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Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code (Eminent Lives) (rough edge) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 13, 2006

4.5 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Eminent Lives; First Edition edition (June 13, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006082333X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060823337
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.9 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #625,408 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is an excellent contrast to The Double Helix. That book was written as if you were part of the ongoing process through the eyes of a young James Watson. It had all the strengths and weaknesses of a novelistic, real-time approach to both work and life by a young man in the early 1950’s. On the other hand, though roughly the same length, this book is reflective, carefully written, well-documented and is a third party view of the discovery process. It is also much wider in scope covering all of Francis Crick’s life. As one reviewer noted, the subtitle is somewhat misleading in that, unlike the double helix, Crick (who admitted as much) was more of a synthesizer of data on the genetic code than he was a discoverer. That does not at all downplay his role in figuring out and then spelling out for the first time on paper the table for the code. But other people did most of the basic work, especially Nirenberg, Khorana and Holley who were recognized for “breaking the genetic code” by the Nobel Prize in 1968. As the author notes, Crick’s incredible genius was to be able to visualize structures in his mind. This comes out several times in the book but most especially in the discovery of the DNA helix and in laying out the table for the code. Ridley takes the reader through Crick’s thought processes as he struggles, stumbles, succeeds and lives with some of the most important work in the history of science.

I found the first half of the book as interesting as The Double Helix. Ridley does a fine job of spelling out Crick’s earlier life, his incredibly outgoing personality, his personal mannerisms that often irritated his colleagues, and his ability to do his best work through dialogue with deep intellectual partners such as Watson and Sydney Brenner.
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