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A 'Beautiful Vision' In Science Forgotten

Jan 13, 2013
Originally published on January 14, 2013 1:48 pm

Emily Dickinson's poem that begins with the line "I died for beauty" inspires the title of a new biography of Dorothy Wrinch, the path-breaking mathematician who faced the kind of tumult that scientific inquiry can inspire.

Few people outside the sciences have heard of Wrinch. In 1929, she became the first woman to receive a doctorate of science from Oxford University. But that only begins her largely unknown story.

Smith College professor Marjorie Senechal joined Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, to talk about her new book, I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science.


Interview Highlights

On the remarkability of Dorothy Wrinch

"Well, her determination was certainly one thing. ... She was determined to be a mathematician. She worked her head off. Everyone considered her the biggest workaholic they had ever known, but at the same time she was vivacious and gregarious. She had a knack for making friends. Her best friend, Dora Black, said that she was, in fact, the most driven person who had the clearest sense of what she wanted to do of anybody."

On bonding with Wrinch over The Grammar of Ornament

"This book is a book that was published in 1865. It's so heavy that you can hardly lift it up. It's 100 beautiful plates of ornaments, like wall paper, and rugs, and tiles on walls, and ceilings from all over the world and all different eras, and this had been complied in the 1860s by Owen Jones. ... These particular beautiful ornaments are analogous to the way atoms were arranged in crystals, and that's why we were fascinated."

On Wrinch's novel idea

"They had just discovered, they being the protein chemists, chemists in general, had just discovered that proteins were molecules. This is so taken for granted today that it is hard to imagine a time when they didn't understand that. When it became clear that they were molecules, meaning that there was a definite structure, that the atoms were in particular places ... then the question is, well, where are those places? And the one theory that had been proposed before was that it makes a long chain. ... She said, 'No, that that's not the way it is.' So, she proposed instead that the chains form rings, and the rings join together, and she came up with a model that looked like lace. It was absolutely beautiful, and then she would have the lace fold up, so as if you are making an origami cage."

On Linus Pauling's vicious attack on her theory

He thought it was perfectly fine to be that way. ... She had a beautiful vision that had excited many, many people — many, many scientists, many of them Nobel Prize winners — thinking that there must be something to what she was saying in her model because it explained things so well, so many of the properties that they wanted to have explanations for. ... Linus Pauling thought she was wrong because she didn't have the chemistry right. She was assuming there was a bond that he didn't think existed, even though it did, and so he just decided to do her in, it was literally that, and to march into this fray and to get rid of her by laughing her out of the profession. ... It just destroyed [her career].

On the theme 'I Died for Beauty'

It suggests to me the struggle that she had with Linus Pauling. ... Let me read the second stanza [of the poem 'I Died for Beauty' by Emily Dickinson] ... which is the one that touched me the most and made me realize this had to be the title ... 'He questioned softly why I failed, "For beauty," I replied. "And I for truth, — the two are one; We brethren are," he said.' And this is what I think the whole story is about on the intellectual level, is to look for simple answers to complex questions and we do this all the time. We try to wade through the data, wade through the complexity, and see what is really going on here, but sometimes we don't find that. This is an ongoing sort of dialogue between truth and beauty that I think is continuing in science, and in everything else today.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. The poem by Emily Dickenson - I died for beauty, but was scarce adjusted in the tomb, when one who died for truth was lain in an adjoining room - inspires the title of a new biography of Dorothy Wrinch, a path-breaking mathematician who faced in her life the kind of tumult that scientific inquiry sometimes inspires.

Few people outside the sciences have heard of Dorothy Wrinch. In 1929, she became the first woman ever to receive a doctorate of science from Oxford University. That only begins her largely unknown story. Smith College professor Marjorie Senechal's new book is called "I Died For Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science." Senechal begins by telling us about their relationship.

She was old enough to be my grandmother. But I met her because I had trained as a mathematician. But I became very interested in crystals, and I didn't know anybody who knew anything about that. And by a long route, I found her because she had gone the same path.

MARJORIE SENECHAL: And she had taught at Smith for many years now. She was retired, and she still had her office. She worked every day, all day, and someone told me I should go see her. And so I did. I knocked on her door, and it changed my life.

LYDEN: You know, I just have to say the two of you bond over the most wonderful book, which I'm so pleased to know about, called "The Ornament of Grammar" by Owen Jones. This is actually going to lead you to studying stylography. Tell us about how the two of you were fascinated by that book.

SENECHAL: This book is a book that was published in 1865. It's so heavy that you can hardly lift it up. It's 100 beautiful plates of ornaments, like wallpaper and rugs and tiles on walls and ceilings from all over the world and all different eras. And this had been complied in the 1860s by Owen Jones, and the only way to really reach the true sense of ornament was to go to the rest of the world and see how they did things there.

LYDEN: And she's using it to draw her models, and that's also what's drawing you in.

SENECHAL: These particular beautiful ornaments are analogous to the way that atoms are arranged in crystals. And that's why we were fascinated.

