Francis Crick: the full biography

I posted an interview with Francis Crick a little while back. Crick was so productive for so long, he made a daunting subject. Here’s my take on the more or less official biography, which – impressively – was published five years after he died.

The individual scientific biography seems an increasingly outmoded exercise. Science today is teamwork. What matters about researchers is who they connect with. Lives spent labouring in the lab are shaped largely by routine, with one or two indelible moments of insight or good fortune: perhaps they always were. Such lives, such moments, are more deserving of a long feature article than a whole book. Satisfying book-length narratives tend to require the harder work of collective biography or an attempt to capture the movement of a whole discipline.

Still, there are a few figures who have so many such moments, and do so much to build a discipline, that they almost justify publishers’ fixation on the individual. Francis Crick, forever linked with James Watson by the double helical twists of DNA, is indisputably one of them. The patron saint of late developers, Crick was 37 and still without a PhD when he and Watson cracked DNA in 1953. By the mid-1960s he was known as the main architect of the elegant net of ideas joined to the DNA structure, and which describe the way the cell handles hereditary information in precise, molecular terms. The genetic code, its punctuation, the way it is read and its messages interpreted to assemble chains of amino acids in proteins in the correct order – all this was now known. Crick was there every step of the way.

Robert Olby’s well-proportioned biography devotes as many pages to this astonishing era as to the often-told tale of DNA, and as many again to the third act in Crick’s scientific career, when he worked first on chromosome structure and the origin of life and then immersed himself in neuroscience. He went on happily throwing out ideas about the complexities of the brain until his death in 2004, aged 88.

Olby is in some ways the ideal biographer. He first got to know Crick when the biologist was affronted by Watson’s yet-to-be-published novelistic memoir The Double Helix, and thought it a splendid idea that a proper historian should relate the search for the DNA structure. Olby eventually obliged with his wide-ranging account, The Path to the Double Helix, in 1974, some years after Watson’s version had had its sensational success. Thus, a volume revisiting DNA and filling out the remaining half-century of Crick’s life is a fitting capstone to Olby’s long involvement with his subject. Admittedly, it comes after other works that have made much of the story familiar – notably Crick’s own What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (1990) and Matt Ridley’s shorter 2006 biography Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code. But in terms of access to the subject, since Crick read and discussed much of this book before his death, as well as historical knowledge and attention to detail, this is the fullest account of the life of arguably the most important Englishman in science in the second half of the 20th century.

That is not to say it is a completely satisfying read. Olby is most at home with the development of experiments and ideas, and has plenty of interest to say about character and circumstance, but he is less sure at handling the truly personal. This book was once destined to appear from a different press with the curious subtitle The Pied Piper of Molecular Biology. Its publisher presents it, correctly, as a work of scholarship. The opening chapter’s account of the journey to Stockholm to collect a Nobel prize in 1962 is the only real gesture towards tailoring the story for a popular readership – but it does not work, because all such weeks in Stockholm are essentially the same and, as the rest of the book conveys, the fact that Crick was a laureate is one of the least interesting things about him.

After that, Olby reverts to standard chronology, and is good on Crick’s early life as the son of a shoe manufacturer in Northampton, and especially on his wartime work for the Admiralty. Here, the man with a second-class physics degree, and not even from Oxbridge, first began to gain attention as not only seriously bright but effective at developing his ideas. This intense effort, together with his friendship with the budding logician Georg Kreisel, began to form his intellectual style: pragmatic, constrained by the facts, but careful to sift the reliable ones from the other sort, quick to formulate ideas but rarely loath to discard them.

This was the style that brought success in his new study, biology. However well known the story, it is still stirring to read of the gradual unveiling of the molecule of heredity. The union of structure and function then revealed has such an astonishing rightness. For anyone with an interest in biology, it requires a real effort to imagine a time when DNA was not a thing of beauty at the heart of the cell, its intertwined strands making it immediately clear how information is preserved and reproduced through the self-guided replication of a single, special molecule. Yet it is less than a lifetime ago that this essential fact about life on Earth was unknown.

Olby is not able to tell us much that is new about what motivated this matchless achievement, and Crick’s later work on the code, and on consciousness. Watson already had his eye on the Nobel; Crick had other concerns. Watson recalls in his memoir how his partner burst into the Eagle pub in Cambridge telling lunchtime drinkers they had discovered the secret of life. Crick had no such recollection, but if he did say this it may have been with a touch of irony. Crick believed there was no secret, and abhorred vitalism, the doctrine that there is some mysterious principle responsible for the things living matter can do that rocks and stones cannot. And underneath it all was his impatience with religion. Materialism would explain life, and then the brain, and God was an unnecessary superstition. This conviction arose when Crick was still a schoolboy, and stayed with him until the end. Olby ponders its origins, but does not get much further than others before him. It seems the God hypothesis just made no sense.

Other more personal aspects get less generous treatment. His subject’s liking for extramarital adventures is mentioned in passing; his occasional use of marijuana and LSD is treated even more incidentally. Ridley has more to say about the latter in his slimmer volume – not out of prurience but because it seems an interesting thing to know about such a creative thinker. But Olby relates the scientific life with great skill, and has more space for key experiments and arguments. His book is an essential complement to other historians’ recent studies of the great days of molecular biology.

It also, though, brings out again how crucial conversation and collaboration were for this most talkative of scientists. His closest work was with Watson, then Sydney Brenner, Leslie Orgel and – in neuroscience – Christof Koch. That conversational quality, for me, still comes across best in The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology, Horace Judson’s 1979 oral history of molecular biology, in which all the key contributors speak at length. But that book, easier to admire than emulate, is another reason to question the value of the individual scientific biography, even for an exceptional person like Crick.

(2009)

(Robert Olby. Francis Crick: Hunter of life’s secrets. Cold Spring Harbour Press)

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