Short biography of a giant in molecular biology.
English science writer Ridley (Nature Via Nurture, 2003, etc.) posits that Francis Crick (1916–2004) was one of the greats, on par with Einstein, Darwin and Galileo. That claim may surprise those familiar with him primarily as James Watson’s coauthor on the famous paper describing DNA’s double helix. But the author, who knew Crick, argues that his work to establish the precise correspondence between specific DNA bases and the proteins they encode is a discovery as crucial as gravity or evolution. Ridley traces Crick’s origins from a middle-class family of modest means. (His grandfather, an amateur naturalist, once exchanged letters with Darwin.) Trained as a physicist, Crick worked on defense projects involving mines and torpedoes during WWII and came out of the war with no clear direction. He decided to try biology, with a quixotic notion of finding the key to life. Landing a slot at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, he quickly established himself as a nonstop talker with an annoying laugh. Though a good theorist, he had problems with authority figures and was expected to leave once he finished his doctorate. Then Watson came to Cambridge; their joint assault on the structure of DNA is one of the best-known stories in modern science. Ridley covers the key details with keen insights into the pair’s relationship, then moves on to Crick’s role in solving the triplet code embedded in the DNA molecule. Nor does the text neglect his later work in both molecular biology and in attempting to solve the problem of consciousness. Crick comes across as a likable, highly motivated man without undue foibles; portraits of his coworkers and the period are also sharply drawn.
A well-written addition to the publisher’s “Eminent Lives” series.