Thursday, September 1, 2011

What Science Taught Me About Writing

I recently finished THE DOUBLE HELIX, a memoir James Watson wrote back in the sixties about his and Francis Crick’s discovery of the chemical structure of DNA. It was an interesting read, if a little slow at times, and the best part of the book was definitely the climax.

Here’s how that went down: After many months and even years of pursuing fruitless theories, one of their main competitors, Linus Pauling, a chemist at Cal Tech, announced that he intended to publish a paper outlining his discovery of the structure of DNA. Pauling’s son Peter happened to be studying at the same British lab where Watson and Crick worked, so they got their hands on a copy of the manuscript pretty fast. It only took them five minutes to realize that Pauling’s chemistry was flawed--his proposed structure, a triple helix, relied on hydrogen bonds that rendered their corresponding phosphate groups uncharged. As Watson put it, “Pauling’s nucleic acid in a sense was not an acid at all.”

Watson and Crick discovered Pauling’s mistake in February of 1953, before the paper was ever published. They knew it never would be. Peer reviewers would pick up on the same problem the two of them had, and Pauling would throw himself back into his research, compelled to correct his error. Pauling was a chemist whereas Watson and Crick were only a geneticist and a physicist, respectively. They were outmatched in education and experience.

They knew they only had a couple of weeks to solve the puzzle themselves.

And so it was that on a cold afternoon in late February or early March, in what I imagine was a rather drafty Cambridge lab, Watson made the critical discovery: If you bound adenine and thymine, guanine and cytosine, in a particular way, the resulting structures were identical. They had long suspected that DNA was a double helix, with rungs of base pairs spiraling upward in the center, and now they had the closest thing to proof they ever would. Within days and basically hours, they had a model of the entire structure built.

After working on the structure on and off for what probably seemed like an eternity, they built their model in a few hours.

I was surprised by how quickly the solution came to them, by how quickly their lives changed. Sure, they’d paid their dues. They’d spent months and even years figuring out what worked--or, more precisely, what didn’t. But in the end, they solved the riddle within a matter of days. WITHIN A MATTER OF DAYS.

That’s how success seems to work: suddenly and unexpectedly. You work for months and years on something, and then, all at once, everything just clicks. The pieces of the puzzle fit together in a way you never dreamed they would. I read THE DOUBLE HELIX for research purposes, but it ended up teaching me a lot more than the history of DNA. It taught me that we have to just keep writing, keep fighting, because we never know when our day will come.

Who knows? It might be tomorrow. So we better not give up today.


Myrna Foster said...

Great post! And now I want to read that book. Thanks!

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

I like this a lot. We also never know what will tip the scales toward that one day. If Watson and Crick hadn't seen a paper that never got published, they wouldn't have been motivated at the right time to do something so quickly. If we aren't putting ourselves in the position to be ready, through the hard work and preparation, when that moment comes, we might miss it.

Jess said...

Wow, I love this post! I've seen in a few success stories of writers who've written multiple manuscripts, then they write "the one." WIthin days of querying, they've got multiple full requests, then multiple offers. It feels out of nowhere to them, but it's really the result of years of hard work :)

Laura Pauling said...

Awesome. So true. For some writers it happens really fast like first manuscript and they've only been writing for a couple years. But that's not the norm.

And that's my ancestor you're talking about! :)

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I love this analogy, Krista. So true!

And good for these guys. That's an incredible story of perseverance.


Anonymous said...

Those are words to live (and write) by! Thanks!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks, Myrna! (Just remember that the book is a little slow and Watson didn't win his Nobel in literature:) But I found the subject matter fascinating.)

Great point, Kayeleen. Watson and Crick probably wouldn't have been able to take advantage of Pauling's mistake if they hadn't already invested so much time and effort into the problem.

Jess, it's funny, too, how people on the outside can perceive things so differently (and often so incorrectly). We don't see the years and years of effort that goes into developing one's craft and perfecting a manuscript; we only see the multiple agent offers and the six-figure book deal. Nathan Bransford blogged about this recently, and his point is so true - there is no such thing as an overnight success (although, if you're prepared, the actual moment of success can happen very quickly).

Laura, that's so cool! Are you one of Linus Pauling's direct descendents?

Amy, it is a wonderful story. Watson and Crick's success literally changed the world. Their discovery is generally considered to be one of the most important discoveries - if not THE most important discovery - of the twentieth century.

You're welcome, momslifeponderings! Good to hear from you!

Unknown said...

This is the second time I've stumbled across a Watson and Crick reference in the last two weeks. Universe says... time to read THE DOUBLE HELIX.

And hooray that years and years of work are more than the sum of their parts. It's good to remember.
<3 to you.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Lora, good to hear from you! If you do check out that book, you'll have to let me know what you think. (Maybe it could count for research for you, too, for your MG sci-fi.) And I love how you put that, about years and years of work being more than the sum of their parts. Sure hope that's the case:)

Bethany Crandell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bethany Crandell said...

(whoops...let's try this again)

I'm partial to this post because I had the privilege of chatting with Dr. Crick on several occasions before his passing. We both worked at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies (very different positions--duh.) He was a lovely man, very quiet, and VERY tall. I would pass him on the way to the parking lot or somewhere and say, "Good morning, Dr. Crick." And he would grant me a generous smile and say, in his deep-toned accent, "Yes, good morning." *sigh*

Anyway, you make such a great point. We can't predict success, but we can certainly honor the process to get there.

Suzanne Warr said...

I remembered being amazed and enthralled by DNA and the double helix in highschool biology, so this was an especially appropriate reminder for me that dreams have to be lived every single day. Thanks, I needed that!

Kristin said...

Krista. I so needed this today. Thank you!

Cassie Mae said...

A great lesson in perseverance! Thank you for posting this. I can see it has already encouraged so many others, including me :)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Bethany, that's so cool that you've said good morning to Francis Crick! Watson's memoir made him sound like quite the personality. I would have loved to have him and his wife over for dinner!

Suzanne, this line --> "Dreams have to be lived every single day" <-- is AWESOME. And so true.

Kristin, comments like yours make me feel like all this blogging is worth it. Thank you for stopping by.

Cassie Mae, Watson and Crick were a wonderful example of perseverance, weren't they? It was cool to hear their story from such a personal point of view.