On giant’s shoulders: On Dorothy Maud Wrinch and getting things wrong

Dorothy Maud Wrinch (12 September 1894–11 February 1976) | Source: Wikipedia

I was sitting somewhere in the back of the room, only partially paying attention; it was towards the end of the European Open Science Forum and I had wandered into a session about exoplanets, not even remotely related to my own field or research, when the speaker¹ uttered the following:

“Sometimes science is wrong. That’s how it works. We make an observation, construct a hypothesis, get it wrong and start again.”Sometimes science is wrong.

I think we all –but scientists especially — forget this at times. We are sometimes wrong, actually we are wrong quite often. There is no shame in that.

The problem is, there’s no fun in being wrong. Or to be more precise: as long as we don’t realise we’re wrong, we feel fine because as far as we know, we’re right. But finding out we were wrong feels embarrassing, dreadful, and maybe even devastating² . Nobody likes to be wrong.

“Most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about being wrong, or at least to avoid thinking about the possibility that we ourselves are wrong. We get it in the abstract. We all know everybody makes mistakes. The human species, in general, is fallible — okay fine.”²

But we don’t ever want to think about being wrong ourselves. However, being wrong is part of the scientific process. Apart from the fact that science keeps on building on previous knowledge, showing where the gaps are and expanding upon it, there are numerous examples of scientific theories of just not being right.

One example would be Dorothy Maud Wrinch, a mathematician turned biophysicist who lived at the beginning of the last century. I have a weak spot for interdisciplinary scientists; interesting things happen when researchers bridge the worlds between the disciplines and combine techniques, ideas and principles from different fields. In the ancient days, they would be called homines universales. Nowadays, it would be interdisciplinary scientist. But no matter the name, Dorothy Maud Wrinch would definitely be one of them.

What proteins look like — well, not like this

Dorothy Maud Wrinch, was a trained mathematician, who also showed a keen interest in physics, biochemistry and philosophy. She is known for two things: her research in mathematical approaches to describe biological structures and as a founding member of the Theoretical Biological Club (a group of scientists who believed that an interdisciplinary approach of philosophy, mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, could lead to the understanding and investigation of living organisms).

In the most notable aspect of her research, DorothyMaud Wrinch proposed a mathematical model for protein structure, the first structural model of a globular protein. It was based on peptide binding by a cyclol reaction, and the idea that amino acids (the building blocks of a protein) naturally will make the maximum number of such cyclol crosslinks, causing the protein to fold into a tertiary, globular structure.

Later, her (theoretical) model was disproved, but it had set the stage for biomechanical approaches to structural biology and later mathematical interpretations of X-ray crystallography. Her theory inspired researchers to propose models for DNA and protein structure that could later be confirmed as the DNA double helix and secondary protein structure. The rejection of the cyclol hypothesis contributed to the discovery that hydrophobic interactions are important for protein folding (3).

In other words, Dorothy Maud Wrinch had an idea that, even though it was wrong, inspired new theories that are (so far) correct. And while she might be remembered for being wrong, her contribution to science is acknowledged and respected.

Fallor ergo sum

So maybe, scientists (and all of us, for that matter) shouldn’t be so scared of getting things wrong. Making mistakes is human nature. The philosopher St. Augustine (13 November 354–28 August 430) once said: “Fallor ergo sum”, or “I err therefore I am.” It’s by getting things wrong, we foster creativity and productivity².

We get things wrong, so we go and find another theory or hypothesis just to figure out that that one is wrong or a least incomplete as well. And so we progress, and so does science.

To conclude: don’t be disappointed when you get something wrong. It’s human nature to do so. Come up with something new and move on. You may not be the one who comes up with the next scientific breakthrough, but you might be the inspiration for the one who does.

Sources

¹The speaker during the exoplanet session was Don Pollacco, University of Warwick

² TED talk: Kathryn Schulz: On being wrong

³ Biography of Dorothy Maud Wrinch: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dorothy-Maud-Wrinch

About the author

Valerie Bentivegna has recently completed a PhD in Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, where she was part of the MSCA ITN project PHOQUS. She currently works for a chemical engineering start-up company in Seattle, and has an interest in science communication and informal education.

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A blog for scientific researchers edited by the Marie Curie Alumni Association

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