Francis Crick…an untiring conversationalist

an untiring conversationalist
an untiring conversationalist

“ “Because of the cunning shown by natural selection the whole of Nature is little more than a series of gadgets.  This distinguishes [it] strongly from almost all the important problems in physics.  Typically, the errors in one gadget are corrected in a further one”  ”

p 165. Francis Crick, The discoverer of the genetic code:  A biography by Matt Ridley (2006, HarperCollins)

Crick, a physicist by training  is said to have realized this fundamental difference between the physical and the living world during his interactions with many biologists including Jacques Monod (the co-discoverer of the lac operon).  I would like to add here that we know in a very crude sense that those living gadgets simultaneously undergo correction of old errors (adaptation/selection) and further accumulation of new errors (mutation) at different scales.

I have always had a fascination towards Francis Crick, who is considered by many as one of the best scientific minds of 20th century.  Recently I read a well written biography of Francis Crick by Matt Ridley and it helped me understand the man from many perspectives other than just the DNA double helix and the triplet code, which no doubt are discussed at length in many places including this book.  The biography has compelled me to share some excerpts from the book and add in some of my own perceptions.

The credit of the discovery of DNA double helix went to Crick and Watson and the story of Rosalind Franklin is now in the history books of science.  There was Maurice Wilkins, a strong adversary of Rosalind Franklin who also came very close to building a correct DNA model himself.  Crick’s story made me think that for his entire life (since DNA) he could not get away from this dilemma,  the unsettling dilemma of ‘first come first credited‘.  He fought this dilemma in many forms for most of his life and Matt Ridley also gives many examples for Crick’s territorial possessiveness when it came to his research interests.   The contradiction is very interesting  and I quote

“As 2003 approached, and with it the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the double helix…Crick stayed well clear [of the celebrations]…He granted only two published interviews at the time of the actual anniversary…In them he emphasized the futility of unreliable reminiscence.  Far more important was what people wrote down at the time, he stressed.  And the celebrations had gone too far:  it was the molecule that mattered, not who discovered it”   p 203

It is true that Crick’s shift in emphasis from the ‘discoverer’ to the ‘molecule’ came mostly because of the time since its discovery in 1953 and the impact DNA had on the way biology was practised in 2003.  I have a strong feeling that the shift also came about to a minor yet significant extent because Crick had a close friendship with Rosalind Franklin.  Franklin had become a family friend of the Cricks and more so because she had succumbed to cancer in her 30s.  When Crick is reported to have made the above remark in an interview he was undergoing treatment for cancer and was 87 years old.  Some of the most moving passages in the biography are in its last chapter…

“When cancer of the colon came in April 2001, Crick did not flinch…it was soon clear that Crick’s cancer had spread, and chemotherapy was necessary. Though frail and ill from chemotherapy, Crick continued to work as hard as possible throughout 2003 and into 2004…on Monday 19 July 2004, surrounded by piles of papers on the dining table at home, still mentally lucid but physically weak, he finished the first handwritten draft of a manuscript [he had been working on since late 2003]…Its last words were…”What could be more important?  So why wait?”  A week later…on 26 July, Crick was taken to the hospital.  On Tuesday he made corrections to a typed version of his draft…on 28 July, he worked a little more but then became semicoherent, imagining that [Christof] Koch was there and arguing with him…Half an hour later Francis Crick lost his consciousness for the last time and a little after seven o’clock that evening, he died”  p 205

Crick was relentless.  He thrived on intellectually stimulating one on one conversations with individuals who spoke passionately about things that interested him and spoke only sense (!).  It could be equated to a duel between two sharp minds.  Whoever fired (sparked) first and fired accurately and consistently used to win the day.  I find Crick’s love for conversations the most endearing aspect of his personality ignoring all of his other mortal flaws that are in all beings.

“Crick saw something of his own younger self in Christof Koch’s intensity and self-confidence.  Perhaps Koch was the partner, the chief conversational partner he was looking for… a role once held by Sydney Brenner and James Watson… [Koch] would play the role for [the last] 18 years of Crick’s life”  p 195

There have been great discoveries and their discoverers…but the genetic code is an icon and Crick became an icon because of it.  It remains to be seen whether a new alphabet and an alternative language of life exists somewhere and if it does, whether we would ever be successful in finding it.

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