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Discovering the structure of DNA was not Francis Crick's only important collaboration
By Priscilla Long
June 1, 2006
Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code, by Matt Ridley, HarperCollins, $19.95
The English scientist Francis Crick, who died in 2004 at the age of 88, is well known as a discoverer of the double-helical structure of DNA—the gene-strung molecule intrinsic to all forms of life on Earth. Crick followed that 1952 breakthrough by putting himself at the center of a marathon worldwide effort to crack the genetic code—the way the information in DNA flows to RNA to amino acids to proteins such that the sequence of bases in a gene determines the sequence of amino acids in a protein. The code was cracked, more or less, by 1966, after which, following another decade of related work, Crick moved from London to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, to devote himself to the question of how human consciousness might emerge from the physical brain. Crick, a devout materialist, never had the slightest doubt that consciousness did emerge from the physical brain.
The tall, sandy-haired scientist was, according to this excellent first biography, energetic, fiercely autodidactic, and garrulous (his incessant chatter could drive lab mates nuts). He was a talker inclined to talk science long into the night. He was not a meticulous laboratory experimenter. He was an idea spinner, a speculator, a collaborator, a synthesizer, quick-witted, clever, able to ask the penetrating question, a voracious reader able to extract glimmers of insight from the dullest work. Crick also wrote a pedestrian Ph.D. dissertation (on the protein hemoglobin, completed after he and James Watson modeled the DNA molecule), pursued the usual number of scientific dead ends, and believed that poor people were genetically inferior and should be bribed to have zero children. Matt Ridley admires but does not apotheosize his subject.
Crick reached his mid-30s with little to show for a life in science. A rich uncle financed his schooling after his father’s shoe-manufacturing business went bust. In 1937 he emerged from his studies in physics at University College, London, with an average second-class degree. He began a Ph.D. at the same institution, working under a man who gave him the tedious problem of measuring the viscosity of water under pressure. (Crick’s biography illuminates what an intensely social enterprise science is, organized by labs run by directors who hire scientists, give out research assignments, and control how results are presented.) In 1939 a German bomb finished off the viscosity project with a direct hit to the lab, much to Crick’s relief. He spent the war years on a military team working on the technology of defusing German magnetic mines. The war’s end found him with a failed first marriage, a four-year-old son (Michael), an unfinished doctoral dissertation, and no job. At least one lab turned him down because of that garrulousness of his.
Yet the traits that would enable Francis Crick to make substantial contributions to science were firmly in place. For one thing, he was hugely ambitious (all scientists are not), and when something caught his interest, the focus he could bring to bear on learning the background science was formidable. During the war, he began to re-educate himself, reading physics, chemistry, and biology, and attending, despite his wartime job, seminars in theoretical physics. Equally as important, he had a visual mind and could visualize (while squinting) molecular structures before working through the mathematics. Finally, Crick’s sociable nature and talkative personality made him an ace collaborator. Crick’s technique of inquiry was to form a dyad in which he and another scientist would engage in incessant talk for months or years as they worked to solve a problem. His chief collaborators were the eccentric mathematician Georg Kreisel, who taught him to loosen up socially and to think more rigorously; Watson; Sydney Brenner, with whom he shared an office and 20 years of talk on the genetic code; and Christof Koch, fellow-cogitator on the human brain.
There is no way to narrate the 1952 modeling of the DNA molecule without honoring the work of Rosalind Franklin, the meticulous, rigorous physical chemist whose x-ray photograph of DNA and careful notes leading toward—but not arriving at—a double-helical structure provided the information Crick and Watson needed to build the model. Ridley thinks Franklin would have shared in the 1962 Nobel had she not died in 1958 of ovarian cancer —she was 37. (The Nobel is never given posthumously.) Crick recognized Franklin’s work in an account he provided to a scientist writing a brief for the Nobel committee: “The data to obtain the structure was mainly obtained by Rosalind Franklin, who died a few years ago.” The world learned her name, at least, in the snide account provided by Watson in his best-selling Double Helix, a book that, incidentally, Crick detested.
Crick, Watson, and Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel—Crick and Watson for modeling DNA’s structure, and Wilkins for creating x-ray images of the molecule. Crick and Watson, working at the Cavendish lab in Cambridge, were collaborators; Franklin and Wilkins, working at the King’s College lab in London, were enemies. Which is no surprise considering that the director hired Franklin to replace Wilkins on the DNA project, intending to move Wilkins to some other work, a plan he told Franklin but not Wilkins. Meanwhile Wilkins had formed the impression that Franklin was to be his assistant. This did not result in a cheery relationship.
Watson, Crick, and now Matt Ridley dub Rosalind Franklin too cautious to have made a great scientific breakthrough. Ridley notes that she had the information in her notes to comprehend the structure of the molecule a year before Watson and Crick built the physical model. My two cents: Doesn’t it take both kinds—the meticulous researcher and the wild speculator—to make scientific breakthroughs, and isn’t the modeling of DNA precisely a case in point?
Ridley notes that Crick’s work leading the effort to crack the genetic code was more significant by far than discovering the structure of DNA, a feat several researchers were on the verge of accomplishing. Crick himself graciously wrote about the intrinsic beauty of DNA, saying that it was the molecule as much as the scientists that had style and that DNA made Crick and Watson, rather than the other way around. He did not bask in the glory but moved on, turning his last years into thinking about thinking, just as he had once thought about life, thus putting himself at the center of another scientific revolution.
In this graceful biography, Ridley telescopes the progress of genetics from Mendel’s peas through the founding of molecular biology and beyond. He writes plainly, but the science is complex. Noncognoscenti may enjoy a visual and tutorial aid such as the beautiful educational Web site on DNA, http://molvis.sdsc.edu/dna/index.htm. It’s worth it to master the rudiments, not only to comprehend fully the biography of a key figure in 20th-century science, but also to contemplate the mysterious workings of life itself.
Priscilla Long is the author of Crossing Over: Poems. Her two new books, both published in 2016, are a collection of essays, Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? and Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators. Her essay “Genome Tome,” which appeared in our Summer 2005 issue, won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.
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