Archive for May 7th, 2009

The acerbic Crick

May 7, 2009

In general, it looks like Crick does not like mathematicians, especially ones who dabble into biology (as well as those who work in more computational or numerical aspects of biology).

Here is for example some of his sentences about the mathematician Rene Thom:

There for the first time I met the mathematician Rene Thom. Almost the first thing he told me was that our work on the acridine mutants must be wrong. … Either he had not read our paper carefully enough or, if he had read it, he had not understood it. But then it is my experience most mathematicians are intellectually lazy and especially dislike reading experimental papers.

My impression of Rene Thom was of a good mathematician but a somewhat arrogant one, who disliked having to explain his ideas in terms nonmathematicians could understand.

My other impression was that Thom really understood very little about how science was done. What he did understand he didn’t like and referred to it disparagingly as “Anglo-Saxon”. He seemed to me to have a very strong biological intuitions but unfortunately of negative sign. I suspected that any biological idea he might have would probably be wrong.

I would really love to know what Thom thought of Crick too! And, yes, he called mathematicians intellectually lazy!

Here is Crick on some subjects which call themselves science:

It has been said, somewhat unkindly, that any subject that has “science” in its name is unlikely to be one

Did I tell you that I work in computational materials science? 🙂

Here is Crick on theology and philosophy as well as theoretical work in cognitive neuroscience:

I soon found out that much theoretical work was going on. It tended to fall into a number of somewhat separate schools, each of which was reluctant to quote the work of others. This is usually characteristic of a subject that is not producing any definite conclusion. (Philosophy and theology might be good examples.)

Finally, here is Crick on science, engineering, and mathematics:

Part of the trouble with theoretical neuroscience is that it lies somewhat in between three other fields. At one extreme we have those researchers working directly on the brain. This is science. It is attempting to discover what devices nature actually uses. At the other extreme lies artificial intelligence. This is engineering. Its object is to produce a device that works in the desired way. The third field is mathematics. Mathematics cares neither for science nor for engineering(except as a source of problems) but only about the relationship between abstract entities.

Before I end this post, here are a couple of other books that Crick recommends:

Fortunately for those who really want to know what it was all about, more scholarly works exist. Robert Olby, in The path to the Double Helix, has taken the story from the development of the idea of macromolecules up to the discovery itself. Horace Freeland Judson’s account, entitled The eighth day of creation (probably suggested by the publisher), is in some ways more vivid, since it contains lengthy verbatim quotations from most of the participants. His story begins nearer in time to the discovery of the double helix and continues for another dozen years or so until the genetic code was unraveled. Both are big, thick books. They may take a little time to get into but they provide the most complete and the most balanced accounts so far of the beginnings of classical molecular biology.

This is really the last point that I want to make about Crick’s book which I have almost finished (but for ten pages of appendix or so). Towards the later sections of the book I also found some random sentences, like this one for example:

Not that there were no distractions. One evening, after dinner, I was working away in the lab when a glamorous friend of mine turned up and stood behind me while I continued to manipulate the tubes and plates. “Come to a party” she said, running her fingers through my hair. “I’m far too busy,” I said, “but where is it?” “Well,” she said, “we thought we’d hold it in your house.” Eventually a compromise was reached. She and Odile would organize a small party and I would join them when I’d finished.

Probably, Crick promised his glamorous friend that she would make an appearance in his book, and is just keeping his promise!