How to get a Nobel prize in 900 words

Take a minute and read the text below. It’s 1 page. 900 characters:

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You have just (hopefully) read the article that gave James Watson and Francis Crick the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This article describes their model for how DNA is structured, what it consists of, and how those things come together to contain our shared humanity.

I think it’s size is stunning. Sure, DNA is huge, but the article describing it is really tiny!

This article is mind blowing for a couple of reasons. First of all, it unleashed the age of genomics. We are not there yet, but it’s just about dawning.
Another thing that really contrasts the science of the 60s and today is the number of authors. A recent, comparable example is the ENCODE project. The ENCODE project tried to provide a comprehensive explanation for how the 3 billion base pairs in our genome are read and regulated. To (partially) accomplish that, 440 scientist had to spend over 10 years of their lives, and ~ $400 million of our money to generate 30 original articles. And they aren’t even done. Compare that to 900 words.

But it is something else that makes this  story really fascinating. It reminds me of the age of discovery when the Americas were claimed. Sailors knew the earth was round (contrary to the common myth that people thought the earth was flat). What was needed was a visionary to take a leap of faith, to extrapolate that if the earth is round then it’s there to be explored.
Same as our DNA, its crystallographic data was there for the picking, it only needed the hard work of two visionaries who dared ask the right questions.

And that brings me to what inspired me to write this: is the age of discovery over for science? Have we answered the big questions? Do we only have to fine tune everything?

Absolutely not. Every time we uncover something new, we realize that the horizon stretches a tiny bit further.

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3 thoughts on “How to get a Nobel prize in 900 words

  1. A classic paper indeed. But it’s worth considering that this is only the first of a series of articles in that issue of Nature; this one is an executive summary of the theory of the double helix structure, while the following two details the actual evidence from X-ray chrystallography, among them the contribution from Rosalind Franklin.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v171/n4356/abs/171738a0.html
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v171/n4356/abs/171740a0.html

    1. Thank you very much for your comment! Of course the data supporting their model could not be contained within 900 words. Was it common practice to split up papers like this? Crick writes in his biography that they collaborated (under some strain) with Franklin and Wilkins. Could it be personal?

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