Corante

About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Emolecules
ChemSpider
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
PubChem
Not Voodoo
DailyMed
Druglib
Clinicaltrials.gov

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
Kilomentor
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
ChemBark
Realizations in Biostatistics
Chemjobber
Pharmalot
ChemSpider Blog
Pharmagossip
Med-Chemist
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
SimBioSys
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Business|Bytes|Genes|Molecules
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Depth-First
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa


Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
FuturePundit
Aetiology
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Sciencebase
Pharyngula
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net


Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
GruntDoc
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine


Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem


Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Instapundit
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus


Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« The Last Word on Eerie Glowing Labs | Main | A Vaccine Against Putting on Weight? »

August 6, 2006

Where Do They Come From?

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

I've been re-reading the late Francis Crick's "What Mad Pursuit", as I do every so often, and something stuck me about his career. Crick came out of nowhere. He was a disgruntled physicist with no particular training in biology, and as far as I can tell, no one (outside of a small circle of co-workers) had ever heard of him while he did the work that won him a Nobel Prize. But he was not only instrumental in working out the DNA structure with James Watson, but he then went on to do a tremendous amount of work on the genetic code and RNA, an accomplishment easily worth a second Nobel. (This part of his career is the subject of a new book by Matt Ridley, just out last month, which I plan to read at the first opportunity).

Now, clearly, the man was in the right place at the right time. But (as he himself pointed out), the key was that he realized that while it was happening. There have been any number of scientists perfectly placed to make great discoveries who failed to realize the importance of what they were (or should be) doing. An equal number have had some idea of what the stakes were, but got bogged down in one sort of mistake or another and never reached the heights they could have.

Crick seems to have had a gift for recognizing important problems that had a chance of being solved. His advice for finding these and working through them seems to me to be extremely sound. Among his recommendations are to not put too much faith in your own negative hypotheses (reasons why your ideas won't work), to not be too quick to use Occam's Razor in biology (since evolution doesn't necessarily favor simple and beautiful solutions, just ones that work), and to not fall in love with a particular model or theory to the point where you care more for it (for its own sake) than whether it's really true.

So, I can't help but wonder: how many more unrecognized Francis Cricks are out there? How many will we ever hear of? Will a person of this level always find a way to be known, or was Thomas Gray right? "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air". I hope not, but I fear so.

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


COMMENTS

1. steve s on August 6, 2006 9:32 PM writes...

I have a hand wavy statistical answer which comes down on Thomas Grey's side. To develop into greatness requires circumstances: the right college scout sees you on the right night, the right scholarship makes it affordable to go to college, the right graduate advisor comes along...it's easy for me to believe that for every Michael Jordan, there are ten coulda-beens installing cable, working at the A&P, manning that road crew.

Permalink to Comment

2. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on August 7, 2006 7:03 AM writes...

Who did Crick play for again?
I think the easiest way to realize that you're at a point of opportunity is to work in an area that is consumed by one of those either/or debates that seem to be common in science.

Permalink to Comment

3. Bob on August 7, 2006 9:58 AM writes...

There has been a similar debate in US distance running circles for the past decade or so; why are the Kenyans destoying us at every level? Simply put, a huge percentage of Kenya runs- it is cultural, and it is like basketball in the US- the one sure fire way to fame and fortune. In the US, maybe 1% of possible world caliber runners ever try the sport, beacause baseball, basketball, etc. have so much cachet. So, the end result is the we haven't won an Olypic medal since the 1970's. I suspect that science is pretty damn similar.
Have anyone else read "Billion Dollar Molecule?" Stu Screiber's path to college and grad school makes it pretty obvious how close he was to becoming an electrician....

Permalink to Comment

4. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on August 7, 2006 11:46 AM writes...

I don't think Steve and Bob are arguing along the same lines as Derek was. If you want to pick atheletes that illustrate DL's point I would suggest Antonio Gates and Marion Jones, both of whom moved from basketball to other sports when they realized, or were convinced by others, that they had the skills to excel in another sport in ways that others who came through the traditional paths did not.
Maybe Jones isn't the greatest example as she seems to have been better at track than basketball but was on a championship team in the latter. If Michael Jordan had been a better baseball player he might have made the list also.
As to the question of what allows some scientists to realize they are at a moment of opportunity that others miss, in addition to what I posted above I would add that the ability to think in both concrete and abstract terms about the same subject matter is crucial.

