Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code. Matt Ridley. Harper-Collins, New York, 2006, 214 pp. $19.95 (ISBN 006082333X cloth).
In 2004, Harper Collins launched “Eminent Lives,” a series of brief biographies of important historical figures. Gifted writers were assigned to write engaging profiles of important historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Machiavelli. The first scientist to join these august ranks is Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize–winning biologist who codiscovered the structure of DNA and led the successful search for the genetic code. What makes this achievement all the more striking is that this biography, by the award-winning science writer Matt Ridley, is the first one ever written about Crick, brief or long.
How is it that such an important figure in the history of science has been so neglected? Many of the other scientists who were involved in the discovery of DNA—James Watson, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins, to name three—have had their life stories told. And Crick's accomplishments have been well documented in books such as Horace Judson's Eighth Day of Creation. But there's something about Crick's life as a whole—a long one, which ended in 2004 after 88 years—that has eluded the embrace of biographers.
Frankly, having read Ridley's enjoyable biography, I'm stumped. Crick's life had a fascinating arc. He was not a scientific Mozart, his greatness tediously obvious from childhood. As a child, he was bright, but not brilliant. He studied physics at University College London, beginning a PhD research project on the viscosity of water, which he later called the “dullest problem imaginable.” In World War II, he designed new mines that had a major impact on the naval struggles between Britain and Germany. He might have well gone into intelligence work after the war, but he had little taste for the bureaucratic sparring that came along with the job. Instead, Crick underwent a remarkable transformation at age 30. He decided that he would become a biologist, and that he would solve two of the biggest puzzles biology had to offer: life and consciousness. Ridley argues that these twin goals reflected Crick's long-running atheism. He would seize both nature and the soul from religion.
Crick went to Cambridge to follow through on his hubris, but it didn't go well at first. Ridley describes him at the time as “this loudmouth with the braying laugh who was much better at telling [his colleagues] what was wrong with their science than actually making measurements himself.”What his colleagues didn't realize was that Crick had developed an exceptional ability to visualize molecules and mathematical problems. He could translate the mysterious hieroglyphics of X-ray crystallography into the atomic structure of proteins. And when James Watson arrived at Cambridge, the two scientists quickly seized on the problem that would make them legends: the structure of DNA.
Ridley does an excellent job of escorting readers on the intellectual roller coaster ride that followed. Anyone who has read about the discovery of DNA in James Watson's The Double Helix or other accounts will be familiar with the outlines of that work. But Ridley explores the nuances of the breakthrough—including the uneasy relationship between Watson and Crick and others studying DNA—with both care and verve. And somehow he succeeds in telling that story in only 31 small pages.
The discovery of the structure of DNA was an iconic moment in scientific history, in part because the double helix was such a good icon, a molecule with photogenic curves. More abstract, but no less important, was the code by which DNA's genes were translated into proteins. Ridley rightly stresses the importance of this work, and he demonstrates that in its own cryptographic way, Crick's solution to the genetic code was just as graceful as his work on DNA.
And then he was done. After 1967 Crick never found another subject in which he could make such great discoveries. He mulled over the idea that life on Earth was seeded by aliens. He tried his hand at the question of why humans and other eukaryotes have so much DNA. In the early 1980s, Crick took up the other great question he had wanted to answer as a biologist: consciousness. It is astonishing to imagine a scientist in his late 60s teaching himself neuroanatomy, but Crick did it. Consciousness was not ready for a reductionist solution, Crick realized, and so he instead organized scientists to make it so. He argued that consciousness was not just a philosophical question, but one that could be studied at the molecular level. He was writing papers about the brain right until his death. Today consciousness remains far from solved, but with molecular atlases and functional neuroimaging and other experimental approaches now maturing, it's not silly to think that someday it might be.
Despite the short length of the biography, Ridley has taken great care in its research. Not only has he sifted through Crick's writings, but he has also interviewed many of the people who knew Crick. While I heartily recommend the book, I couldn't help wishing that the author had not tried to squeeze this heavyweight body of work into the petite format of “Eminent Lives.” Ridley's narrative has to make sudden turns, veering from the fine points of protein structure to Crick's wedding and then back. Ridley does not create a fully fleshed-out human being, but a collection of traits: scientist, party thrower, atheist, and so on. There's not much attention to the times in which Crick lived—the turbulent late 20th century, in which science and society were undergoing massive changes, many of which Crick helped create.
One thing does come out clearly from Ridley's portrait: Crick himself would not have been a fan of this book. He hassled James Watson over the Double Helix, considering it a sensationalistic account of their work. To Crick, people were less important to the history of science than the ideas and discoveries themselves. This attitude may make Crick an unattractive subject for a biographer in search of a major new project. But perhaps Ridley's slender account will encourage someone to produce a fine doorstop.