Photograph 51: A Heavy Dose of Reality

I caught the Sunday matinee of Photograph 51 this past weekend, being produced by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre in St Paul’s Hillcrest Center Theater in Highland Park.
But first a disclaimer. When it comes to the Jewish theater, and all that it does, I must admit I am biased. My wife and I have been season ticket holders for years, and hopefully will be for years to come. It is a rare gem in our community, and one of just a tiny and dwindling handful of Jewish theaters that remain in the US. It needs, and fortunately deserves our support.
So there. Back to the play.
Written by Anna Ziegler and directed by Warren C. Bowles, the play revolves around the race among scientific labs in the early 1950s to finally determine whether it was proteins or DNA that were indeed the “secret of life” and the repository of genetic information (spoiler alert—it’s DNA).
For those of us who know, or thought we knew, anything about the subject, that knowledge would likely begin and end with little more than “Watson and Crick.” They were awarded the Nobel Prize for the double helix discovery, along with Maurice Wilkins—all three of whom are key figures in the story and play.
The play, however, revolves around the unsung life, and lesser know role of their colleague, Dr. Rosalind Franklin. A Jew born and educated in Europe, she provided the extraordinary effort, skills, and data that led to the key discovery. But her contributions seem to have been negated by the sexism and anti-Semitism of her time, and have therefore languished ever since.
Rosie—as we and the few she would permit near enough would come to know her—had the misfortune of being a highly skilled woman in a male dominated world. Beginning as a young child, with an interest in shapes, and the beauty and meaning behind them, she eventually became an expert in the use of an x-ray device that could determine the shape, and in turn the structure, of biological molecules such as proteins and DNA. Back then this would have involved almost two distinct skill sets: the technical skill needed to help create and use the device itself, and the ability to then interpret the Rorschach like images (photographs) it would produce.
X-rays being x-rays, however, they could take a terrible toll on those who used the most primitive versions of her day. As we learned from Bethany Ford, who expertly played Dr. Franklin and participated (in character) in a panel discussion afterward—the dosimeter badge that she would wear would often register exposure readings that would prevent her from being able to work in the lab for weeks at a time, much like the signs of a concussion these days might keep a football player sidelined for weeks or longer. The longer term effects—of x-rays at least—are now obvious to us.
The play navigates the issues well, not forcing any position upon us, but rather laying out the manner in which many different aspects might have played a role in the outcome—from sexism and anti-Semitism, to simple misunderstandings, and flat out breaches of confidence, all within the backdrop of a testosterone laden quest for discovery (and in turn, the power and glory that would result). But trumping them all was Rosalind’s position as a woman, and one who grew up at an all-girl school where her success was expected and encouraged, only to enter the real world, where it was not.
I was reminded of Patsy Sherman, one of the inventors of 3M’s original “Scotchgard” line of products. As a patent attorney and former 3M’er I had the opportunity to know her back in the day.  One story that Patsy would tell was of a high school aptitude test that she took in 1947, which showed that she would be most suited for the role of a housewife.  Only when Patsy demanded to take the boy’s version of the aptitude test, did it reveal that she had an interest in science, and listed dentistry or chemistry as her potential career path. And the rest is history.
As for Rosalind Franklin, her short and sad life seemed devoted to science and little else.
I have no doubt that there was considerable truth—to say nothing of considerable talent—in the way she was portrayed.
If I had one gnawing concern with the play, it seemed the common tendency for stories like this to at times overcompensate on the faults of others, making them one dimensional at best, and easily disliked.  I am all for poetic license, but if the Watson and Crick that the play suggests were anywhere close to reality, they should give the Prize back.
At a relatively short 90 minutes (no intermission), the play itself moves along well, holding your attention and effectively laying out what could have otherwise been a complex scientific story with an interesting combination of shifting scenes and times.
Oh, and by the way, the cast was excellent.  The script was excellent.  Even the set was excellent, up to and including the struts that were used to both support various portions of the stage, while mimicking the look of the DNA structure itself.
If you are interested, I will be moderating a post-production panel following the matinee performance of Photograph 51 on October 28, which will provide 1.0 credit of continuing legal education in the category “elimination of bias.”
So yes, you should see this play. It runs through November 4th.
But then again. I’m biased. Though one of those few types of bias that is hopefully acceptable, in small and self aware doses.
And finally, you might ask, what is the significance of the number itself: 51?  On the one hand, it was nothing more than the sequential system that Rosalind used to identify her work product, with the 51st photograph being the one that was finally clear enough to reveal the secret they sought.
But we Jews have never met a number we couldn’t ‘drash.   In this case, we might turn to Gematria, the mystical way in which the letters of a word each equate with a number, and those numbers tally up to provide meaning.  According to Strong’s concordance there are dozens of words in our scripture whose letters add up to the number 51.  Pulled out and lined up, a select few of them begin to provide their own review of sorts, of the play, and of the life of Rosalind Franklin.
‘adam / man (Gen 2:5)
‘amah / handmaid (Gen 21:10)
lavah / join (Gen 29:34)
gechel / coals (Lev 16:12)
middah / measure (Lev 19:35)
‘achuzzah / possession (Lev 14:34)
kele’ / prison (2Ki 17:4)
chabal / destroy (Pro 20:16)
zuwd (Aramaic) / pride (Dan 5:20)
halal / praise (Isa 13:10)
bema / judgment (Act 7:5)
Rosalind could find meaning in shapes. We might find meaning in numbers.
You’ll have to see for yourself.