Sunday, December 2, 2012

Marjorie Senechal's "I Died for Beauty"

Marjorie Senechal is the Louise Wolff Kahn Professor Emerita in Mathematics and History of Science and Technology, Smith College, and Co-Editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer.

Here she dreamcasts an adaptation of her new book, I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science:
A movie, or an opera? One thick thread in this complicated story -- Dorothy Wrinch's epic battle with Linus Pauling, the famous chemist -- demands the stage. "Two brilliant, arrogant, competitive antagonists with a flair for publicity and a touch of the devious! And what a plot!"(See Chapter 16 for a synopsis.) But I'd opt for the movie if Emma Thompson plays Dorothy. Emma, please say yes! Dorothy was beautiful, brilliant, charming, courageous, dismissive, imperious, infuriating, vivacious, witty, and fatefully stubborn, all in a British accent. This could be the role of your career.

That settled, let's try to cast the other 75-plus colorful characters in Dorothy's fascinating life. I'll suggest a few. Hugh Bonneville, lately Lord Grantham, is Dorothy's father, the tough engineer-boss of a London waterworks company, and Meryl Streep is her mother, a tough cookie. (But would they take these roles? Both die early on.) Judi Dench is Miss Procter, the terrifying headmistress of the Anglican day school Dorothy attended from 4 to 16; "Proc" haunts her to the end. For Dora Black, Dorothy's best friend at Girton College, I nominate Ellen Maddow, the New York actor. Ellen's husband, the actor Paul Zimet, must play Bertrand Russell, the great philosopher and logician. Russell was Dorothy's close friend and mentor even after he ran off with Dora.

D'Arcy Thompson, the eminent but grandfatherly naturalist, is crucial: he lured Dorothy from math to biology in the early 1930s, before molecules gleamed in biologists' eyes. Dorothy set out to decipher the living cell and in short order proposed the first-ever model for protein architecture, a symmetrical cage of Platonic beauty. Chemists on both sides of the Atlantic rushed into proteins, some to defend her, some to refute her, and a few to determine the truth. Dorothy was soon the eye of a storm; D'Arcy stuck with her to the end of his life. I'm not sure who could play him, or Dorothy's two (successive) husbands. But Jodie Foster is surely Pamela, her conflicted daughter.

Linus Pauling had little use for math and thought symmetry was nonsense. And he was powerful. To banish Dorothy and her model once and for all, he published a list of her errors and laughed her out of the field. (Few noticed that his arguments were as wrong as King James I's against the evils of smoking.) Who better to play Linus than the great man himself? True, he died in 1994, but artfully cutting and pasting the many documentaries made in his lifetime would bring him back to life. We'd still need an actor for scenes played out of the public eye, like turning down her grant proposals and so on. Who?

Dorothy found haven in a small New England college, where she taught generations of students that beauty is truth and truth will out. She defended her model in the face of mounting evidence; partial vindication arrived too late. Curiously, in his old age Linus too crawled out on a limb, promoting vitamin C as a cure for colds and cancers. Just as Dorothy believed that geometry trumps chemistry, Linus believed that chemistry trumps medicine. He defended his views against the mounting evidence to the end of his life.

My word count is up, with 66 characters -- Joseph Needham! Irving Langmuir! Dorothy Hodgkin! Niels Bohr! -- still uncast! Suffice it to say that I Died for Beauty, the movie, needs a highly gifted casting director. And perceptive scriptwriters. The book is a swirl of ideas, dreams, ambitions, philosophies, and prejudices, scintillating in sync like gemstones in a kaleidoscope. The movie must be too.
Learn more about I Died for Beauty at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue