TITLE: DNA, Ideas, and the CS Curriculum AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 28, 2006 11:19 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Today is the anniversary of Watson and Crick's piecing together the three-dimensional structure of DNA, the famed double helix. As with many great discoveries, Watson and Crick were not working in isolation. Many folks were working on this problem, racing to be the first to "unlock the secret of life". And Watson and Crick's discovery itself depended crucially on data collected by chemist Rosalind Franklin, who died before the importance of her contribution became widely known outside of the inner circle of scientists working on the problem. Ironically, this is also the birthday of one of the men against whom Watson and Crick were racing: Linus Pauling. Pauling is the author of one of my favorite quotes:
The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas...
Perhaps the great geniuses have only good ideas, but most of us have to work harder. If we can free ourselves to Think Different, we may actually come across the good ideas we need to make progress. Of course, you can't stop at generating ideas. You then have to examine your candidates critically, exposing them to the light of theory and known facts. Whereas one's inner critic is an enemy during idea generation, it is an essential player during the sifting phase. Pauling knew this, too. The oft-forgotten second half of Pauling's quote is:
... and throw the bad ones away.
Artists work this way, and so do scientists. This isn't a "round" anniversary of Watson and Crick's discovery; they found the double helix in 1953. It's not even a round anniversary of Pauling's birth, as he would be 105 today. (Well, that's sort of round.) But I heard about the anniversaries on the radio this morning, and the story grabbed my attention. Coincidentally, DNA has been on my mind for a couple of reasons lately. First, my last blog entry talked about a paper by Bernard Chazelle that uses DNA as an example of duality, one of the big ideas that computer science has helped us to understand. Then, on the plane today, I read a paper by a group of folks at Duke University, including my friend Owen Astrachan, on an attempt to broaden interest in computing, especially among women. Most research shows that women become interested in computing when they see how it can be used to solve real problems in the world. The Duke folks are exploring how to use the science of networks as a thematic motivation for computing, but another possible domain of application is bioinformatics. Women who major in science and technology are far more likely to major in biology than in any other discipline. Showing the fundamental role that computing plays in the modern biosciences might be a way to give women students a chance to get excited about our discipline, before we misdirect them into thinking that computerScience.equals( programming ). My department launched a new undergraduate major in bioinformatics last fall. So we have a mechanism for using the connection between biology and computing to demonstrate computing's utility. Unfortunately, we have made a mistake so far in the structure of our program: all students start by taking two semesters of traditional programming courses before they see any bioinformatics! I think we need to do some work to our first courses. Perhaps Astrachan and his crew can teach us something. I'm in Houston for SIGCSE this week, and the Duke paper will be presented here on Saturday. Sadly, I have to leave town on Friday... If I want to learn more about the initiative than I can learn just from the paper, I will need to take advantage of my own social network to make a connection. -----