Planet Earth

74: Francis Crick (1916-2004)

By Kenneth MillerJan 3, 2005 6:00 AM


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Shortly before checking into the hospital last July, his body wasted by colon cancer, Francis Crick invited a friend to his home in La Jolla, California. “During the whole two hours that I was visiting, there was no mention of his illness, only a flight of ideas on the neural basis of consciousness,” V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego, told mourners at a memorial service. Crick was especially intrigued by a tiny structure in the forebrain that had been overlooked by other researchers. “As I was leaving, he said, ‘Rama, I think the secret of consciousness lies in the claustrum, don’t you?’ and gave me a conspiratorial wink. It was the last time I saw him.”

Crick never tired of asking impossible questions or of methodically chasing down their answers. As codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, he earned a place in the scientific pantheon alongside Darwin and Einstein. Then he devoted nearly three decades to an even more elusive quarry: the physical mechanisms that turn a brain into a mind. Just as DNA’s structural logic dictates the functional logic of heredity, he reasoned, the structure of our neural circuitry must explain why we experience red as red, pain as painful, or ourselves as selves. Did he figure out the wiring? “No,” says Ramachandran. “But given another decade, he would have.”

Judging by Crick’s record, that’s plausible. A shoemaker’s son from the English Midlands, he interrupted his physics studies during World War II to design mines for the Admiralty. Such was his brilliance that Britain’s chief of scientific intelligence considered making him his successor. But what really interested Crick were two mysteries long deemed beyond the scope of science: the boundary between the living and the nonliving, and the origin of consciousness. Reckoning that the first problem better suited his existing skills, he set out to conquer it.

The task required a remarkable transformation—from physicist into biologist. At the advanced age of 33, Crick began working on a Ph.D. in protein structure at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory. Some colleagues shuddered at his loquacity, his raucous laugh, and his eagerness to show them how they had misinterpreted their own experiments. He found a kindred spirit, however, in a young American postdoc named James Watson. And thus began a pattern that would persist throughout Crick’s career: While Watson did most of the data-gathering (building models, toiling in the lab), Crick simply thought—using his prodigious mental machinery to analyze existing theories, parry those of his partner, and churn out his own. The process was so efficient that in February 1953, after just two years of work, Crick could breeze into the Eagle Pub (as Watson later wrote) “to tell everyone within hearing distance that we had found the secret of life.”

Along with brainpower, doggedness and audacity, the key to Crick’s success was his extraordinary mental flexibility. After solving the puzzle of DNA (for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1962 with Watson and their professor, Maurice Wilkins, who died in October), he tackled RNA, leading a successful effort to crack the genetic code and laying the groundwork for modern molecular biology. But Crick had never forgotten the second mystery that once tempted him. In 1976, at 60, he moved on to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, and set about remaking himself again—this time as a neuroscientist.

Before his arrival, the study of consciousness had been largely relegated to mystics and philosophers. “Francis made the subject respectable,” says Ramachandran. He proselytized relentlessly, recruited scientists to the field, and began framing the principal questions to be answered. Playing the Watson role was neurobiologist Christof Koch, a Caltech researcher 40 years his junior. As impatient with sloppy thinking as he was with adulation, Crick “didn’t suffer fools gladly,” says researcher Al Seckel. “I’ve seen him eat people alive at meetings.” Nor did he have much affection for the press; his reluctance to give interviews earned him the reputation of a recluse. Still, says Koch, “he was not at all aloof or arrogant or pompous, as so many other famous people are.” For anyone with a provocative bit of data or a persuasive argument to share, he was an enthusiastic listener. He was also the most avid of talkers, able in his 80s to exhaust younger colleagues on the drive home after all-day conferences. “Curiosity,” says Ramachandran, “dominated his existence.”

It did so to the very end. On the day Crick died, he was correcting a paper he’d written on the claustrum. “You could always get him excited about the newest experiment or some crazy idea,” says Koch. “He just loved figuring out how things worked.”

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