Tuesday 21 December 2010

Francis Crick - What Mad Pursuit

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Francis Crick's What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery


I guess the risk of reading autobiographies is that you might come out not enjoying the book because you don't like the person.

In James Watson's The Double Helix Francis Crick is painted as brilliant, impatient, prone to irritate others with his bumptious nature and unwelcome knowledge-sharing. Watson portrays himself as the shyer, more uncertain half of the duo - out of place both culturally (as an American) and scientifically (he's blagging time away when he's meant to be working on - phages, I think).

Crick's What Mad Pursuit is, like The Double Helix, a story about scientific research. He is however a more self-conscious story-teller than Watson, possibly because he is writing after several attempts have been made to tell the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA in different media.

As he writes at the beginning of the chapter 'Books and movies about DNA':

I recall when Jim was writing his book he read a chapter to me while we were dining together at a small restaurant near Harvard Square. I found it difficult to take his account seriously. "Who," I asked myself, "could possibly what to read stuff like this?" Little did I know!

Crick shows some impatience with the general reader:

The average adult can usually enjoy something only if it relates to what he knows already, and what he knows about science is in many cases pitifully inadequate. What almost everybody is familiar with is the vagaries of personal behaviour. People find it much easier to appreciate stories of competition, frustration, and animosity, against a background of parties, foreign girls, and punting on the river, than the details of the science involved.

This cut me to my reading quick. It's shit like this that I get off on - and it's stuff like this that has taken me from someone who gave up on chemistry in 5th form (because I, with typical teenage disdain, despised my teacher) and suffered through physics in 6th form without learning a damn thing, to someone who now actually understand what the LHC is there to do.

Crick often comes across as quite abrasive. His demeaning adjective of choice is 'sloppy' - sloppy thinking, sloppy model-making, sloppy maths. My favourite write-off, when describing a mathematician he clearly felt to be lack-lustre: "Either he had not read our paper carefully enough or, if he had read it, he had not understood it. But then in my experience most mathematicians are intellectually lazy and especially dislike reading experimental papers."

So, the tone of the book was not one I admired. I did come to appreciate Crick's sheer mental avidity: in his sixties he moved to the Salk Institute and took up serious research on the brain, applying the same vigour and challenging attitude to this that he did back in Cambridge in the 1950s.

And one small paragraph just blew my mind:

The laws of physics, it is believed, are the same everywhere in the universe. This is unlikely to to be true of biology. We have no idea how similar extraterrestrial biology (if it exists) is to our own. We may consider it likely that it too will be governed by natural selection, or something rather like it, but even this is only a plausible guess.

The closest I've ever come to a religious feeling was when I read about cosmic rays - muons that come from outerspace, pass through the earth's atmosphere, and down into the Earth. I suddenly felt like something much bigger than myself. Particles that had come from the sun could be passing through me right now. Light, sound, rainbows - none have had this almost physical sense of coming to an understanding and connection that this did.

The three sentences above had a similar thrill. I've never been interested in aliens. But the idea that they might not be subject to the same evolutionary mechanism that we are - I imagine I felt the same way that some Christian astronomer did once, laying eyes on a distant galaxy and suddenly wondering - can my God be there too?

And for that moment, I will forgive much else.

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