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The two men turned out to be utterly compatible. "Jim and I hit it off immediately," writes Crick in his book, What Mad Pursuit, "partly because our interests were astonishingly similar and partly, I suspect, because a certain youthful arrogance, a ruthlessness and an impatience with sloppy thinking came naturally to both of us." (Crick had got in trouble more than once at the Cavendish for pointing out the sloppy thinking of his bosses.)
Both men also loved to think out loud, for hours at a stretch, during walks along the river Cam, at meals at the Cricks' flat, at the Eagle and, of course, in the lab, where their incessant chatter drove their colleagues crazy. (Watson and Crick were quickly relegated to a separate office, where they would disturb only each other.) Most important, both were as tenacious as pit bulls. Once they clamped their minds onto the problem of DNA structure, they couldn't let go until they solved it--or someone else got there first.
The likeliest someone, both men believed, was Linus Pauling. To a later generation, Pauling would be best known as an antiwar activist and the slightly batty advocate of vitamin C as the antidote to colds and cancer. But at mid-century he was the world's premier physical chemist, the man who had literally written the book on chemical bonds. A few months before Watson arrived, in fact, Pauling embarrassed the Cavendish by winning the race to figure out the structure of keratin, the protein that makes up hair and fingernails. (It was a long, complex corkscrew of atoms known as the alpha-helix.) While he did rely on X-ray crystallographs for hints to what was going on at the molecular level, Pauling depended more heavily on scaled-up models he built by hand, using his deep knowledge of the ways atoms can bond together. Cavendish scientists, relying mostly on X rays, hadn't bothered to consult their colleagues in the chemistry department about what was or wasn't possible for atoms to do, and became hopelessly sidetracked.
The defeat was humiliating--"the biggest mistake," Bragg would one day say, "of my scientific career"--and Crick and Watson knew it could easily happen again. Pauling surely understood that the structure of DNA was the next big challenge, and once he turned his powerful brain to the problem, he would certainly crack it. "Within a few days of my arrival," writes Watson, "we knew what to do: imitate Linus Pauling and beat him at his own game." To do so, they would need X rays of DNA, but they would have to look outside Cambridge. The Cavendish's crystallographers were interested in proteins; DNA was the province of King's College, London; and while actively competing with Americans was fine, it just wouldn't do to poach--openly, at least--on fellow Brits.
Fortunately, Crick was on good terms with Wilkins, the man whose DNA images had originally sparked Watson's interest. Unfortunately, Wilkins was on very bad terms with his King's College colleague, the accomplished but prickly Rosalind Franklin. At 31, she was already one of the world's most talented crystallographers and had recently returned to her home country to take a position at King's after a stint at a prestigious Paris lab.