The double helix

Contrary to popular belief, Watson and Crick did not discover DNA; rather, they assembled a three-dimensional model of the molecule. They based their supposition of the molecule’s shape on what was known of the structure of the component molecules and x-ray crystallographic data. The original paper which outlined their work filled one page in the scientific journal Nature.

Prior to the publication of that paper, Crick wrote of the breakthrough in a letter to his 12-year-old son, in which he describes not only the molecular structure of DNA, but also the mechanism whereby it is capable of reproducing itself.

It was Crick who implied in a Cambridge pub that he and Watson had “discovered the secret of life.”

Strangely enough, this heady moment might have been foreshadowed by none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, penned a century before. Here is the excerpt in which Alyosha contemplates a celestial double helix:

Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth….The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars…

Contemplating the celestial double strand that mirrors an earthly biological counterpart is indeed a heady experience.

And now it seems as though we can look forward to the day when the genetic code of our DNA might be harnessed as a storage vault for the massive amount of data that our digital age has generated.

"Under the Milky Way" by Steve Jurvetson

“Under the Milky Way” by Steve Jurvetson

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