Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On Crick and Watson

Eminent biologist Erwin Chargaff was extremely bitter about not receiving a Nobel for his important work on DNA, which contributed to Crick and Watson's discovery of the double helix. I've been paging through his strange, but occasionally brilliant, memoir Heraclitean Fire: Sketches of a Life before Nature.

On meeting Crick and Watson at the Cavendish lab. Crick, 35, had already had a career in physics interrupted by the war and despaired of making his great contribution to science. Watson was a callow 23, fresh from Indiana.
It was clear to me that I was faced with a novelty: enormous ambition and aggressiveness, coupled with an almost complete ignorance of, and a contempt for, chemistry, that most real of exact sciences - a contempt that was later to have a nefarious influence on the development of "molecular biology." Thinking of the many sweaty years of making preparations of nucleic acids and of the innumerable hours spent on analyzing them, I could not help being baffled. I am sure that, had I had more contact with, for instance, theoretical physicists, my astonishment would have been less great. In any event, there they were, speculating, pondering, angling for information. ...
Thanks for digging around down there -- what did you find, again? Great! I've got more horsepower, so I'll just connect the dots for you now... :-) From Wikipedia on Crick:
Crick had to adjust from the "elegance and deep simplicity" of physics to the "elaborate chemical mechanisms that natural selection had evolved over billions of years." He described this transition as, "almost as if one had to be born again." According to Crick, the experience of learning physics had taught him something important—hubris—and the conviction that since physics was already a success, great advances should also be possible in other sciences such as biology. Crick felt that this attitude encouraged him to be more daring than typical biologists who tended to concern themselves with the daunting problems of biology and not the past successes of physics.


Dave Bacon said...


Anonymous said...

That is funny. I have a friend [polish emigre/cold war refugee/quantum optics kind of guy] whose daughter [graduated from CalTech with a 3.2/couldn't get a sniff from a medical school in four years of trying/got into the Ph.D. biology program at Harvard immediately] is going to school at the Institute for Systems Biology [just up the 5 from you/because she has her father's ["hubris"/love for solving problems/desire to help people]].

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