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
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.