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What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (Sloan Foundation science series) [Paperback]

Francis Crick
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Book Description

10 July 1990 Sloan Foundation science series
Candid, provocative, and disarming, this is the widely-praised memoir of the co-discoverer of the double helix of DNA..

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What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (Sloan Foundation science series) + The Double Helix + Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA
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Product details

  • Paperback: 204 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (10 July 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465091385
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465091386
  • Product Dimensions: 22 x 14 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 242,775 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description

About the Author

Francis Crick is the Kieckhefer Professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. He shared a Nobel Prize with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 for the discovery of the structure of DNA, regarded as the greatest biological advance of the twentieth century.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unexpectedly dramatic account 18 Jun 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A very rewarding read. This book is surprisingly interesting - easy to read but quite deep in parts. All of us with an interest in science have heard of Watson and Crick. I didn't expect Francis Crick's book to be such smooth reading for an interested amateur, nor did I expect the occasional flashes of insight that reveal glimpses of deep truths about the workings of biology - something to follow up elsewhere.
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5.0 out of 5 stars What Mad Pursuit 8 Feb 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Chosen from Amazon, becasue the service is excellent, for my son because he is interested in genetics and because it is a very good mix of narrative and facts from one of my heroes, Francis Crick.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insights from a great scientist 17 Aug 2002
By Alex De Visscher - Published on Amazon.com
At first, I was reluctant about reading this book. What on earth could Francis Crick add to the story of the discovery of the double helix, that had not yet been told by his colleague, James Watson, in his famous book "The Double Helix"? A lot, as it turns out. In fact, the two books rarely overlap. Whereas Watson's book mainly relates his experiences as they worked their way towards discovery, Crick does what he does best: making comments. Also, Crick's book doesn't stop at the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, as Watson's book does, but continues with the cracking of the genetic code.
Crick's book was written twenty years after Watson's book, and it shows. Watson's book contains a fresh story, the raw material out of which history is shaped. Crick's tale is a digested one: written after all the confusion of the moment had cleared up.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Account of the Discovery of DNA's Structure and MORE!!!! 9 Aug 2005
By Stephen Pletko - Published on Amazon.com

THIS book, by Dr. Francis Crick (June 1916 to July 2004), is partly an autobiography and partly a science book. As for the science part, Crick elaborates:

"I have written [this book] both for my fellow scientists and for the general public [and] believe a [non-scientist] can easily understand most of what I discuss...My advice to the reader, should he or she become stuck in...a [difficult, scientific] passage, is either to persevere or to skip to the next chapter. Most of the book is fairly easy. Don't give up hope just because a few paragraphs seem a little hard to follow."

What, then, is the purpose of this book? Crick tells the reader:

"The main purpose of this book is to set out some of my experiences before and during the classical period of molecular biology, which stretched from the discovery of the DNA double helix in 1953 till about 1966 when the genetic code...was finally elucidated."

(Molecular biology is a branch of biology that studies the chemical and physical principles associated with the composition, properties, and activities of molecules in living cells. The genetic code is the dictionary relating the nucleic acid {such as DNA and RNA} language to the protein language.)

Crick achieves his purpose admirably! He gives us an overview of his main, personal experiences and reveals his thoughts at each period in his life. I especially enjoyed his chapter entitled "The Gossip Test" and his memories about the "RNA Tie Club."

I found the science part especially well done. He explains the science that led up to the discovery of DNA's structure but goes beyond this, explaining such things as the different types of RNA, protein structure, the genetic code, and theory in molecular biology. Everything is well explained and there are many helpful diagrams.

Be aware that Crick decided not to give character sketches of his friends and colleagues especially James Watson (born: 1928), Maurice Wilkins (1916 to 2004), Rosalind Franklin (1920 to 1958) and Linus Pauling (1901 to 1994). In other words, he chose not to include "juicy" gossip in his book. I found this refreshing since I found that in reading other books similar to this one that such character sketches can be distracting to the main essence of the book.

This book does not conclude in the year 1966 since Crick includes a final, long epilogue chapter entitled "My Later Years." This chapter is especially interesting as we are told how he moved on to the field of embryology or developmental biology to become involved generally in human brain science and more specifically in human consciousness. I found his theory of "panspermia" (that "is the idea that microorganisms drifted to the Earth through space and seeded all life on Earth") most interesting.

This book has two excellent appendices that resemble a small course in basic genetics. I found these to be well written.

Included near the middle of the book are over twenty black and white photographs. My favorite is Crick with Wilkins and Watson (as well as famous others like John Steinbeck) at the 1962 Nobel Prize Ceremony.

