Historical Perspectives on Scientific Anniversaries: Science Policy to Social Justice

Saturday, February 18, 2017: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM
Room 309 (Hynes Convention Center)
Pnina G. Abir-Am,Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
The year 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the discovery of RNA splicing, (also known as “split genes”) as published by several teams in the second half of 1977. This discovery supplanted a previous belief in the co-linearity of DNA and mRNA by the concept of splicing, or the piecing together of mRNA segments transcribed from non-contiguous parts of the genome. (now known as exons while the parts that do not make it in to mRNA are known as introns) Widely seen as one of the most influential discoveries in molecular biology, RNA splicing opened a new paradigm of molecular editing, which as it happens, sits at the very center of scientific action in the present. As a historian of both molecular biology and scientific anniversaries, (Abir-Am 2000a, b=Introduction & Ch. 12 in Commemorative Practices in Science, Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Collective Memory, Eds: Pnina G. Abir-Am & Clark A. Elliott, Chicago, 2000, ISBN 0-226-00090-7; paperback: ISBN 0-226-00091-5) I will focus on three questions:
a) What is unique about a 40th anniversary? (esp. when compared with a centennial) What can be learned from such an anniversary on the historicity of its object, and/or the constraints of the present? This part alludes to pertinent case studies such as the anniversary of the discovery of the TB bacillus in 1922; of Los Alamos or “the home of the bomb” in 1983; and of DNA structure in 1993; see details in Commemorative Practices in Science, ibid. The uniqueness of a 40th anniversary (over a centennial) pertains to the fact that witnesses, whether co-author or other types of colleagues, are still alive. Examples will be given from the words and performances of such witnesses in Berlin & Baltimore/1922; Los Alamos/1983; and Paris/1993.
b) Was the discovery made independently in the various labs which published at the time? (1977) Can the history of science shed light on the extent and significance of the contacts which those labs and institutions actually had among themselves at the time and/or later? Can science policy illuminate the rise of some contender scientific institutions but not others?
c) Why does the public memory of the discovery (as revealed in textbooks, Nobel Lectures, and oral history) miss the role of the discovery’s first co-authors, (habitually seen as those who did the bulk of the work in a given publication) especially when they were (at the time) junior scientists, women, and/or foreign scientists? How can we better address such unresolved and corrosive issues of social justice four decades later?!