Matt Ridley’s Vivid Depiction of Francis Crick

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UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 05: This aluminium template representing the base thymine (T) is part of Crick and Watson's model of DNA. Bases are those groups of atoms that make up DNA's twin strands. The bases in each of the strands combines to spell out the organism's genetic code. DNA was discovered by Francis Crick (b 1916) and James Dewey Watson (b 1928) whilst working in the Medical Research Council Unit at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1953 they constructed a molecular model of the complex genetic material deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Their analysis of the double helix shape of DNA explained how genetic information could be copied and passed from one generation to the next. They were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology in 1962. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Welcome to Throwback Reviews, a monthly review of a science book that has been already available to the public, but its impact is still prevalent.

Matt Ridley’s Vivid Depiction of Francis Crick

Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code by Matt Ridley

Francis Crick is probably one of the biggest or biggest biologists of the twentieth century. Although he majored in physics, Crick practically gave rise to the field of molecular biology. His incessant talking and loud laugh became iconic in the Cambridge grounds, while he theorized and criticized unceasingly about the secret of life. From the structure of DNA (the double helix) to the mystery of consciousness, Matt Ridley delivers a brief, but well structure account about the incredible life of the Nobel laureate, Francis Crick.

Crick, as Ridley describes, grew up in a humble home in Northampton, England. His parents weren’t big naturalist that loved to explore their surroundings. On the contrary, the Cricks worked in the shoes and boots business. Crick’s curiosity about life might be inherited by his grandfather, Walter Crick, who was an amateur naturalist and corresponded to a giant of science, Charles Darwin. Matt Ridley adequately describes the interaction between Grandpa Walter and Darwin:

“On Saturday, 18 February 1882, Walter Crick was out hunting for water beetles (a curious occupation in winter, surely). We know this because later that day he wrote hesitantly to Darwin to report what he had found, ‘I secured hesitantly a female Dytiscus marginalis,’ he told the great evolutionist, ‘with a small bivalve [cockle] that I think is Sphaerium corneum very firmly attached to its leg.’ Darwin replied three days later with a barrage of questions. He wanted to know the length and breadth to the shell, and how much leg (which leg?) had been caught; and he suggested a communication the magazine Nature.”

Indeed, Francis Crick had it in his blood, but his circumstances – a low middle-class life – made it hard to continue science. But Crick had an uncle that started to pay for his love of science and even paid for his university. His uncle was a sales agent that encouraged him to try dangerous chemistry experiments. Eventually, after finishing his bachelor’s in Physics from University College, London, Crick went on to be recruited for World War II.

The Double Helix

Ridley’s account of the early days of Crick is solid, but his writing starts to take off when he describes Crick arrival to Cambridge, in the Cavendish, where he was attempting to complete his Ph.D. for the third time. “He was an irritating presence, because of what Brag called his habit of ‘doing other people’s crosswords’ as well as freely criticizing their best ideas,” explained Ridley on how Crick would get under the skin of his supervisors Lawrence Bragg and Max Perutz.

Ridley then turns up his detailed description of Francis Crick on the arrival of James Watson to Cambridge:

“Within weeks, Watson was writing to Delbrück that Crick ‘is no doubt the brightest person I have ever known and the nearest approach to Pauling… He never stops talking or thinking.’ Crick was thrilled to meet somebody who knew genetics and geneticists. He and Watson started to teach each other what they knew.”

While many accounts of the Double Helix and the discovery of the structure of DNA concentrate on Crick and Watson, Matt Ridley does a superb job on painting a broad picture on how other elements and figures were equally important for such discovery. He brilliantly described the immense reliance that Crick and Watson had for the data of female scientist and pioneer, Rosalind Franklin. Moreover, Ridley details the hit-and-misses in such discovery:

“The story of the double helix is awash with might-have-beens. Every participant had cause of regrets about a blunder made or an opportunity missed. Randall sowed fatal confusion between Wilkins and Franklin, which ensured that they never collaborated as Watson and Crick did. Wilkins should have build models sooner. Franklin should have learnt more crystallographic analysis or shared her thoughts with somebody. Watson should have taken notes. Pauling should have headed elementary chemistry (or been treated less unreasonably by the State Department). And Crick should have tried harder to befriend Franklin; they later became good friends.”

Consciousness: An Astonishing Hypothesis

The lower part of his life is Crick gaining recognition for his double helix discovery and winning the Nobel Prize alongside Watson and Maurice Wilkins (Franklin had passed away). Here, Ridley starts depicting how Crick started to fallout with Watson, and later meets Sydney Brenner. Moreover, the book does a great service on describing how Crick never gave to the glory of fame. Giving very little interviews and writing just a handful of books. He even denied a meeting with the queen and told Winston Churchill that he wanted to build a place for courtesans (prostitutes) in the Churchill College campus if they were to continue building a chapel there.

Ridley then turns our attention to the second problem that Crick wanted so to solve: the brain, specifically, consciousness. In here, Crick’s life turns into a race for the mystery of consciousness and discovering one more partner in science, Christoff Koch. The latter becomes his second son, someone who had the same interest as Crick but who wasn’t afraid to throw bold ideas back to Crick.

Crick’s wife, Odile, is probably one of the must warm and heartfelt characters in his Ridley’s depiction. She was an expert on fashion, supporting Crick’s wild scientific life while raising two children. Odile proves to be the support that Crick need, the only person in his life that isn’t interested in DRA, RNA, proteins or consciousness. Odile takes a life of her own by providing a bright light on Francis Crick’s darkest moments in the book. Although Crick is described early as good on “conversation, especially with pretty women,” Odile becomes his lifelong partner until the time of his death.

Last Word on Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code

This book is incredible because one only hears accounts of Crick by third persons. People like Christoff Koch, Aaron Klug, Raymond Gosling, Oliver Sacks, VS Ramachandran, among others, describe how big of a figure Crick was, but they rarely read the complete story of why. Crick, unlike his partner in crime Watson, stay out of the public life, his life was science. He famously couldn’t pass 20 minutes with someone who was giving foolish remarks. Ridley’s account perfectly resumes was made Crick the iconic figure he is today, even writing his last scientific paper in 2004 in the final days of his death.

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