Monday, 18 September 2006

Francis Crick – Matt Ridley *****

A new Matt Ridley book is always a looked-forward to event, and in this latest title, he has taken on one of the big names of twentieth century science, who has had surprisingly little direct coverage to date: Francis Crick.
It’s interesting to see how Ridley copes, as his previous books have focussed on the science, where this is essentially about the man, though of course his discoveries in the structure of DNA, the way base coding works and much more play a huge part in the story. The first chapter is a little worrying – Crick’s family background and early years verge on the dull, but it’s important not to be put off by this. Once Crick gets to university the story takes off and the book is excellent from there on.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most interesting part of the story happens after what most of us would think of as the big discovery. We’re used to books about the structure of DNA making a big thing of the circumstances of the analysis of the double spiral, of the shaky relationship between Crick and Watson at Cambridge and Wilkins in London, and particularly of the difficulties between these three and Rosalind Franklin. But much of this reaction comes from 20:20 hindsight. At the time, the discovery of DNA’s structure caused little public reaction and life went on. It was Crick’s subsequent work, working on the way that DNA functions and how the DNA code is interpreted, by the biological machines in the cell, that Ridley makes more of, and justifiably, as it is much less well known and equally as absorbing.
Although Ridley doesn’t remark on it, Francis Crick comes across as something of an English equivalent of Richard Feynman, with that same talkativeness, that talent of grasping an idea quickly and that frightening ability to make the intuitive leap. He also shared Feynman’s distaste for some authority figures – in Crick’s case including the church and royalty – which was sometimes taken to extreme lengths, as when he withdrew his association with the (then) new Churchill College in Cambridge because they decided to build a chapel (even though no educational funds were used) and he felt that a chapel was a backward step in what he believed was an increasingly secular society.
What Ridley does bring out well is the way that Crick’s abundant creativity combined with a lack of inhibition made Crick someone whose constant stream of ideas and challenges to other people’s thinking could be quite a threat. Ridley describes how having Crick in the audience of a lecture could be terrifying – if very entertaining for onlookers. And like William Shockley (see Broken Genius), Crick risked his career with his tendency to outspoken remarks about genetics and his feeling that not everyone should be allowed to have children – though unlike Shockley, Crick’s dabbling with eugenics seems to have been largely ignored, relieving Crick of the vilification that Shockley received.
Perhaps because this is a biography, Ridley doesn’t bother to explain some of the science along the way. While this is justifiable in some of the better known aspects of DNA, when he uses a term like “tautomer” with very little explanation, the reader really could do with a little more exposition. Ridley gets away with it by keeping things so brisk that you shrug it off, but it would have been better to slow down a little and expand.
All in all, Crick is very well served by this biography, which brings to life a man whose name is well known, but whose life has been something of a mystery.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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