If anything typified Francis Crick's work style, it was his quest for cooperation. The "Watson-Crick" team has so dominated the literature of DNA research, that a view of Crick as an individual is a rare sight. Matt Ridley has admirably filled in that lack with this view of the Nobel Laureate's life. In a brief, but insightful, and superbly written account, the biographer has filled in many details of a scientist, a theoriser and, most significantly, a man of unquenchable curiosity.
If any one term can typify Crick's personality, it was his outgoing nature. One of the more famous sentences in science writing is Jim Watson's announcement that he'd never seen Crick in "a modest mood". Although the remark irritated Crick, it did summarise many aspects of his nature in both work and personal relationships. Crick was immensely curious about nearly everything, and once he'd tackled a problem stayed doggingly with it. He was dismissive of "fuzzy logic", demanding much from his associates and co-workers - and demanding it constantly. As Ridley frequently points out, while this may have irritated many, the results were rewarding. Ridley subtitles the book "The Discoverer of the Genetic Code" due to Crick's persistance, even "bootlegging" time to accomplish the joint find through a model Crick built. Crick later went on to work on the "purpose" of DNA and its relation to protein production, something fundamental to life.
Ridley traces Crick's early life and his career during WWII. He was a late arrival in academia, standing out among his fellows both in physical stature and age. He enjoyed the banter with professors and fellow students, although his braying laugh left some disaffected. The proper people perceived the towering strength of his mind, however, and encouraged his pursuits, although sometimes on a short leash. Some of that outgoing nature likely brought about his first marriage, and just as likely was the cause of its later dissolution. It certainly led to his second wife, Odile, but this time cemented the match for decades.
Crick's noteriety derived from the DNA discovery brought numerous offers for positions, but it was the British Internal Revenue policies that led him to the United States. There, he launched many new investigations. Among these was life's origins, a topic that had long fascinated him. Crick had difficulty with the notion that life simply emerged from chemical reactions. He suggested that life on Earth had been "seeded" in bacterial form by distant alien civilisations intent on preserving their genetic formulas. A later collaboration with Christof Koch resulted in "The Astonishing Hypothesis", a work on human consciousness.
Ridley spends a chapter on "the book"; James Watson's highly personalised account of the DNA discovery. It was an irritant to Crick, not only because he was dealt with frankly by "Honest Jim" [which was the book's original title!], but because while Crick may have been informal in his lifestyle, he considered anything "frivolous" dealing with science was inappropriate. Watson's final publication, "The Double Helix" was a smash hit, prompting other scientists to explain their work in personal terms. What Watson did for himself was left for Ridley to produce for Francis Crick. Both men were giants in many ways, and Ridley elevates Crick to the heights generally reserved for names like Galileo or Darwin. The assessment is neither misplaced or overblown. Francis Crick will be difficult to replace. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]