Jan O’Deigh, a reference librarian at the Brooklyn branch of the New York City Library, quits her job to study genetics. She has just received a four-line postcard from Franklin Todd, her former lover, informing her of the death of their mutual friend, Stuart Ressler, a molecular biologist.
Franklin came to know Ressler when they both worked at a menial late-night job doing computer billing. Ressler had been obsessed with listening to the Glenn Gould recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical composition The Goldberg Variations (1741). He became intrigued and challenged by the sheer complexity and symmetry of the composition.
He had received the recordings a quarter of a century earlier as a gift from his lover, Jeanette Koss, a married colleague at the University of Illinois. This affair had devastated Ressler. Koss had decided to pack up and leave Champaign-Urbana with her husband, who got a new job some distance away.
Franklin thinks about the past and tells the following story, curious as he is about Ressler: Franklin is a graduate student in art history, pecking away somewhat futilely on a doctoral dissertation about an obscure sixteenth century Flemish artist. He is curious about his coworker, Ressler, at his night job. He goes to the library and asks the reference librarian to find for him what information she can about Ressler.
Jan, the librarian, begins to have romantic feelings for Franklin, but she soon develops an academic interest in Ressler as well. She also is interested in the work at which he had distinguished himself before abandoning his scientific career. She discovers that he was once cited in Life magazine for his work in genetics at the University of Illinois; his colleagues included James D. Watson and Francis Crick, two Nobel-prize-winning geneticists who helped unravel the mystery of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule.
Ressler and his fellow molecular biologists at the University of Illinois, as the story goes, are looking into the origins of life. They are seeking to unravel genetic codes. Soon they discover what turns out to be a disarmingly simple explanation of the origins of life: the double helix of the DNA molecule....
(The entire section is 915 words.)