The Universe Shows me a Secret- DNA revisited

25 03 2010

Everybody has stories. It’s true. There is not a sucker walking the street that hasn’t been driven by yearning, pain, or need to acts that they carry like a private badge of shame or elation for none to see. The world has stories of its own.

One of the great content shifts that occurred in the last fifty years of short story writing is the acceptance of the implausible and improbable alongside the mundane. The magical realism that came from the Latin lands have helped make it possible to write a short story about a father and son discovering ice and a village girl so beautiful that one day she just floats up into the sky and disappears (both from one book… guess.)  Our writing effects our outlook. In some ways the movements of the art that moves us not only determines what we see, but what we can see.

There was a program called Connections from the BBC that took two completely unrelated things: the Saturn V rocket and, I don’t know, Oxfordshire pound stone, and linked them through a chain of events and history to one another. Usually there were about a dozen left turns that got you there in the most fascinating way.  This way of seeing things, not just as discreet and platonic forms, but as the sum of all its correlations is a thoroughly new and modern phenomenon.  Not just what we see, what we can see.

I moved to Cambridge and took up residence in the top floor of  a 600 year

My rooms were the windows just past the word "Eagle."

old townhouse where some early governor of Australia had been born. Across the alley from the tall narrow house was the oldest church in Cambridge, a Saxon chapel that predated the conquerer with its attendant lich yard (amongst whose dead knights I slept of many a drunk when the 15th century door locks defeated me). Where my alley met the one lane street stood a pub. It faced into the alley and at four stories, was under the view of my bedroom window. The pub was called “The Eagle.”                                                                          The Eagle was a storied place. It had been popular with the Cambridge intellectuals in the days of Newton and Halley.  The staff of the Cavendish Laboratory liked to frequent the pub. I heard it said that more Nobel laureates killed brain cells in The Eagle than anywhere else on earth (29 or so). For my part of the story of this pub I must relate to you that The Eagle was the favorite watering hole of both Watson and Crick, two of the four researchers (along with Franklin and Wilkins though that’s another story) that pioneered the research of DNA, specifically recognizing the double helix that would become the icon of all things bio-science, just as the “atomic cloud” became the image of nuclear science. Now for my part I was living in a house owned by one of the colleges, a research college that leased the house to a geneticists who was in turn a drinking buddy of mine. He was at Cambridge sequencing the pig genome and had about four empty floors that he would give me if I came with a stock of Kentucky whiskey and a promise approaching women. I took up residence on the top floor for reasons of the view and its distance from my friend’s rooms on the ground floor.  Bachelorhood and legion personality flaws had quickly combined to make me find my old chum an intolerable bore and a first rate ass to boot and after two weeks of hanging out in his lab I took up with a gang of Irish brick layers and I hardly saw my friend again. One night, before our falling out and after getting smashed on the last of my Maker’s to celebrate the news that my friend was to have a South American swine virus named after him, I retired to my room to jot down some letters to friends and maybe make a journal entry. I sat in the main window and looked down to the The Eagle to the very table, nestled by a fireplace, where Watson stood up to proclaim that he and his comrade had figured out the secret of life to the confused patrons. He was referring to the double helix of course. That sinuous protein twist we all know so well. What is interesting about this, and how it relates to me leaning against a fourth floor Cambridge window, is that as I sat there contemplating those very events my eyes wondered to the roof of The Eagle and specifically to the chimney that vented the fireplace of Watson and Cricks favorite nook. The stonework of the chimney was a style popular in the late seventeenth century when the pub was first built. It is a highly shaped and stylized form of stonework and this particular example was a double pipe, each shaped as if two ribbons of stone had been twisted together to form a cylinder. In other words, the chimney that attached to the fireplace where double helix discoverers Watson and Crick warmed their feet over pints while working out the shape of DNA was itself a double helix. The chimney was over two-hundred years older than either scientist and the only vantage point where it could be seen was my bedroom window, but it’s there.

A true story for you, and the science of fiction.

Next up: how yours truly was reduced to starvation and had to make plans to mug a Dutch tourist.

"Oi, Watson, check it out- this would make a good flu... or flue!



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