Today's Reading


February 3, 1947
Paris, France

A thin mist hovers over the Seine in the early morning air. Strange, I think. It isn't yellow like the haze that floats over the murky Thames at home in London but a robin's-egg blue. Could it be that the mist—lighter than fog, with fewer water molecules and less density—is reflecting the clearer Seine? I marvel at the meeting of sky and ground, breathtaking even in winter with the spires of Notre-Dame looming over the thin wisps of cloud. Papa would call it heaven touching earth, but I believe in science, not God.

I shake off thoughts of my family and try to simply enjoy the walk from my flat in the sixth arrondissement to the fourth. With each passing block, the cafés of the Left Bank, their sidewalk tables busy even on an early Monday morning in February, peel away, and by the time I cross over the Seine, I enter the orderly, elegant world of the Right Bank. Even though there are differences in the two arrondissements, they both bear scars of the war in their somewhat damaged buildings and still-wary inhabitants. It's the same at home, although in Paris, the citizens rather than their structures seem to have born more of the brunt; perhaps the specter of the Nazi occupation still looms in their midst.

A rogue, disturbing question enters my mind, one with no measurable scientific foundation, I'm quite certain. When the Nazis shot innocent French citizens and blameless Jews, did molecules from the German soldiers who loaded the bullets pass through their victims? Is Paris not only riddled with physical remains of the war but also permeated with microscopic scientific evidence of its enemies and victims as well, blended together in a way that would have horrified the Nazis? Would the detritus of Germans and Jews be identical under close analysis?

I doubt this is the sort of inquiry French physicist Jean Perrin anticipated when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1926 for proving that molecules exist. Imagine, I think with a shake of my head, that until twenty years ago, the very existence of the subuniverse that dominates my work was open to debate.

I stop short as I approach the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques. I am confused. Could this really be the venerable chemistry institution? The building has the patina of age but not necessarily the sort of respectability and stateliness I'd expected from an organization that has produced such excellent and innovative research. It could be any governmental building anywhere. As I climb the steps to the front doors, I can almost hear Papa critique my decision: The hard work and the commitment to science is commendable, he had said, but why must you take a position in Paris, a city still digging out from the weight of occupation and terrible loss? A place where the Nazis—he said the word with considerable effort—once governed, leaving traces of their evil behind them? With effort, I banish Papa from my thoughts.

"Bonjour," I greet the receptionist in French. "Je m'appelle Rosalind Franklin, et j'ai un rendez-vous."

To my ears, my voice sounds raspy and my French stilted. But the smartly dressed young woman—her lips a bright slash of red and her tiny waist encircled by a thick leather belt—replies with ease and a welcoming grin. "Ah, bienvenue! Monsieur Mathieu vous attend."

"Monsieur Mathieu himself is waiting for me?" I blurt out to the woman, forgetting to hold my tongue for a moment before speaking, as I know I should. Without that pause and careful consideration of my words, I can be perceived as brusque, even combative in more heated environments. It's a legacy of a childhood with parents who encouraged conversation and debate even with their daughter, I suppose, and a father who was expert at both.

"Monsieur Mathieu indeed!" a voice calls out from across the lobby, and I look over to see a familiar figure stride toward me with hand outstretched. "I couldn't let our newest chercheur arrive without a proper greeting, could I? It's a pleasure to welcome you to Paris."

"What an unexpected honor, sir," I reply to the senior scientist at the Ministry of Defense, who has a hand in much of the governmental scientific research in the country, thinking how wonderful my title chercheur--which means researcher—sounds coming from a native French speaker. Even though, on paper, it doesn't appear quite as
lofty as my former role of assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (which we called, among ourselves, BCURA), chercheur sounds impossibly exotic. "I certainly didn't expect to see you on my first day."

"You are a protégé of my dear friend, Madame Adrienne Weill, and I would not want to be subjected to her wrath if I disappointed her," he says with a wry grin, and I smile at the surprisingly impish gentleman, as well-known for his scientific prowess as his underground wartime service in the Resistance. My friendship with Adrienne, the French scientist who'd befriended me during my years at Cambridge, had yielded many unexpected benefits, not the least of which was the introduction to Monsieur Mathieu. It came at the most urgent and necessary time.

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