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? …