James Watson, brilliant biologist and the author of “The Double Helix” begins his book with the following observation.
“I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood. Perhaps in other company he is that way, but I have never had reason so to judge him. It has nothing to do with his present fame. Already he is much talked about, usually with reverence, and someday he may be considered in the category of Rutherford or Bohr. But this was not true when, in the fall of 1951, I came to the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University to join a small group of physicists and chemists working on the three-dimensional structures of proteins. At that time he was thirty-five, yet almost totally unknown. Although some of his closest colleagues realised the value of his quick, penetrating mind and frequently sought his advice”.
The news of the internal structure of the gene was first made public on 8 April 1953 by Sir Lawrence Bragg, director of the Cavendish, but he made it at the Solvay conference on proteins in Belgium and it went unnoticed by the press. It was first revealed to the world in ‘Nature’ the most prestigious scientific magazine in a paper by Watson, Crick and Wilkins, which included the most famous understatement in the history of science:
“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material”.
If you were subscribed to “Nature” and opened the magazine on page 737, you would have come upon the following two other understatements also.
“We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest”.
The discovery in 1953 of the double helix, the twisted-ladder structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), by James Watson and Francis Crick marked a milestone in the history of science and gave rise to modern molecular biology, which is largely concerned with understanding how genes control the chemical processes within.
The Nature paper contained the first illustration of the double-helix, drawn by Francis Crick’s wife, Odile, who was an artist. A golden double-helix came, eventually, to decorate the entrance of the Cricks’ house, called The Double Helix, welcoming their frequent guests.
Francis Crick was the son of a shoe manufacturer from Northampton. Crick was educated at University College, London. After graduating in physics in 1938, he began his research under Andrade working on the measurement of the viscosity of water. With the outbreak of war he was posted to the admiralty to work on the design of acoustic and magnetic mines. Crick found himself at the end of the war at a loss what to do. He was drawn towards pure science and after reading Schroedinger’s book “What is life? Crick decided that he wanted to work on a major mystery, the mystery of life and the mystery of consciousness. With backing from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Crick began his Odyssey in 1947 at the Strangeways laboratory, Cambridge working on tissue culture. Two years later he moved to the newly planned MRC unit at the Cavendish studying the structure of proteins by X-ray diffraction analysis.
In 1951, a young American student, James Watson arrived at the unit. Watson suggested to Crick that it was necessary to find the molecular structure of hereditary material DNA, before it’s functions could be properly understood. Much was already known about the chemical and physical nature of DNA, from the studies of such scientists as Phoebus Levene, Erwin Chargoff, Alexander Todd and Linus Pauling. Using this knowledge and the X-Ray diffraction data of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, Crick and Watson had built, by 1953, a molecular model incorporating all the known features of DNA. Fundamental to the model was their conception of DNA as a double helix. Despite the significance of Crick’s work on DNA, he remained officially a graduate student. Consequently he returned to his work on protein structure and completed his Ph. D in 1953 at the age of 37.
Ten years’ intensive research in many laboratories around the world all tended to confirm Crick and Watson’s model. For their work, which has been called the most significant discovery of 20th century, they were awarded with Wilkins the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
Crick, in collaboration with Sydney Brenner made his important contributions to the understanding of the genetic code and introduced the term ‘Codon’ to describe a set of three adjacent bases that together code for the amino acid. He also formulated the adaptor hypothesis in which he suggested that in protein synthesis small adopters molecules act as intermediaries between the messenger RNA Template and the amino acids. Such adopters of cancer RNA, were identified independently by Robert Holley and Taulberg in 1956. Crick is also known for his formulation of the central dogma of molecular genetics which assumes that the passage of genetic information is from DNA to RNA to protein. David Baltimore was later to show that in certain cases, information can actually go from RNA to DNA.
In 1977, Crick moved to Salk University, San Diego, California where he remained till his death. While at Salk he worked on the second of the great mysteries he identified in 1947, mainly the nature of consciousness. At an early stage he rejected computer models of the mind and the neural Darwinism of G. Edelman. He went on to publish his mature views on the nature of mind in his “ The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994) in which he argued that your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will ,are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerves, cells and their associated miracles. He had previously published in 1983 with Graeme Mithinson, a novel account of dreams. We dream in order to forget he claims. Dreams allow the brain to eliminate the unwanted information collected during the day, which would otherwise clog up the system.
While at the Salk Crick came in touch with a group doing fundamental research in visual perception, under the guidance of the renowned Indian Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran.
Crick agreed with “the utilitarian theory of perception”, postulated by Ramachandran according to which perception is regarded as “essentially a ‘bag of tricks’; that through millions of years of trial and error the visual system has evolved numerous shortcuts, rules-of-thumb, and heuristics which were adopted . . . because they worked” can effectively be used in a direct theory of visual perception.
Crick has also published his intellectual autobiography “What mad pursuit “.
The elucidation of the structure of the DNA by Crick and Watson is one of greatest triumphs in Science in the twentieth century, the other one being Einstein’s Relativity in Physics.
I have had the privilege to meet Francis Crick thrice, once at his house in San Diego when he had invited my brother and me for tea, a second time at my brother’s house when my brother had invited him for tea, and a third time at Crick’s office overlooking the Pacific, in the Salk institute when my brother had taken me along with him. It was a thrilling experience to listen to their conversation about the human brain and perception! On all three occasions I found him to be modest, because he went out of the way to put me, at ease, by engaging me in polite conversation – not at all immodest as Watson observed in the first sentence of “The Double Helix”.