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Nobel Laureate Francis H.c. Crick Discovered Dna. Now He's Hunting For The Very Essence Of Our Being--the Source Of Conscious Thought.

November 17, 2002|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Michael A. Hiltzik is a Times staff writer. He last wrote for the magazine about the dispute over screenwriting credits for the film "Spider-Man."

His gait is slower now, his voice no longer quite as resonant as the one that used to dominate conversation in sitting rooms around Cambridge, England, in the 1950s, proclaiming his colleagues' errors and oversights and attracting attention like a magnet drawing iron.

"I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood" was James D. Watson's appraisal of his research partner in the famous opening line of "The Double Helix," his 1968 memoir of the quest that turned these two young scientists into household names. But time has moderated, if scarcely stilled, the braying laugh that Watson depicted as so penetrating that eminent scientists would flee when they heard it coming down the hall. And Crick's famous habit of haunting other peoples' labs and discerning the importance of their discoveries before they did themselves has diminished, in large part because, at age 86, Crick finds it hard to get around much anymore.

"It pays to sit in on experiments," he says a little wistfully from the dining room of his La Jolla home. "I do go across when I can" to laboratories at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where he is president emeritus, and to nearby UC San Diego. "When you go to experimental labs you pick up things about what they're doing that you won't otherwise."

But the traits that made Francis H.C. Crick one of the preeminent theorists of modern science--not to mention one of its premier intellectual provocateurs--are still evident. There is his gleeful pleasure in worrying a scientific problem until it begins to yield, his eagerness to engage experts in a wide range of fields on questions likely to cross the artificial boundaries of individual disciplines, his constant reminders that the role of hypothesis in science is not to isolate an experiment from unexpected paths of inquiry but to provide a rough road map through a murky landscape.

Today, four decades after having won a Nobel Prize and a permanent place in the pantheon of biology for helping to explicate the ancient structure of DNA (the double helix of Watson's book title), Francis Crick is devoting his robust mind to solving a riddle of biology emerging from the opposite end of the evolutionary scale. His goal is to identify the physical basis--the "neural correlate" in scientific terminology--of the very quality that separates humankind from animals and machines: consciousness.

In the last two decades, Crick has become one of the most prolific theorists of this search. In articles, many co-written with Caltech professor Christof Koch, Crick has exhorted his colleagues to explore the physical mechanisms that make us thinking individuals.

At the heart of the Crick-Koch hypothesis is a simple idea with vast implications. It is that consciousness, rather than representing some spiritual or God-given quality, is a biological process like digestion or circulation, generated by the activity of neurons in the brain. As he wrote in his 1994 book, "The Astonishing Hypothesis": "You, your joys and your sorrows--your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

Those words have energized a generation of scientists delving into how neurons communicate with each other and with other structures in the brain and the body. They have produced an explosion of interest in how the electrochemical impulses of millions of organic cells generate images, ideas, desires and memories. "What we've done is make the problem respectable," Crick says, padding around his home, his gangly frame shrouded within a bright knit cardigan. "We nag people."

That's an appropriate way to put it, because within academic circles the scientific study of consciousness was until recently a hard sell. In 1951, when Crick and Watson launched their study of DNA, some molecular biologists thought that the search for the molecular structure was reasonable and the goal attainable. By 1953, DNA's role in carrying genetic information was understood in principle, and several research teams at major universities were racing to decipher its code. Watson later admitted in "The Double Helix" that he assumed that the victors would win the Nobel Prize.

Consciousness is different. Crick acknowledges that consciousness is bound to be a far more complex quarry than DNA. "There are lots of bits of business to explain," he says cheerfully, relishing the sheer intricacy of the quest. "Aesthetic responses to things, long-term plans and so on. The double helix was simple because it goes back to the very beginning of life, when things had to be simple. But consciousness is the product of millions of years of evolution."

Until recently, consciousness remained the exclusive province of philosophers and theologians. They often appealed to concepts such as God or "spirit" to explain the distinction between physical phenomena--say, plant growth or digestion--and mental phenomena such as memory and emotion.

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