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His Mind Was Full of Life

August 05, 2004

Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA who died last week at the age of 88, seemed from the beginning to have lived above the plane of ordinary human pursuits. Childhood friends say that Crick, when he wasn't musing about the nature of the universe in his bedroom, could often be found concocting chemistry experiments in his parents' attic.

He won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the code of life with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins. In 1977, the British-born scientist moved to the Salk Institute in La Jolla after its leaders promised to support his renegade ambition to challenge scientific assumptions within and outside his academic field. Crick seemed comfortable in his aloofness; he turned down all requests to speak or receive awards.

But the wildly inquisitive nature that had set him apart as a boy went with him to La Jolla. Rather than bask in Nobel-related adulation, Crick began a risky second career. Whereas a philanthropist might risk poverty by handing out money, Crick risked social ostracism by throwing out for argument any idea that came into his independent mind.

Some of them edged into crackpot territory. Take his 1981 "panspermia" hypothesis that space travelers from a higher civilization may have seeded Earth with microbial life. Crick himself came to see that one as "nutty."

However, other ideas -- such as his speculation a decade later that dreams are the brain's way of keeping house, of deciding to fold one experience into short-term memory and another into long-term memory -- continue to spark respectable debate among accomplished academics.

To see why science today needs more Francis Cricks, look at all the recent grousing by academics over a narrowness of vision clouding too much U.S. research. Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists blame the problem at least partly on the growing role that drug-company and other private-sector money plays in academic research, funding that usually encourages researchers to focus on getting products to market.

It's hard to find a high school biology book that doesn't show the model of DNA that Crick and Watson crafted out of colored beads, cardboard and sheet metal. But given the state of so much scientific research today, it would be nice to see a second model in those textbooks, of Francis Crick, the boy who asked bold questions and never stopped.

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