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A 'Beautiful Vision' In Science Forgotten

Sun, January 13, 2013 10:07pm

Story by NPR Staff




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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.

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