Skip to main content

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.

Paperback 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under