This piece, commissioned by San Francisco Choral Artists, is a tribute to biologist Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958), whose X-ray diffraction studies provided critical evidence of the helical structure of DNA. She also correctly deduced that the helix had two strands, that there were ten bases (ACTG etc.) per rotation, and that the phosphate groups were on the outside of the molecule. In this last claim she contradicted other major researchers of the time, such as American biochemist Linus Pauling.
In the 1940s and 1950s, several groups of researchers were trying to deduce the structure of DNA: Franklin and her assistant Raymond Gosling, Maurice Wilkins and his collaborators Herbert Wilson and Alec Stokes, and the team of James Watson and Francis Crick. Without Franklin’s knowledge, her co-worker Maurice Wilkins showed her X-ray diffraction pictures to James Watson. Watson and Crick were already close to uncovering the structure of DNA, and Franklin’s X-rays provided the final evidence they needed. All three teams simultaneously authored articles on the nature of DNA, all published in the same issue of Nature in 1953. Franklin’s article was placed third. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962. Franklin by then had died, at the age of 37, of ovarian cancer. (The Nobel is not awarded posthumously.)
I have always admired Franklin’s tenacity and genius, and was thrilled that the permissions office at Nature granted me the full artistic rights to the text of her paper—responding within 24 hours of my request. I selected a few key passages from the article. Though at times I trimmed a few words for singability, all of the lyrics of the piece are taken from the article verbatim.
Musically, I created four voice parts that mirror and cross one another: a kind of double helix in sound. I hope that the work in some way expresses the triumph and reverence of a major scientific discovery.