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Nov. 14, 2012

Start With a Diagram

by Annette Heist

Click to enlarge images
Click on icon in upper right corner of slideshow to enlarge images. 
 
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On the show this week, we'll talk with James Watson, of "Watson and Crick" fame, two of the scientists* credited with discovering the helical structure of DNA molecules.
 
The scientists published their discovery in the journal Nature in 1953. And while the work earned the men the Nobel Prize, the credit for that now iconic double-helix image (pictured at left below) belongs to another Crick -- Francis's wife Odile. 
 
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Odile Crick was an artist who painted mostly nude women, according to Scott Christianson, author of the new book 100 Diagrams That Changed the World. It was Mrs. Crick who took her husband's crude DNA drawing (pictured at right, above) and transformed it into the image that has come to serve as a stand-in for the concept of molecular biology. 
 
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"That something so complex can be boiled down to a single graphic is what this book is about," Christianson says. "Here was an effort to understand this phenomenon that became so important. This structure hadn't been seen before. It took the drawing to convey it to people, " Christianson says. 
 
The diagrams in the book span centuries, and include images from astronomy, physics and technology. There's the first drawing of a car by Karl Benz, the first electrical circuit (by Volta) and the first drawing of a lunar eclipse by Abu Rayhan al-Biruni. (See the slide show above.) There's also Tim Berners-Lee's early schematic for the World Wide Web and Steve Jobs's iPod sketches. 
 
While it might not achieve "changed the world" status, it is interesting to see the origins of an IKEA assembly diagram in the first exploded-view drawings of Mariano Taccola, circa-1450. (Although I would argue that IKEA diagrams have probably altered the course of many a Sunday afternoon, and possibly a few marriages.) 
 
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Nearly everything we use or rely on today has it origins in one of the diagrams in the book. Or as Christianson puts it in the introduction "It all begins with a diagram. Everything from family trees to seating arrangements at a wedding to bank heists starts with a roughly sketched plan." 
 
*You can read more about the discovery of DNA's shape, and the contributions of scientists Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin here.
About Annette Heist

Annette Heist is a former senior producer for Science Friday.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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