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Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code (Eminent Lives) Paperback – Bargain Price, November 3, 2009

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Francis Crick, who died at the age of eighty-eight in 2004, will be bracketed with Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein as one of the great scientists of all time. Between 1953 and 1966 he made and led a revolution in biology by discovering, quite literally, the secret of life: the digital cipher at the heart of heredity that distinguishes living from non-living things--the genetic code. His own discoveries--though he always worked with one other partner and did much of his thinking in conversation--include not only the double helix but the whole mechanism of protein synthesis, the three-letter nature of the code, and much of the code itself.

Matt Ridley's biography traces Crick's life from middle-class mediocrity in the English Midlands, through a lackluster education and six years designing magnetic mines for the Royal Navy, to his leap into biology at the age of thirty-one. While at Cambridge, he suddenly began to display the unique visual imagination and intense tenacity of thought that would allow him to see the solutions to several great scientific conundrums--and to see them long before most biologists had even conceived of the problems. Having set out to determine what makes living creatures alive and having succeeded, he immigrated at age sixty to California and turned his attention to the second question that had fascinated him since his youth: What makes conscious creatures conscious? Time ran out before he could find the answer.

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by Paul Johnson

Thomas Jefferson: Author of America
by Christopher Hitchens

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--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Francis Crick (1916–2004) is a natural addition to the Eminent Lives series. Best known for his codiscovery of the structure of DNA alongside James Watson, Crick is a canonical figure in modern science; award-winning British science writer Ridley (The Agile Gene) is an expert and distinguished author of popular books on biological science. But one wishes the strictures of this series gave Ridley more space in which to work; the prose is crisp and forthright, but he barely has enough room to recount the basic contours of Crick's voracious scientific career, leaving the reader with but a few fleeting glimpses of the man's deeper character. Readers of Watson's The Double Helix who pick up this book looking for a similarly idiosyncratic portrait of a scientific life will be disappointed, but one might argue that this spare, straightforward volume is a more fitting tribute to a scientist who lived a relatively modest public life while striving to understand the basic workings of life and consciousness. (June 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Eminent Lives
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (November 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061148458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061148453
  • ASIN: B004IK9FKE
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,116,823 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Matt Ridley's books have been shortlisted for six literary awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (for Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters). His most recent book, The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture, won the award for the best science book published in 2003 from the National Academies of Science. He has been a scientist, a journalist, and a national newspaper columnist, and is the chairman of the International Centre for Life, in Newcastle, England. Matt Ridley is also a visiting professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Matt Ridley has captured much of Francis Crick's essence in a very short, credible, engaging book. He has captured Crick's contributions to the discovery of DNA, but he also resurrects Crick's equally great contributions to understanding DNA's coding scheme. He has, I believe, portrayed the essence of Crick's thinking style - Crick's superb ability to visualize details in three-dimensional space; his life-long need to talk and debate with close colleagues; his intellectual pragmatism, his diligent reading abilities, his playfulness, and his ability to focus for long periods. Ridley has captured Crick's many moments of being polite, spirited, friendly, accommodating, and curious. But Ridley has also captured the stronger aspects of Crick's personality. These include his ability to take strong stands against things he despised, such as vitalism, royalty, and` organized religion. At times, these strong stands could be courageous and insightful. At others, Crick's behaviors could seem downright stubborn, cold and mean. A vitriolic attack on the Richard Gregory comes to mind, and is described in the later pages of the book. Another remarkable aspect of the book is its treatment of the mundane and perhaps "mediocre" Crick. The portrait of Crick and his work in WWII is fascinating for this reason, and invites considerable speculation.

Ridley weighs in on the well-known, controversial, mysterious and misunderstood aspects of the discovery of DNA. He includes sane descriptions and analyses of Crick's storied colleagues -Watson, Wilkins, Franklin, Brenner, Orgel, and many others. Ridley's treatment of Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, Pauling, Chargaff and others involved in the controversial steps toward the discovery of DNA is well worth a look.
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Format: Hardcover
I bought this book mainly to find out how the discovery of the workings of DNA was carried out. But it is also a biography of Crick and Ridley portrays Crick the person well, so much so that I was very sad when I got to the part about Crick's death.

Watson had previously told the story of the discovery of the DNA structure in his book The Double Helix, but in his version, he tried to present the events as he saw them when he was living through them. Ridley gives a more objective picture and he also has a lot of information that Watson had to omit because he didn't know it at the time. Ridley's is far better as science history; Watson's is a helluva lot better story.

Watson and Crick approached the question of DNA structure with different motives. As Watson tells it - and his story rings true in this regard - he was a young, unknown scientist looking for a project that would establish him as more than just a bright post-doc. Crick, a militant atheist, wanted to show that there was some important aspect of life that could be explained without resorting to the hypothesis of God. (Numerous people had already done this; Crick wanted to extend the work in some significant way.) DNA was perfect for both men. Significantly, it was Crick who insisted on including a line in the original letter to Nature saying that the structure suggested a method for replication.

With the double helix nailed down, Watson could say "Mission Accomplished" and devote some energy to his next major project: looking for a wife. (That's how he tells it in the sequel.) For Crick however, the job had barely begun. To make his point, he had to show how DNA did its job, using only the laws of chemistry.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was heartened to read in this book that Francis Crick steadfastly refused to accept honorary degrees and other such dubious signs of distinction that academics like to bestow on one another. Of course Crick received the Nobel prize, so it was easy for him to snub his nose at the honor-grubbing of his lesser colleagues. Still, his behavior in this area is exemplary, and reassuring.

While I got this glimpse of Crick's personality, I did not learn as much as I had hoped about DNA. That is due to my faulty background in science at least as much as to any fault in Ridley's prose. But Ridley did inspire me to get back to Watson's "Double Helix," and eventually, I hope, I will arrive at more of an insight into the intellectual revolution that was brought about by Crick and Watson.

As others have noted, the book - so full of names and places - cries out for photographs. There are none. And it cries out for an index, of which there is none. Please, Atlas Books, relax your purse strings a bit and provide such things for the second edition.
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Format: Hardcover

This book, by professor and author Matt Ridley, succinctly tells the life story of Dr. Francis Crick (1916 to 2004), perhaps best known for discovering, along with Dr. James Watson, the structure of DNA. (Ridley tells us that "I first met Francis Crick through my wife [a professor], who worked with him in 1985.")

Roughly, this book can be divided into five parts:

(1) Crick's early years

(2) His discovery, along with Watson, of the double helical structure of DNA

(3) Crick's discovery of the genetic code ("as great an achievement as the double helix")

(4) His interesting life after the double helix and the genetic code

(5) Crick's work in neuroscience and human consciousness

Besides Ridley's generally easy to read narrative, there are also included actual parts of letters and quotations by Crick and other influential others of that time. Ridley did not only rely only on other written sources to create his interesting and illuminating main narrative but also relied on interviews with Crick's second wife and his grown children.

As I was reading this book, I came across surprisingly many things I did not know. (I say surprisingly because I have read quite a bit on the discovery of DNA's structure but admit that I knew very little about Francis Crick the man.) As I was reading this book, I got the impression that Crick was quite a remarkable person. This impression lasted until I read the last few pages of chapter ten.

Ridley could have not written these last few pages and only written that Crick was extraordinary in every way. But he chose not too instead giving us details of some of Crick's bizarre beliefs. (Some of these beliefs may get some readers upset.
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