Permalink to Comment

5. Jeremiah on August 7, 2006 12:39 PM writes...

I would assume that the number of Cricks is proportional to the number of Rosalind Franklins.

Permalink to Comment

6. Ashutosh Jogalekar on August 7, 2006 1:04 PM writes...

I think Crick also had one other great thing going for him; Jim Watson. Especially Watson's attitude of irreverently criticizing him, a habit which Crick himself relished (which inevitably did not endear him to his colleagues). He was also not afraid of making mistakes, another quality that is easier enunciated than adopted.

I think one way to ensure success is to work on important problems. Daniel Koshland said that you are going to spend equal time working on trivial problems and important ones, so might as well work on the important ones. But again, how do you know which problems are important? In Crick's case, the problem was obviously important.

Have you read his later work in neuroscience? I want to.

Permalink to Comment

7. Derek Lowe on August 7, 2006 2:09 PM writes...

Jeremiah, I'm fairly sure that you're trying to make a cheap shot there, unless it's a not-too-successful joke. The "they got it all from Rosalind Franklin" story is a appealing myth for some folks, but it's not well supported.

Franklin never seemed to have considered herself robbed by Watson and Crick, and in fact lived with Crick and his wife in her final months. And being dead, she didn't have much to contribute to the mRNA/tRNA story during the 1960s. . .

Permalink to Comment

8. RKN on August 7, 2006 7:48 PM writes...

  re: Crick's recommendations:

  ...to not be too quick to use Occam's Razor in biology (since evolution doesn't necessarily favor simple and beautiful solutions, just   ones that work)

And yet, as it turned out, it takes only four relatively similar molecules alternately linked together via phosphodiester bonds to encode our entire proteome. Personally, I would call that a remarkably simple and beautiful "solution". ;-)

Permalink to Comment

9. Novice Chemist on August 8, 2006 7:44 AM writes...

One thing that you hear about the US is that we're pretty good at allowing people to switch careers relatively late in life. It'd be interesting if one day of the year, we had a 'try another career' day and the professional-type careers that people associate with lifelong commitment (science, engineering, medicine) would have open houses.

Although, it does seem that there are more scientists that become lawyers than there are English teachers that become scientists.

Permalink to Comment

10. Jeremiah on August 8, 2006 8:36 AM writes...

Derek, the shot was neither cheap nor a joke. It certainly wasn't directed at Watson, but the lack of contribution she received and the way history has glossed over her accomplishments. Her feelings on the subject are wholly irrelevant to me, as this subject, indeed all of science, is devoid of females with significant accomplishments. It continues to support the stereotype that women aren't good at science and lead people like Larry Summers to erroneous conclusions. When people become defensive of this subject, as though people that mention it are slandering Watson and Crick it only perpetuates its obscurity.

Permalink to Comment

11. Jeremiah on August 8, 2006 8:43 AM writes...

To further clarify, if the previous post wasn't successful, the comment:
"I would assume that the number of Cricks is proportional to the number of Rosalind Franklins."

Was a proportionality at the number of highly contributing male scientists to the number of highly contributing female scientists, yet sarcastically suggesting the number of female scientists have gone unrecognized. If you feel that Rosalind Franklin's contribution didn't merit a hardy dose of recognition (which she did indeed not get), then you're mislead.

Permalink to Comment

12. Derek Lowe on August 8, 2006 9:19 AM writes...

I misinterpreted you, then - to me, the comment read that someone like Crick couldn't make it without ripping off an uncredited Franklin in the background. The issue you really meant to bring up is still a debating ground, but not one that I take any offense at.

Permalink to Comment

13. Jeremiah on August 8, 2006 9:21 AM writes...

Good. At least you know which side of the debate I'm on.

Permalink to Comment

14. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on August 8, 2006 1:26 PM writes...

