The Martha Chase Effect

Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey, 1953.

Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey, 1953.

The Phenomenon

It pretty well goes without saying that the primary mission of the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections is to preserve, describe and make available the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers.  Beginning, more or less, with the Pauling centenary in 2001, the main focus of our Pauling-related work has been description and accessibility via the web.  In so doing, we have scanned over one terabyte of data and created, at minimum, tens of thousands of static html pages devoted to the life, work and legacy of Linus Pauling and, to a lesser extent, Ava Helen Pauling.

Knowing this, one might reasonably assume that the top search engine query channeling into the content that we have created would be “Linus Pauling,” or some variant therof.  A reasonable assumption indeed but, as it turns out, quite wrong.  In 2008, as in 2007 and 2006 (a close second in 2005), the top keyword query for those who found our content through search was…”Martha Chase.”

Martha Chase was a geneticist who, in collaboration with Alfred Hershey, made an important contribution to the DNA story as it played out in the early 1950s.  Prior to Chase and Hershey’s work, scientists were mixed on the question as to what, exactly, was the genetic material.  Many researchers, Pauling included, initially felt that the stuff of heredity was contained in proteins.  Others, of course, eventually theorized that DNA was the source of genetic information.  Using an ordinary blender as their primary tool, Hershey and Chase devised a famous experiment which proved conclusively that DNA did, in fact, carry the genetic code.

Diagram of the Hershey-Chase Blender Experiment.  Image by Eric Arnold.

Diagram of the Hershey-Chase Blender Experiment. Image by Eric Arnold.

The breadth of Chase-related content that we have digitized is infinitesimally-small relative to the “reams” devoted to Pauling — this page and this page are pretty much it.  And yet, in the context of search, Martha Chase is the top draw to our resources.  It would seem then, that in the marketplace for information — at least that which is retrieved by search — supply and demand for Martha Chase approach their equilibrium at the two pages devoted to her work on our “Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA” site.

Looking through the web statistics, the phenomenon is remarkably consistent.  Not only has “Martha Chase” been the top search query for our domain over, essentially, the past four years, it was also the top search query for our domain over the final week of 2008.  Indeed, the trend has strengthened to the point where today, those who conduct the simple “Linus Pauling” search in Google will note “martha chase” as a recommended search related to Pauling, though in reality the two had little or no interaction at all.

The chicken or the egg?  Google both reacts to and reinforces "The Martha Chase Effect."

The chicken or the egg? Google both reacts to and reinforces "The Martha Chase Effect."

Learning from the Chase Effect

Looking forward, the Chase Effect has become something that we’re thinking more and more about as we begin to develop new projects for the web.  Our top objective will always be to document Pauling’s impact on any number of fields, but in so doing there likely exists a great deal of opportunity for serving different user groups from what might be called “Chaseian” corners of the web.

To use the old many-fish-in-the-sea analogy, there is a lot of content related to Pauling on the Internet, and though we are the primary contributor to this content, we do compete for pageviews with scads of other extremely diverse projects.  (Take a look at the results for the simple “Linus Pauling” Google search to see how diverse the content providers really are.)  So it’s pretty clear that the Pauling sea is quite large and filled with all manner of creatures.

By comparison, Martha Chase represents a much smaller body of water and, in particular, image searches for her — which is probably where the lion’s share of our successful Chase referrals come from — are dominated by the osulibrary.oregonstate.edu/specialcollections domain.

The idea for future work is to think of the Pauling Papers as a collection of collections in attempting to uncover more Martha Chases.

To an extent we have already, somewhat unwittingly, done this with certain of the Key Participants highlighted on our various documentary history websites.  The Harvey Itano Key Participants page, for example, is the second result returned by Google for “Harvey Itano” searches.  Erwin Chargaff‘s page is seventh,  Arnold Sommerfeld‘s page is eighth and Edward Condon‘s is tenth, to name a few more examples.  In each instance, by developing mini-portals related to specific colleagues important to Pauling’s work, we have created resources that help meet the information demand of a non-Pauling user base.

As we standardize our metadata platforms — upgrading older projects and maintaining the standard for new — and, in the process, increase our capacity to “remix” our digital objects, the idea of enhancing existing mini-portals and creating new ones will emerge as an important consideration for our digitization workflow.  This is something that we’ll be talking a lot more about in the months to come.

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6 Responses

  1. Hello.
    My name is Katie. I am doing a Biology project on Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey and I have to answer a few questions about them and what they did for a career.
    One question is I have to find some positive/negative consequences on the experiments that they did. I found one experiment called the “Avery-MacLeod McCarty Experiment.” I am having hard time trying to find that imformation about it.
    Thank you very much

  2. [...] The Martha Chase Effect [1-2-09; 174] [...]

  3. WHO WROTE THIS I NEED A NAME FOR A SCIENCE PROJECT THAT COUNTS AS AN EXAM GRADE HELP ME

  4. i am doing a biology timeline over martha chase. i was just wondering if there is a shorter term for what she discovered.

    thanks,
    marissa

  5. how did martha and alfred analyze their obervation?
    how did they make their observations? how did they measure there things? what were their hypothesize? what was their prediction?

  6. […] research I came across this post on the blog of the scientist Linus Pauling. It was called, “The Martha Chase Effect“. The author had found, that while their blog was dedicated to the life and work of Linus […]

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