I found it hard to put this book down. As an unbiased account of Crick's rise to fame, it is informative and well-researched. As an insight into human weakness, it is fascinating. Science these days is even more competitive, but it is much harder for small groups to make an impact than in the 1950s and 1960s. I still find it difficult to view the establishment of the structure of DNA as anywhere close to being the 'secret of life', but it is interesting to recall how slow the world was to recognize Watson and Crick's Nature paper.
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]
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This is a short biography, but also very concise. If one were to remove from it everything that was not directly relevant to giving a picture of Crick and his achievements, the thing would be no more than a paragraph shorter. It's a fact-packed, straight-to-the-point account, and is all the more interesting for that.
We learn of Crick's war work on mines, his early forarys into protein structures, the fateful partnership with Watson, his 'ringmaster' role in the later unravelling of the genetic code, his dalliance with embryology and his final years delving into neuroscience. We get to know him as garrulous, hard-working, blunt, irritating, endlessly curious, diligently assimilating, bursting with ideas, easily drawn into conflict but readily reconciling later. We see how throughout his career he relied on bouncing ideas off an equally bright foil: Watson, Brenner, Koch...
Whilst there is interest on every page, the middle section of the book, detailing the years spent bringing about the decoding of genetic triplets, is positively thrilling. No doubt there will be longer biographies of Crick, but this one reads like the distilled essence of a life. Great stuff.
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A very good read and an important book. One thinks of Crick arriving late in his thirties, cracking the big one and entering the history books. How exciting to discover how far and deeply he personally developed the original idea, at the forefront, for decades. Sounds like a good bloke, too.
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This book is great, but there is an absence of photographs and X-ray data of DNA confirming the screw axis and asymetrical data. You have to realise that a screw axis is a type of spiral staircase, which can be indicative of chirality or not. It is very difficult to get a handle on X-ray. A spiral staircase is a type of helix, helix being a posh name for spiral and DNA looks like a staircase. There is sameness and differences in us all, which is why DNA can point the finger at us at the crimescene and no one else. So it is wrong to think of chirality and achirality as a different issue, they in fact coexist.Like matter and antimatter. The reason I called it a binary code is because it looks like a series of off and on states on the Xray film, also called spectral lines or a barcode at the supermarket, but these are minor moans, buy the book it is good.