Autumn books: the theorist

The last of my Autumn books selections from Nature is a review of Matt Ridley’s Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code by Horace Freeland Judson. (Judson’s most famous book is a scientific history of the discovery of the double helix and subsequent research: The Eighth Day of Creation.)

From the Nature review of Ridley’s new book:

"The subtitle is symptomatic, for Crick was both less and far more than "discoverer of the genetic code". Breaking the code was a paradigmatic example of collective–competitive effort. The idea that there must be a code had been put forward in 1944 by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger. From the moment in the spring of 1953 when Crick and James Watson announced the structure of DNA, the need to determine how the structure carries the code was obvious. That summer, the eccentric physicist George Gamow was the first to propose an actual mechanism, wildly wrong but forcing the question. The task itself — to identify which of the 64 triplet codons of the four bases in DNA specify which of 20-odd amino acids — took several years and at least half a dozen scientists and laboratories to solve. Crick himself did very little of the laboratory work. Rather, he was the explicator, the arbiter, the taskmaster.

Crick was above all the theorist — and that’s the unifying thread. Not just with the coding problem but throughout his career, Crick was the one who put other scientists’ thoughts in order. He soaked up data, mostly other people’s, but saw beyond the data to their meaning, their shape, their implications. He found principles, and did it with a preternatural clarity of mind and in inimitable style."

As before, if you would like to read this review in full, or any of the other reviews in the Nature Autumn books section, please drop a line in the comments.