Understanding ideas at a macroscopic scale is simple. Looking at a clock, observing and understanding the movements of the hands over the numbered surface are, in essence, all one requires to use the device. In order for innovation to occur, it is imperative to understand the inner workings of the device on a microscopic scale to modulate its properties. Such is the case for many innovations in science, from the heat engine to penicillin, and is no different for biological advancements. Like the seed of a plant, the understanding of the structure of DNA constitutes the basis of all life, establishing a foundation upon which explanations of increasing complexity can be developed. In the eyes of Thomas Kuhn, though the discovery of DNA was necessary for the understanding organisms, it was not a revolution due to the cumulative development of biology alongside the discovery of the DNA structure, the lack of conflict between scientists, and the absence of anomalies in the scientific paradigm in the 1950s (Kuhn, 92-94). On the other hand, this discovery was indeed revolutionary in that it formed such an important biological foundation that has allowed civilization to recognize a new microscopic dimension in their surroundings, allowing for tremendous technological advancement, growth and the expansion of knowledge Schrödinger questioned many biological conundrums in his article “What is Life?”, one being why the human body was so large in comparison with the single atom (Schrödinger, 2).
He attempted to use “the naïve physicist’s approach” to the subject by wondering about the mechanisms and behaviours of organisms modeled using a physical mindset (Schrödinger, 2). Though he was successful in explaining many biological phenomena such as meiosis, gene transfer and mutations without great reliance on biological knowledge, he noted in his conclusion how one must be prepared to discover instances where it is impossible to create analogous bridges from one pool of knowledge to the corresponding situation in a completely different pool (Schrödinger, 27). Organisms could reproduce and genes could mutate to bring up unexpected phenotypes, some macroscopically observable phenomena; however, no viable explanation at the time in 1944, not even with physics, could explain the fundamental processes that led to such observable results (Schrödinger, 1). His questioning reflected the desire of many of his contemporaries in search for the foundation upon which knowledge of other biological phenomena could be built. Essentially, the determination of the structure of DNA, and thus its properties, was the key to understanding the very meaning of life (Schrödinger, 2). From Schrödinger’s article, it can be observed that there were holes in their current paradigm to fully explain these biological phenomena, and so their goal was to fill in the gaps.
This clearly violates one of Kuhn’s requirements for a scientific revolution, as the development of explanations to the biological enigmas via the structure of DNA would be considered cumulative science and is thus the complete opposite of Kuhn’s philosophy that science is non-cumulative (Kuhn, 92). Though the historical period is often advertised as a race between Pauling, Watson and Crick, and Wilson and Franklin to discover the structure of DNA, the work to achieve the feat was in fact distributed among them as well as many of their contemporaries. Compelled by the presence of unexplained biological phenomena outlined by Schrödinger, a large group of scientists undertook the major project around the 1950s (Squires, 290). Instigated by the delivery of Signer’s DNA samples to King’s College in 1951, Rosalind Franklin, a superior X-ray crystallographer, had her agenda changed to the study of the specimens (Squires, 290). The event also triggered the interest of Maurice Wilkins, who managed to prove the regular arrangement of atoms in DNA (Squires, 290). This in turn intrigued James Watson and hence Crick.
As the project gained momentum, the number of scientists involved in the discovery of the complex molecule snowballed until there were multiple scientists working on discrete, segmented parts of the problem: chemical formula determination of nucleic acids, X-ray crystallography, complex calculations, and conclusion-making (Squires). Naturally there were disagreements among the scientists, for example, between Franklin and the Watson-Crick duo as to what technique was better for determining the shape of DNA (Squires, 304), as well as Franklin’s discontent in King’s College as a result of the distribution of her work to Watson and Crick without her knowledge (Squires, 302); however, this did not change the fact that the discovery of DNA was a collaborative effort. Unlike in Kuhn’s definition of a scientific revolution, each piece of the solution, from complex math to the uncovering of the mechanics of DNA, was contributed by the different scientist, ultimately creating the understandable mosaic of knowledge of the molecule.
