next up previous contents
Next: What Is Free Software Up: Introduction Previous: Introduction


Linux creator Linus Torvalds reports that the name ``Linus'' was chosen for him because of his parents' admiration for Nobel laureate Linus Pauling. Pauling was the rarest of men: a scientist who won the Nobel Prize not once, but twice. We find a cautionary tale for the Open Source community in the story of Pauling's foundational work that made possible the discovery of the structure of DNA.

The actual discovery was made Francis Crick and James Watson, and is famously chronicled in Watson's book The Double Helix . Watson's book is a remarkably frank account of the way science is actually done. He recounts not just the brilliance and insight, but the politics, the competition, and the luck. The quest for the secret of DNA became a fierce competition between, among others, Watson and Crick's lab in Cambridge, and Pauling's lab at Cal Tech.

Watson describes with obvious unease the way in which Pauling came to know that Watson and Crick had solved the mystery, and created a model of DNA's helical structure. The story here centers on Max Delbruk, a mutual friend who traveled between Cambridge and Cal Tech. While sympathetic to Watson and Crick's desire to keep the discovery secret until all results could be confirmed, Delbruk's allegiance ultimately was to science itself. In this passage, Watson describes how he learned that Pauling had heard the news:

Linus Pauling first heard about the double helix from Max Delbruk. At the bottom of the letter that broke the news of the complementary chains, I had asked that he not tell Linus. I was still slightly afraid something would go wrong and did not want Pauling to think about hydrogen-bonded base pairs until we had a few more days to digest our position. My request, however, was ignored. Delbruk wanted to tell everyone in his lab and knew that within hours the gossip would travel from his lab in biology to their friends working under Linus. Also, Pauling made him promise to let him know the minute he heard from me. Then there was the even more important consideration that Delbruk hated any form of secrecy in scientific matters and did not want to keep Pauling in suspense any longer.

Clearly the need for secrecy made Watson uncomfortable. One of the poignant themes that runs throughout the book is Watson's acknowledgment that competition kept parties from disclosing all they knew, and that the progress of science may have been delayed, if ever so slightly, by that secrecy.

Science, after all, is ultimately an Open Source enterprise. The scientific method rests on a process of discovery, and a process of justification. For scientific results to be justified, they must be replicable. Replication is not possible unless the source is shared: the hypothesis, the test conditions, and the results. The process of discovery can follow many paths, and at times scientific discoveries do occur in isolation. But ultimately the process of discovery must be served by sharing information: enabling other scientists to go forward where one cannot; pollinating the ideas of others so that something new may grow that otherwise would not have been born.

next up previous contents
Next: What Is Free Software Up: Introduction Previous: Introduction

Download this document: [src.tar.gz][ps.gz][html.tar.gz][dvi.gz]

Open Resources (
Last updated: 1999-08-06