Finally, my only problem occurs on the inside back flap of the book's dust cover. It says the Crick "shared a Nobel Prize with...Watson and...Wilkins in 1962 for the discovery of the double helix of DNA." Not true! According to the official Nobel Prize internet site, they shared the prize "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structures of nucleic acid and its significance for information transfer in living material."

In conclusion, if you want to know about the life and brilliant intellect of a "genius of modern science," then you have to read this book!!

(first published 1988; acknowledgements; introduction; 14 chapters; photo inserts; main narrative 165 pages; 2 appendices; index)

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and provocative 20 Aug 2013
By P. B. Sharp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have been intrigued with Francis Crick after reading James Watson's "The Double Helix." Crick, with his non-stop talk and his booming laugh stepped out of those pages as a very unique personality as well as a unique scientist. Crick almost seems to have emerged a full-blown scientist like Athena from the head of Zeus. He was incredibly knowledgeable even as a somewhat elderly (over thirty) graduate student. In "Mad Pursuit" Dr. Crick takes your thumb and firmly imbeds it into the scientific pie In order to understand the background necessary to fathom the depths of the physical and three dimensional aspect of DNA, an understanding of crystal diffraction is necessary. Crick makes sure you're with him as he explains.

The atoms of a crystal cause an X ray beam to diffract into many specific directions, creating "spots." The resulting pattern can tell the expert the atoms present in that particular molecule and how they are arranged. DNA is relatively simple with the four bases, adenine paired with thymine, cytosine with guanine. Whatever the sequence on one helix strand, the other has to have the complementary sequence: always C with G and A with T. Crick says the relatively simple arrangement of only four bases was necessary for life to get established in the new universe, the simpler the better for achieving success.

The chapter called "How to live with a Golden Helix" is my favorite as Crick puts his spin on the famous events surrounding the phenomenal break through. He says that it it is DNA itself, not the scientists who are glamorous, although one could argue this point. Perhaps the crux of the discussion is Crick's take on Rosalind Franklin and the feud between her and Maurice Wilkins at King's College, London. Crick's "What mad Pursuit" was published in 1988 and in the years since, Franklin, even though deceased, has become famous in her own right. Crick remarks that Rosalind did not have the panache of Linus Pauling, which is certainly true. Very few scientists have Pauling's showmanship. But Crick remarks that he and Watson at Cambridge worked harmoniously together, while workers at King's did not. Franklin apparently thought Wilson considered her his assistant and rebelled. Crick, however, does not make the salient point that Wilkins showed Watson one of Franklin's Xray diffraction pictures-the now famous #51- which he borrowed without Franklin's knowledge or permission. The wily Watson took one look at the diffraction pattern and knew at once that the B form of DNA was a double helix. Crick says that Franklin was very, very close to solving the mystery herself, only two steps away.

"What mad pursuit" is a quotation from Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn."Crick describes the red herrings, sloppy science, unsound, unproven ideas and fiascoes that confront the research scientist. He also describes the flights of sheer brilliance and courage that accompany any scientific discovery. His book is part memoir part genetics 101 as he takes you on his journeys into the depths pure science. He talks about natural selection, and the genetic code and as a Professor at the Salk Institute his then current studies of neuroanatomy, brain science.

The text is accompanied by really wonderful photographs of many of the major players on his stage. You'll see Linus Pauling with his molecule models, looking like the conjuror he was, Wilkins, Watson and other famous investigators, his wife Odile and his mother for whom Crick is a dead ringer. One wishes the modest Crick had talked more about his personal life, but the impression he gives is that of a charming extrovert who just happened to be a great scientist.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Read! 19 May 2013
By Scottyknows - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Easy to read book, with a great scientific story!
Parallels James Watson's The Double Helix almost perfectly with a new side of the discovery
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars many lessons to teach on avoiding error in science 2 Mar 2013
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
As much as I enjoyed the recap of Francis Crick's and James Watson's unravelling of the structure of DNA I focussed on the wisdom of his musings about the attempted avoidance of error. Excerpts are quoted below:

Page 16 "I've known a lot of people more stupid than you who have made a success of it."

P 24 "Even a cursory look at the world of living things shows its immense variety."
"The second property of almost all living things is their complexity."

P59 "The failure on the part of my colleagues to discover the alpha helix made a deep impression on Jim Watson and me. Because of it I argued that it was important not to place too much reliance on any single piece of experimental evidence. It might turn out to be misleading".

