Thursday, February 4, 2010

DBTL 60: The Double Helix

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German regime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe.

In Britain, under the Conservative government of Anthony Eden, industrial expansion proceeds apace, while the United States lags behind. As a result, there is a steady flow of American talent to Europe, including
a certain science fiction writer . . .

From In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov (London, 1978).

On January 18, 1952 I joined Irene on a trip to Cambridge University. She had been invited to attend a weekend conference on polyethylene chains, and since I loved visiting Cambridge I joined her. The conference itself was the usual dull reading of papers, but during a break we joined a group going to a local pub called the Green Door.

I was my usual naturally effervescent self, and everyone wondered how I had managed to get drunk without drinking anything. Unfortunately, at any gathering there can only be one center of attention at a time, and I found to my annoyance that at the Green Door, it wasn't me. There was another loud, talkative fellow present, and being a regular he apparently had priority. Making the best of a bad situation, our party joined his party to make one big party.

When he was introduced to me as Francis Crick, I recognized the name. He and Bill Cochran had recently advanced an elegant theory on the diffraction of X-rays by helical molecules. I was also introduced to Crick's wife, Margaret, a pretty redheaded research chemist about ten years his junior.

The talk turned to politics, and I found myself involved in a heated discussion with Margaret Crick about the Magdeburg Treaty. I found myself in the ironic position of being a Labourite defending Anthony Eden's Europe policy against a Conservative.

"We still have the Commonwealth," Margaret insisted, "in spite of Attlee's attempts to dismantle it. Nothing good can come of this attempt to associate with Europe. If you were English," she added haughtily, "you'd understand this."

Although I'll always be a New Yorker at heart, three years in Aberystwyth had turned me into a mild Welsh nationalist. I said, "What's being English got to do with it?" and launched into "Moliannwn" in my most resonant baritone. There were two real Welshmen in the Green Door who quickly joined in, and the three of us received a round of applause from the room when we finished.

Margaret, however, was not impressed. She gave me a withering glare and made a point of ignoring me for the rest of the evening. In fact, later on, when she and Crick shared a Nobel Prize for working out the structure of DNA, she always referred to me as "that silly Welsh writer" and wrote a hostile review of my book The Genetic Code for the Sunday Times.

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