WHAT MAD PURSUIT
A Personal View of Scientific Discovery
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Francis Crick is, of course, renowned as the co-discoverer, with James Watson, of the structure of the DNA molecule. This book is largely though not exclusively about that discovery.
The first chapter provides a brief outline of Crick's early years, from birth to the end of the Second World War. By that time he had earned a not particularly good degree in physics and had worked, during the war, on the design of magnetic and acoustic mines. When peace came he decided he wanted to change to biology and this eventually took him to Cambridge.
From this point the focus of the book shifts to science and the nature of scientific inquiry, and Crick includes details about his own career only in so far as these are needed to clarify the issues he was dealing with. The DNA story occupies Chapters 2 to 8; subsequent chapters look at the consequences of the discovery, including work on proteins and the discovery of messenger RNA. In an epilogue, Crick describes the work he did later, at the Salk Institute in the USA, on the brain.
The book is aimed at both Crick's fellow scientists and the general public, so there is a fair amount of technical discussion in some of the chapters; this is amplified in two short appendices. Of course, a vast amount has been learnt about molecular biology in the two decades that have elapsed since the book was written, so the main reason for reading it today is not so much to acquire an understanding of DNA but rather to see how Crick was led to reach the insights he did. There were plenty of mistakes and wrong turnings along the way, and Crick shows how these were inevitable and even at times serendipitous.
Another reason for reading the book is to encounter Crick's ideas about science in general and biology in particular. Although he insists that evolution is the key to our understanding of biology, he does not think that evolutionary arguments help much in guiding biological research. This is because the details of biology are so complex and so individualised in particular cases that there is no substitute for actually investigating them directly. Armchair reasoning can easily lead one astray. "Theorists in biology should realize that it is extremely unlikely that they will produce a useful theory … just by having a bright idea distantly related to what they imagine to be the facts."
This attitude continued to guide Crick when he worked on the brain. He had little patience with cognitive science. "It has been said, somewhat unkindly, that any subject that has 'science' in its title is unlikely to be one." Cognitive scientists, Crick says, treat the brain as a black box, make a theoretical model of the postulated mental processes, and then test the model by computer simulation to see if it works as expected. The neglect of neurons, Crick holds, is unjustified. "It is not usually advantageous to have one hand tied behind one's back when tackling a very difficult job."
As these quotations will show, Crick wrote well and the book provides a fascinating insight into the thinking of one of the foremost scientific minds of the twentieth century.
19 June 2010
%T What Mad Pursuit
%S A Personal View of Scientific Discovery
%A Crick, Francis
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolson
%G ISBN 0-297-79535-X
%P ix = 182pp
%K autobiography, science
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