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Franklin believed deeply in the primacy of experimental data: Pauling might have been lucky with his flashy model building, but the best way to understand DNA, she insisted, was to make high-quality X-ray images first and speculate afterward about what they meant. "Only a genius of [Pauling's] stature," writes Watson, summarizing Franklin's attitude, "could play like a ten-year-old boy and still get the right answer." Wilkins made the mistake of declaring publicly that Franklin's images suggested that DNA had a helical shape. Franklin was incensed. He had no right, she believed, to even be working on X-raying DNA, something she was led to believe was her exclusive domain at King's College.
They remained collaborators in name but essentially stopped talking. To find out what she was doing, Wilkins had to go to a seminar Franklin gave in November 1951. He invited Watson to come along. (Crick, whose interest in DNA was well known, thought it might cause too much of a flap if he showed up.) Wilkins had warned Watson that Franklin was difficult; for his part, Watson had a generally piggish attitude toward women at the time. He liked "popsies"--young, pretty things without brains--but strong, independent women rather baffled him. In The Double Helix, he puts Franklin down in a passage that he later had the decency to renounce:
"By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of 31 her dresses showed all the imagination of English bluestocking adolescents."
Then came the professional assessment: "Clearly Rosy [a nickname she abhorred, and which her adolescent-minded antagonists therefore insisted on using] had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for [Wilkins] to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA."
For the moment, though, the men were stuck with "Rosy's" data, and Watson briefed Crick as soon as possible on what he had seen and heard. But Watson, overconfident to the point of arrogance, hadn't bothered to take notes. "If a subject interested me," he would write, "I could usually recollect what I needed. This time, however, we were in trouble, because I did not know enough of the crystallographic jargon." A key point was the amount of water present in Franklin's DNA samples. Watson remembered the number incorrectly, by a lot.
Armed with this crucially wrong information, the two began working in earnest. Conventional biochemistry had long since told scientists what DNA was made of: four types of organic molecules, known as bases--adenine, cytosine, thymine, guanine, or A, C, T and G--almost certainly strung somehow along a "backbone" of sugar and phosphate. The question was, How? "Perhaps a week of solid fiddling with the molecular models would be necessary," writes Watson, "to make us absolutely sure we had the right answer. Then it would be obvious to the world that Pauling was not the only one capable of true insight into how biological molecules were constructed."