In The Myth of Basic Science Matt Ridley writes:

The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.

Is that an accurate description of the history? Did the technology of X-ray crystallography of biological molecules mostly get developed by the wool industry for commercial purposes or was it developed by academic scientists?

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    I'm beginning to think we need a Matt Ridley tag. – DJClayworth Nov 8 '15 at 20:44
  • @DJClayworth we have one now: matt-ridley – Sklivvz Nov 8 '15 at 21:47
  • The word "sequencing" in the title isn't appropriate. X-ray crystallography was used to find the generic structure of DNA, but sequencing wasn't accomplished until much latter and did not involve X-ray crystallography. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2094077 – DavePhD Nov 24 '15 at 14:03

Ridley is cherry-picking to an enormous extent, such that even if his statements are technically true they are without meaning.

Analysis of fibrous materials using X-ray crystallography did indeed contribute to the study of DNA structure, and the techniques may well have been used in the wool industry. However those studies themselves were dependent on earlier work, including the X-ray crystallography of crystals. There were also studies of and other inorganic materials, the theoretical development of X-ray crystallography, and the study of non-fibrous organic molecules (such as cholestrol, penicillin and vitamin B12), none of which area in any way related to the wool industry. These are in turn dependent on basic studies of refraction, such as the development of Bragg's Law. Use of X-rays in the textile industry was dependent on the basic science contributed by Scherrer, Herzog and Jancke. All of these contributed to the analysis of DNA, yet Ridley chooses not to mention them for reasons of his own.


  • It seems that the work referred to was that of William Astbury at Leeds University. So, even the claim that it was developed in the wool industry is a tendentious one. Funded by it, perhaps. – richardb Nov 8 '15 at 21:29

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