The Thrill of Defeat

I once knew a scientist who worked in the lab all of her waking hours for weeks on end. Indeed I’ve known a few. When a big discovery appears within reach, research can become an obsession. Imagine, then, what it must feel like to lose the race to be first—to be scooped. Months or years of work can become redundant, or worthless. Of no use to anyone.

While I’ve never been scooped on a big discovery in my 25 years as a working scientist, I’m fascinated by the idea of it. Because being scooped drives a wedge between two forces that motivate scientists: curiosity and ego. You get the thrill of learning the answer to the question that has obsessed you, but at the same moment you’re crushed to learn that you won’t be the one who discovered it.

One famous case, especially, captures my imagination. Not only was it one of the biggest scoops in the history of science, but the scientists involved left behind evidence of their reactions. I’m talking about the 1961 deciphering of DNA’s language, the genetic code. Sydney Brenner and Francis Crick, now famous as two of the 20th century’s most brilliant geneticists, worked on this problem from 1953 to 1961, only to be beaten to the punch by a little-known American biochemist.

In 2010, archivists released Brenner’s letters and lab notebooks, and discovered some of Crick’s lost papers mixed in. In the papers, and in the scientists’ actions, I swore I could see their reaction to being beaten to an epochal discovery: They were thrilled.

Or at least they appeared to be. In 2014, five years before Brenner died, I searched him out to ask him.

When Sydney Brenner

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