Rosalind Franklin is going to Mars

The Rover scheduled for launch in July 2020 as part of the ExoMars mission has a name! With a competition, ESA asked to name the rover designed to search for life on Mars. Former and perhaps even current life. The name they picked is beautiful: Rosalind Franklin. She was a London chemist (1920 – 1958) who would make a crucial contribution to DNA, the footprint of life. However she is a forgotten figure, like so many women in science history. 

Photo 51

While temporarily working in Paris, she perfected her skills in X-ray crystallography, which would eventually become her life’s work. During that time she made “Photo 51”, which showed the double helix structure of our DNA. Back in London she started working with Maurice Wilkins at King’s College. They didn’t get along very well. She was hired while Wilkins was on a holiday and put on the DNA project which he has neglected for some months. She also wasn’t able to mingle well with her male colleagues in general because the lunch rooms at college were men only. This made it harder to discus her work with others and probably contributed to the act that she hardly shared her work at all. 

Unknown to Franklin, Wilkins showed her photo to two other researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick. They worked at the university of Cambridge and were also working on the structure of DNA. They would end up writing the paper of the double helix, with an introductory paper by Franklin, that would lead to the Nobel prize for Watson and Crick in 1962. Not a word about Franklin was said, not even during the acceptance speech. As Franklin had died in 1958, she wouldn’t have been given the Nobel prize. A mention to her crucial work would at least have been decent. They however admitted this after accepting the Nobel prize.

A last name is important

That the ExoMars rover is named after her is fantastic. However people are starting to name the Rosalind Franklin Rover Rosalind. This may sound cute but is wrong on many levels. If you were to shorten the name of the Rover, please resort to her last name, Franklin. As you would with any other male name.

Men among each other often call each other by their last name, even or perhaps especially in friendly matters. This commonly happens in work space as well. Women are always called by their first name, and if a cuter version of the name is possible, this is used as well. Just take a look at the last American election. This was between Trump and Hillary. This has always stricken me as weird and even sexist. Why wasn’t it Trump against Clinton? It may seem unimportant, after all it’s about the people running for president and not their names. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the campaign would have focused on the name Clinton instead of Hillary, she may have won the election. 

And this is just one example, albeit a recent and painful example. We should make sure that women are recognised not by their pretty names and faces, but by their last name and accomplishments. Don’t call the Rover that is named after an important figure and may very well be the first to discover life on Mars just Rosalind or even worse, Rosy (the nickname Franklin hated). After all wee owe the beautiful pictures of our universe to Hubble and not to Edwin. Or Eddy.

Searching for life

Granted, the Rover is named Rosalind Franklin. Why wasn’t Franklin sufficient? It would have been, if women throughout history would have been given the credits they deserved at the time it happened and not years later. Movies such as ‘Hidden Figures’ show how men dominate the field (as life in general for that matter), where women have played an equally important role. I’d like to think that the scientific world differs in this with the real world but unfortunately this isn’t the case. It is getting better. And there are plenty of awesome scientists (female, male and non-binary) who couldn’t care less which sex is getting the credits, as long as the person who gets them truly deserves them.

There’s still a long way to go in equality and the Rover Rosalind Franklin is another great step towards it. After all, it could be that Rover that will tell us that we’re indeed not alone in the universe. And when that happens, we can be sure that no one will ever forget the name Rosalind Franklin. And that is exactly what this chemist deserves.

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