LYDEN: So Dorothy Wrinch - to set back a bit - she's born in 1894 in South America, but she grows up in a nearly rural suburb of London. She goes to a wonderful school for girls, a special school, and she becomes one of Girton College's first pupils when Girton is still a brand-new school. It will later become part of Cambridge University. What is she like, this young woman? Why is she remarkable?

SENECHAL: Well, her determination was certainly one thing. I mean, she was determined to be a mathematician. She worked her head off. She was known - everyone consider her the biggest workaholic they ever had known. But at the same time, she was very vivacious and gregarious. She had a knack for making friends. Her best friend, Dora Black, said that she was, in fact, the most driven and - person who had the clearest sense of what she wanted to do of anybody.

LYDEN: She develops a theory of the way proteins are formed, the architecture of proteins. Could you tell us about that?

SENECHAL: They had just discovered - they being the protein chemists - the chemists in general had just discovered that proteins were molecules. And this is so taken for granted today that it's hard to imagine a time when they didn't understand that.

When it became clear that they were molecules, meaning that there was a definite structure, that the atoms were in particular places, their role in our lives keeping us alive had to do with where those places were. Then the question is, well, where are those places? And the one theory that had been proposed before was that it makes a long chain.

That's still what people believe. But she said, no, that that's not the way it is. So she proposed, instead, that the chains form rings, and the rings join together, and she came up with a model that looked like lace. It was absolutely beautiful. And then she would have the lace fold up so as if you're making an origami cage.

LYDEN: You have many pictures of that in the book, and you describe her as going to the grocery store to buy tapioca balls and then dyeing them and sticking them together. And she told you what store you could go to in Cambridge to do this.

SENECHAL: It was very funny because she dyed them with food dye - I still have all that stuff - and then use Elmer's glue to stick them together with a piece of toothpick for the applicators. It was very funny. But I - they work. I mean, you can make beautiful models that way.

LYDEN: All this beauty - there's so many ways that you play on that concept of beauty as truth or beauty as a science. The subtitle of this book is "The Culture of Science." And in the '30s and '40s, this is such a male-dominated culture within our male-dominated culture.

SENECHAL: Yes.

LYDEN: I love your sentence. You take her to Cold Spring Harbor, a very important scientific conference in 1940, and you say: What is she doing here? What is she doing here? What is she doing here?

SENECHAL: And then later, I have: What is she doing here? And every single way that you could read it is what people were saying about her.

LYDEN: And then, not long thereafter, science being a world that is now supported by grants, torn by rivalries, she's attacked by another scientist, Linus Pauling. Now, we know now that Linus Pauling will go on to win two Nobel Prizes, but he is utterly vicious to her.

SENECHAL: And he thought it was perfectly fine to be that way, because here she was, she was a mathematician. She didn't know what she was doing. It's true she didn't know very much chemistry, and he can always nail her on the details, but she had a beautiful vision that had excited many, many people - many, many scientists - many of them Nobel Prize winners - thinking that she had - there must be something to what she's saying because - in her model because it explained things so well, so many of the properties that they had wanted to have explanations for.

And Linus Pauling thought she's wrong because she doesn't have the chemistry right. She was assuming there was a bond that he didn't think existed, although it did, and so he just decided to do her in - it was literally that - and to march into this fray and get rid of her by laughing her out of the profession.

LYDEN: What impact does it have on her career?

SENECHAL: It destroyed it. It just destroyed it. She pulled herself together and began working on X-ray diffraction theory.

LYDEN: She becomes an academic. And I think you could say it's certainly not a bad thing to wind up teaching at Smith College, but that was not the life that she'd envisioned.

SENECHAL: It's just that she was so marginalized. And she never gave up. She kept on working to the very end.

LYDEN: Did Dorothy Wrinch think she was a failure at the end?

SENECHAL: There's some very touching notes that she left. She said: It's really OK not to be protein's Newton. There are other things. You can make other contributions. And she's writing these notes to herself. So I think she had hoped to be somehow the one who really, really brought Newton's kind of light to the whole subject of biology, and she didn't, and then she's trying to console herself that she'd done some things.

But I wanted to write about her because it - she'd always stayed with me. After she died, I thought about her a lot.

LYDEN: What does the theme "I Died for Beauty" suggest to you?

SENECHAL: It suggests to me the struggle that she had with Linus Pauling. You read at the beginning the first stanza of the poem. And let me read the second one, which is the one that I think that touched me the most and made me realize this had to be the title.

I was scarce adjusted in the tomb when one who died for truth was lain in an adjoining room. And then the next stanza: He questioned softly why I failed. For beauty, I replied. And I for truth, the two are one, we brethren are, he said.

And this is what I think the whole story is about on the intellectual level, is the struggle to look for simple answers to complex questions. And we do this all the time. We try to wade through the data, wade through the complexity and see what is really going on here. But sometimes we don't find that. This is an ongoing sort of dialogue between truth and beauty that I think is continuing in science everywhere else today.

LYDEN: Marjorie Senechal. Her new book is called "I Died For Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science." Thank you, Marjorie.

SENECHAL: Oh, thank you so much, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.