested that educational reform may not be the way to raise lagging U.S. student achievement scores. Rather, Porter suggested, improvements may come only if a broad range of social issues is addressed. Porter cited the results of a study by the EPI (Economic Policy Institute) which indicates that instead of comparing national achievement levels, student performance should be broken down into social classes. The data from these subsets yields an interesting result.

Seal of the Village_of_Scarsale 2

A Sounder Basis for Comparison
When students from different countries but similar economic backgrounds are compared, U. S. student achievement doesn’t look bad. It turns out that students with similar advantages (or disadvantages) demonstrate education achievement at similar levels. Economic and social class, more than nationality, correlate to academic achievement.

Though this news may be welcome by educators who have had the scolding finger of reformers pointed at them, it may not be so welcome by many others. If the EPI study is correct, it means that in order to improve academic achievement nationally, we need to address economic inequality in the U.S.

While some people will balk at this suggestion, there are aspects of the argument that are undeniable:
1) Overall academic achievement of U.S. students lags in international comparisons; 2) A dramatic academic deficit is not in the nation’s interest; 3) In order to be a global leader in the future, the U.S. will have to produce citizens who can compete with peers internationally.

redone Students_who_scored_600_or_more_on_the_math_SAT
The National Science Foundation; public domain

U.S. Education, By the Numbers
Evidence of the U.S. academic deficit can be found in a number of surveys. A 2012 report from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), for example, showed U.S. students ranking 36th in a group of 65 participating countries. In another survey of academic achievement, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (the ‘Nation’s Report Card’), there were signs that recent educational reform had not significantly changed student performance. As a matter of fact, students in some grades actually scored more poorly in 2015 than they did in 2013.

Something is obviously wrong with U.S. education. Whatever is at the root of the problem, we don’t seem to be able to fix it. Porter’s article offers interesting insight into the problem. This insight becomes more interesting if two sets of seemingly unrelated data are compared: one is a measure of economic equality and the other a measure of academic performance.

surplus foods 2
Photo: FDR Presidential Library; public domain
The U.S. Surplus Food Program began under
FDR and continues today as the Emergency
Food Assistance Program

The GINI, Where Scoring High Is Not a Good Thing
The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), of which the U.S. is a member state, has developed a way to quantify economic equality/inequality. Called the GINI index, this number gives members an idea of how they fare, relative to other member states, in delivering economic equality to their citizens. A high number means less equality. In 2015 the OECD released its survey. Of 34 members, the U.S. ranked 31. Only Turkey, Mexico and Chile had worse (higher) scores.

Compare the U.S. GINI (economic equality) rating to the U.S. PISA (education) rating: 31 to 34. It may strike some as remarkable that the U.S. ranking in economic equality and the U.S. ranking in education achievement are virtually at the same level.

Going Forward Toward a Solution
Do these numbers prove anything? Perhaps not, but community furor over the Common Core isn’t dying down. Nor is the government’s ambition to increase achievement levels of U.S. students. What if community and government are focused on the wrong issue? What if neither the Common Core, nor any other curriculum change will substantially improve the global standing of U.S students? The question deserves a full and honest appraisal.