An Astonishing Mind Francis Crick 1916-2004

By Shermer, Michael | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

An Astonishing Mind Francis Crick 1916-2004


Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


SCIENCE LOST one of its brightest luminaries on Wednesday, July 28, when Francis Crick died at age 88 after a long battle with colon cancer. Crick was co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, a pioneering researcher on the neural correlates of consciousness, a powerful promoter of science and critical thinking, and a good friend of the skeptical movement in general and the Skeptics Society in particular. I did not have the opportunity to work with Francis, but he made a regular generous unsolicited donation to the Skeptics Society for no other reason than that he believed all scientists should support science education and the scientific exploration of fringe and revolutionary science. I know because I called him once to thank him for a munificent check he bad sent; he responded by saying that such acknowledgments were unnecessary because he felt it was his duty in the name of sane science and a rational society.

Francis Harry Compton Crick was born on June 8, 1916, in Northampton, England. He attended Northampton Grammar School and later the Mill Hill School in North London, where he showed an early aptitude for science while receiving a basic education in chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Upon graduation Crick attended University College in London where he received a bachelor of science degree with a physics major in 1937. His Ph.D. work was interrupted in 1939 by the outbreak of the Second World War, during which he helped to design magnetic and acoustic mines for the British Admiralty.

After the war Crick grew less interested in physics and began exploring other areas of science where major contributions could still be made. As he recalled during a Rutgers University honors seminar in 1997: "I used what I call the 'Gossip Test' to decide what I wanted to do. The gossip test is simply that whatever you find yourself gossiping about is what you're really interested in. I had found that my two main interests which I discussed the most were what today would be called molecular biology, what I referred to as the borderline between the living and the nonliving, and the workings of the brain."

Crick's "Gossip Test" led him to the Strangeways Laboratory in Cambridge in 1947. Although he knew little biology and almost no organic chemistry or crystallography, Crick mastered both. In 1949 he joined the Medical Research Council Unit as a laboratory scientist in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. It was during those formative years that Crick and his collaborators at the lab worked out the general theory of X-ray diffraction by a helix, which ultimately led to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.

In what has become one of the most famous collaborations in the history of science, Crick and an American postdoc named James Watson teamed up in 1951 to crack this greatest mystery of modern biology. Crick and Watson (now one of the most famous duos in any field) were both convinced that DNA, not proteins, was the critical factor for passing on genetic information. "It was obvious that I knew more about X-rays and structures than Jim did and he had more background in biological things which I'd only roughly taught myself," Crick said. "So you might have guessed that I did the structural part and he did the more biological aspect. That really wasn't true. For example, Watson discovered exactly how the base Fairs went together, which is structural. He made that discovery." This led to the discovery in 1953 of the double helical structure of DNA, for which both men, along with Maurice wilkins, received the Nobel Prize (for which Rosalind Franklin probably deserved equal recognition for her work on X-ray crystallography).

Their paper in the journal Nature, entitled simply "A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid," is now a classic of science literature. The paper's opening line reveals the authors' awareness of the importance of their discovery, albeit in the understated tone appropriate for such an august venue: "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D. …

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