An Astonishing Career DNA Discoverer Francis Crick Turns His Attention to the Mysteries of Human Consciousness

Article excerpt

FRANCIS CRICK, who made one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century, has steered clear of the political battles that many scientific titans aspire to after achieving fame.

"It's not something I would have predicted at the time," says Crick, co-discoverer in 1953 of the structure of the genetic material, DNA. "You would have thought someone like myself would have become active in scientific politics and the Royal Society and government. But I've gone in the opposite direction and tried to stay out of those things."

The path has led him across two of the most fascinating frontiers of science: The genetic blueprint for life and the mysteries of the human brain.

Crick, a British physicist and biochemist, along with American biologist James Watson, defined the structure of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, as a twisted ladder with rungs. Within its steps is embedded the genetic code: The genetic blueprint that instructs cells how to construct an animal or plant.

The discovery revolutionized science and medicine, opening four decades of intense exploration that have brought new understanding of how life works.

That understanding has been used to conquer diseases, improve crops and make new medicines. It also has led to fears that genetic information could be used to create the "perfect" human being or to discriminate against people with genetic diseases or conditions.

Crick and Watson won the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Crick, 77, now works at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. His most recent book, "The Astonishing Hypothesis," published this year, explores the mysteries of human consciousness.

Crick spoke with a reporter during a visit in April to Monsanto Co.'s Life Sciences Research Center in Chesterfield. Talking with a sprightly English accent, he peppered his comments with laughter - sometimes accompanying a joke and sometimes, it seemed, because the personal nature of some questions made him uncomfortable.

Following is part of that conversation:

Q: What was going through your mind at the time you and Watson made the DNA discovery?

A: We were excited to have discovered it, and we weren't completely confident it was correct. We had some reservations about that. And we had suggested so many things. . . . When new visitors would come in and I would explain the same thing over and over again, Jim got so fed up that he would go out of the room. He just got so bored with the same exciting story time after time.

Q: What's it been like being one of the two scientists who found that molecules serve as the source of life?

A: It's difficult to answer that. . . . There wasn't any special feeling that we were something special or anything of that sort. We were people with some new ideas and other people were keen to hear them. And this cult gradually developed. From my point of view it reached totally unreasonable proportions. It's all a matter of if you live long enough. You either have to die immediately and be thought to be a genius who was going to do all sorts of things, or you have to go on and live a very long time. Then for some reason, you become a cult to young people. One of the reactions I get from meeting younger people, mainly high school ones, is basically, "Gee, fancy meeting you. I thought you were dead."

Q: Isn't there some enjoyable part of that experience?

A: Yes, but you see, it depends on how much you like fame. I was never one who was particularly interested in fame, so I don't regard that necessarily as a plus. It was a help to me when I started going into work on the brain in that I found it easier to go along and talk to people. Of course, I took the precaution of finding out a lot about what they were doing before I went. But it does open doors.

Q: How do you feel about the direction taken by the biological revolution that you launched? …

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