The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Atwood bases The Penelopiad on the mythical adventures relayed by Homer in the Odyssey, which was written in the 8th century BC. It features the gallant adventures of Odysseus, and the dutiful, modest shroud-weaving wife, Penelope, who fends off blood-sucking suitors at Ithaca.
The “odysseus” means “a series of adventurous journeys usually marked by many changes of fortune” which alludes to Odysseus’s 10-year return trip from the Trojan War to his home on the island of Ithaca, off the western coast of mainland Greece. (The Trojan War lasted 10 years, so he was away from Ithaca for 20 years.)
In his Poetics (4th C BC), the Greek philosopher Aristotle explains: “A certain man has been abroad many years; he is alone, and the god Poseidon keeps a hostile eye on him. At home the situation is that suitors for his wife’s hand are draining his resources and plotting to kill his son. Then, after suffering storm and shipwreck, he comes home, makes himself known, attacks the suitors: he survives and they are destroyed.”
Odyssey’s skill in artful deception is most evident when he reaches the shore of Ithaca, where he plays the role of the penniless beggar. Along the way, he tells tales: to Athena, Eumaeus, Antinous, Penelope and Laertes – brilliant fictions, tales of war, piracy, murder, blood-feuds and peril on the high seas. The most painful insult to his honour is the conduct of the suitors; their three-year-long occupation of his house is an intolerable affront.
Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler
Fast forward to 1962. James Watson and Francis Crick as well as Maurice Wilkins receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of DNA – helped by the significant photographs of Rosalind Franklin who died from ovarian cancer in 1958. As Watson tells Wilkins at the end of Photograph 51: “you won. We won. Your name on the Nobel Prize.” However, Wilkins is uneasy at the exclusion of Dr Rosalind Franklin.
According to scientific consensus, Watson and Crick would not have made their discovery, if it had not been for two crucial pieces of information passed from Franklin’s lab at King’s College in London to Watson and Crick’s at Cambridge. (On 30 January 1953, Wilkins showed Photograph 51 to Watson.) By the end of the day he decided that DNA’s structure must be a double helix. Within a week, he and Crick had begun building their model and on 28 February 1953, Crick told “everybody he had found the secret of life”.)
Watson notes in his bestselling book “The Double Helix”: “The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.” He benefited considerably from the photograph as his images were murky. They also had access to another unpublished paper that Franklin had prepared for a government committee. Watson also notes: “Rosy, of course, did not directly give us her data. For that matter no one at King’s realised they were in our hands.” They announced their discovery in Nature – that DNA was a helical ladder with one side going up and the other going down.
Whilst working at King’s College in London on a brief to figure out DNA’s molecular structure, Franklin made the important discovery of the unique double-helix shape of DNA. A rival team at Cambridge was also working on the building blocks of life. An expert in X-ray crystallography, a scientific technique that uses X-rays to determine the structure of a crystal, Franklin eventually produced photographs, described as “among the most beautiful of any substances ever taken”.
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