"Jim was a little more brash, stating that no good model ever accounted for all the facts, since some data was bound to be misleading if not plain wrong. A theory that did fit all the data would have been 'carpentered' to do this and would thus be open to suspicion."

p65 "Our first attempt at a model was a fiasco".

P67 "What was important was not the way it was discovered but the object discovered - the structure of DNA itself. You can see this by comparing it with almost any other scientific discovery. Misleading data, false ideas, problems of personal relationships occur in much if not all scientific work."

P70 "In solving scientific problems of this type, it is almost impossible to avoid falling into error."
"Now, to obtain the correct solution to a problem, usually requires a sequence of logical steps. If one of these is a mistake, the answer is often hidden, since the error usually puts one completely on the wrong track. It is therefore extremely important not to be trapped by one's mistaken ideas. The advantage of intellectual cooperation is that it helps jolt one out of false assumptions."

P109 "The best a theorist can hope to do is to point an experimentalist in the right direction, and this is often best done by suggesting what directions to avoid. If one has little hope of arriving, unaided, at the correct theory, then it is more useful to suggest which class of theories are unlikely to be true, using some general argument about what is known of the nature of the system."

P113 "It is all too easy to make some plausible simplifying assumptions, do some elaborate mathematics that appear to give a rough fit with at least some experimental data, and think one has achieved something. The chance of such an approach doing anything useful, apart from soothing the theorist's ego, is rather small, and especially so in biology. Moreover I have found, to my surprise, that most theorists do not appreciate the difference between a model and a demonstration, often mistaking the latter for the former.

In my terminology, a 'demonstration' is a 'don't worry' theory. That is, it does not pretend to approximate to the right answer, but it shows at least a theory of that general type can be constructed."

P115 "I cannot help thinking that so many of the 'models' of the brain that are inflicted on us are mainly produced because their authors love playing with computers and writing computer programs and are simply carried away when a computer produces a pretty result. They hardly seem to care whether the brain actually uses the devices incorporated in their 'model'.

A good model in biology, then, not only should address the problem in hand but if at all possible should serve to unite evidence from several different approaches so that various sorts of tests can be made of it."

P139 "Physics is also different because its results can be expressed in powerful, deep, and often counterintuitive general laws. There is really nothing in biology that corresponds to special and general relativity, or quantum electrodynamics, or even such simple conservation laws as those of Newtonian mechanics: the conservation of energy, of momentum, and of angular momentum. Biology has its "laws," such as those of Mendelian genetics, but they are often only rather broad generalizations, with significant exceptions to them. The laws of physics, it is believed, are the same everywhere in the universe. This is unlikely to be true of biology. We have no idea how similar extra-terrestrial biology (if it exists) is to our own. We may certainly consider it likely that it too will be governed by natural selection, or something rather like it, but even this is only a plausible guess.

What are found in biology are mechanisms, mechanisms built with chemical components and that are often modified by other, later mechanisms added to the earlier ones. While Occam's razor is a useful tool in the physical sciences, it can be a very dangerous implement in biology. It is thus very rash to use simplicity and elegance as a guide in biological research. While DNA could be claimed to be both simple and elegant, it must be remembered that DNA almost certainly originated fairly close to the origin of life when things were necessarily simple or they could not have got going.

Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved. It might be thought, therefore, that evolutionary arguments would play a large part in guiding biological research, but this is far from the case. It is difficult enough to study what is happening now. To try to figure out what happened in evolution is even more difficult. Thus evolutionary arguments can usefully be used as hints to suggest possible lines of research, but it is highly dangerous to trust them too much."

P141 " The principal error I see in most current theoretical work is that of imagining that a theory is really a good model for a particular natural mechanism rather than being merely a demonstration - a "don't worry" theory. Theorists almost always become too fond of their own ideas, often simply by living with them for so long. It is difficult to believe that one's cherished theory, which really works rather nicely in some respects, may be completely false.

The basic trouble is that nature is so complex that many quite different theories can go some way to explaining the results. lf elegance and simplicity are, in biology, dangerous guides to the correct answer, what constraints can be used as a guide through the jungle of possible theories? It seems to me that the only really useful constraints are contained in the experimental evidence. Even this information is not without its hazards since, as we have seen, experimental facts are often misleading or even plain wrong. It is thus not sufficient to have a rough acquaintance with the experimental evidence. But rather a deep and critical knowledge of many different types of evidence is required, since one never knows what type of fact is likely to give the game away."

A Guide to The Logic of Scientific Discovery (The Popular Popper)
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