This contrasts with a Kuhnian revolution where distinct scientific parties work towards completely different end goals, with one group pushing forward radically different explanations and another trying to preserve the current explanation, to achieve a new paradigm to explain the current situation. (Kuhn, 93). Since the scientists were all working towards filling in the gaps of knowledge in their biological paradigm, naturally there were no anomalies that arose. It follows there were no crises and thus there was no revolution that got rid of the old practice of science and incepted a new practice. With this final point, we can conclude that the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule is not a revolution by Kuhn’s standards, but is merely an accumulation of scientific knowledge from various parties working towards the same goal of achieving a greater understanding of the biological mechanisms that they have observed. Although it is clear that the discovery of the structure of DNA was not a Kuhnian Revolution, the information is still a crucial part of the foundation of biology and human understanding of their surroundings.
Naturally, humans exist in a dimension where they acknowledge their surroundings with the help of the naked eye. With physics, humans are able to venture to a macroscopic dimension of enormous celestial bodies enveloped in vast, seemingly endless space to interpret the behaviour of their surroundings in addition to what was currently known. The discovery of the structure of DNA enabled humans to venture into a new dimension to further extend their understanding of the world to microscopic elements. Not only does the new dimension allow for the development of scientific explanations for the behaviour of organisms, but it also grants humans the knowledge and power to manipulate their surroundings at a new microscopic dimension, thus allowing them to advance civilization in a completely new frontier. Before the major discovery with DNA, there were merely simple observations and conceptualizations of observable biological phenomena (Schrödinger, 10). After the discovery of DNA, much more detailed explanations building up from the simple concept of its structure were devised to answer these conundrums.
The double helix arrangement of bases allowed for the storage of biological information in the form of a four-letter ATGC code, thus shedding light on how mutations, the faults in the codes, occur. The molecular structure of the molecule, which consists of two antiparallel strands held together by hydrogen bonds between nitrogenous bases suggested the semi-conservative mechanism of duplication during cell division (Squires, 300), which was essential to explaining mitosis and meiosis. Aside from solving biological mysteries, the discovery of the structure of DNA led to the enormously important concept that forms the basis of all organismic functions: the central dogma of biology. It states that DNA is read and transcribed into RNA which is free to move throughout cells and be translated by ribosomes into essential proteins (NCBI). Furthermore, many advanced projects critical to improving the health of civilization, such as curing cancer and finding a more advanced way of predicting human behaviour through the examination of their genetic code, was made possible by the DNA molecule’s structure.
With the series of events leading up to the discovery of the structure of DNA failing to satisfy many of the major requirements for a Kuhnian revolution, Watson and Crick in conjunction with many other scientists appear to be just be making another deposit of knowledge to their paradigm of science. On the other hand, the discovery was revolutionary in that it allowed humans to fully understand the microscopic dimension of their surroundings. This spans from solving previous mysteries like mutations and genes to major biological advances that would benefit the health of civilization immensely, such as curing diseases and manipulating genetic code. Without such a discovery by Watson, Crick and their contemporaries, the world would still be stuck in a state of confusion, where new biological processes continue to be observed, yet remain inexplicable, and thus be unable to make any huge advancement that would greatly benefit society. It would not be possible to build anything meaningful without a sturdy comprehension of how the structure is supposed to work.
Crick, Francis. “The Double Helix: A Personal View.” Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology 248 (1974): 766-69. Print. “DNA: Structure and Function.” Making the Modern World. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013. Kuhn, Thomas. “The Nature and Necessity of Scientific Revolutions.” The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962): 92-111. Print. NCBI. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013. Schrödinger, Erwin. “What Is
Life?” Science Education (1944): n. pag. Print. Squires, Gl. “The Discovery of the Structure of DNA.” Contemporary Physics 44.4 (2003): 289-305. Print.