Feb. 28, 2008
It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.
Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.
It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious dénouement
to the unsurprising end riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.
It was on this day in 1953 that James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule, which became the key to understanding how all organisms pass genetic information on to their offspring. James Watson was only 23 years old at the time. Crick was older, but he hadn't even finished his Ph.D. They were working in a lab in Cambridge, England, where they didn't even have the right equipment to examine DNA. That equipment was located at King's College in London. Watson tried to get a job there by setting his sister up with one of the King's College scientists, but it didn't work out.
They were devastated when the world-renowned scientist Linus Pauling published a paper proposing a structure for DNA. But they immediately realized that his structure was wrong, and they vowed to beat him in the race to the answer. They learned that a woman named Rosalind Franklin was taking X-Ray pictures of DNA, and they decided that the only way to discover the structure was to look at those pictures.
Watson got to know Rosalind Franklin's lab partner, Maurice Wilkins, and one night he persuaded Wilkins to show him one of the X-ray pictures that Franklin had taken of a DNA molecule. On the train ride back to Cambridge, Watson sketched the picture on a newspaper. When he got back to his lab, he and Crick spent several days building theoretical models of the molecule. They hit on the correct structure on this day in 1953. Once they realized what they had accomplished, they went to the local bar to celebrate. Toasting their discovery, Watson shouted, "We have discovered the secret of life!" They would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Rosalind Franklin would also have gotten credit, but she had died of cancer by the time the prize was awarded.
It's the birthday of the poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, born in New York City (1913). Her father was an insurance salesman and an amateur poet. She grew up loving poetry, and she published many poems in magazines as a young woman. But after she got married, she stopped trying to publish. She said, "Publishing takes a sort of canniness that I didn't really think went with poetry. I was afraid of writing to please somebody else instead of myself."
So she went on writing poems, without publishing them, for almost 50 years. It wasn't until after her children were grown, her husband had died, and she had lost her eyesight that she published a book of her work. They went through thousands of the poems she had written to find 87 for her book Ants on the Melon, which came out in 1996. She was 83 years old. She went on to publish two more books: Beliefs and Blasphemies (1998) and Living on Fire (2000).
When asked where she got her inspiration, she said, "A cup of coffee. Always black, always strong, and always just one. It takes the cork out of the bottle."
It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Ben Hecht, (books by this author) born in New York City (1893). He was a child prodigy on the violin and gave his first concert performance when he was 10 years old. He also trained as an acrobat and performed with a small circus until he was 16, when he ran away to Chicago and became a journalist. Of his first few years in Chicago he said, "I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock, tasted more than any fly belly could hold, learned not to sleep ... and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me."
Hecht got involved in the Chicago literary renaissance, along with writers like Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. He published his first novel in 1921 Erik Dorn, about a jaded journalist who can only speak in newspaper headlines. He also began writing and collaborating on plays. He didn't have any success until he and a newspaper reporter named Charles MacArthur decided to write a play about the newspaper industry called The Front Page (1928). It was a big success on Broadway, and it was later made into the movie His Girl Friday (1940).
Ben Hecht said, "Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock."
It's the birthday of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne, (books by this author) born in Périgueux, France (1533). His father was a wealthy landowner and a devout Catholic, with innovative ideas about child rearing. He sent the infant Michel off to live with peasant parents, so that he would learn to love the lower classes. Then, when Michel was a toddler, his father required everyone in the household to speak Latin rather than French, so that Latin would be his first language.
Michel went off to college and became a lawyer. His father died when Michel was 38 years old, and so he retired to the family estate and took over managing the property. More than anything, he loved to write letters, but after a few years in retirement, his best friend died and he suddenly had no one to write to. So he started writing letters to an imaginary reader, and those letters became an entirely new literary genre: the essay.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®