"Although, it does seem that there are more scientists that become lawyers than there are English teachers that become scientists."
I think scientists become patent lawyers because there are scientific issues involved, and because it's more lucrative to be a lawyer with a specialty than just a lawyer.
As an English major who became a biostatistician (I don't know if that counts as "scientist") I think that the aspect of "falling off the wagon" is big. There are so many prerequisites to accomplishment that taking a break makes catching up seem impossible. I had to spend two years taking undergrad math courses in continuing ed classes to prepare for grad school-often with other students half my age. I could understand someone hitting the "why bothah?" point.
I went in intending to get a Master's, but I would have stopped there even if a PhD was part of the original game plan.

Permalink to Comment

15. RKN on August 8, 2006 8:30 PM writes...

here are so many prerequisites to accomplishment that taking a break makes catching up seem impossible. I had to spend two years taking undergrad math courses in continuing ed classes to prepare for grad school-often with other students half my age. I could understand someone hitting the "why bothah?" point.

I think I mentioned in a comment here before that I recently returned to school to get my PhD in Pharmacology, with a lab focus in proteomics. I'm 46. Personally, I "bothah" to continue because I like the science and the opportunities once I finish seem endless. It's a real renaissance period in my life, and tho it's demanding I enjoy it greatly. Plus, knowing I can still compete academically with people half my age is kind of cool really. Keeps me feeling young.

Permalink to Comment

16. anonchem on August 9, 2006 11:57 PM writes...

i side with jeremiah on this. franklin did get ripped off, which they as much as admitted. cmon, looking through her notes and discussing her data when she wasn't there? what watson and crick had was arrogant balls, which apparently will carry you as far in science as talent. franklin died young of breast cancer and was unable to defend her legacy.

Permalink to Comment

17. JB on August 10, 2006 8:21 PM writes...

Derek: The “they got it all from Rosalind Franklin" story is a appealing myth for some folks, but it's not well supported”
Perhaps you should read Brenda Maddox’s Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA as well as check out this link:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/photo51/
By all accounts, Wilkins showed Franklin’s results to Watson and Crick without her knowledge. Clearly, the animosity between Wilkins and Franklin influenced how this thing played out. They also got access to the MRC report which contained Franklin’s data and conclusions.
Here’s the link to King’s College where she did her DNA work:
http://www.kcl.ac.uk/about/history/people/wilkins.html
She left King’s College with the precondition that she not do any DNA research which lead her back to her original research in coal and later on, in virus. I admit I was also puzzled when I read that she lived with Crick and his wife while recuperating from ovarian cancer and even took a cross-country drive with Watson when she visited the US. I can only surmise she did not realize they had access to her data which were crucial to their solving the DNA structure.
Even Watson and Crick later on admitted that they wouldn’t have been able to solve the structure of DNA without her data.

Permalink to Comment

18. GATC on August 10, 2006 8:33 PM writes...

You guys haven't got a clue. First, pop open a good bottle of wine and read Watson's "The Race for the Double Helix". This should only take an hour or two for the average reader. Then, to get the full experience of someone like Crick's mind, read Horace Freeland Judson's "The Eight Day of Creation". Once complete, the medicinal chemist types can then go back to their electron clouds, rotovacs, and ether fumes and such.

Permalink to Comment

19. Derek Lowe on August 10, 2006 8:36 PM writes...

JB, I'm familiar with Brenda Maddox's views. If we're going to have a villian in the story, perhaps Wilkins should be it.

Francis Crick pointed out, though, that the although the X-ray data that Watson had seen was enough to show them that they were definitely on the right track with a helix, it was not enough to confirm their model (at least, not what they saw of it at the time). Both of them, especially Watson, still had cold feet as they wrote the first Nature communication, fearing that they were going to make fools of themselves with a wrong guess.

Crick speculated that Wilkins would have probably solved the structure some months later if they hadn't (or if Pauling hadn't hit on it in the interim), but only if he was serious about finally doing some model building instead of trying to do it with the X-ray data alone.

Permalink to Comment

20. Pharmachick on August 10, 2006 9:58 PM writes...

I think Steve S missed Derek's point somewhat

"...To develop into greatness requires circumstances: the right college scout sees you on the right night, the right scholarship makes it affordable to go to college, the right graduate advisor comes along..."

isnt the point that you DONT have to be scouted, lauded, pampered, go to a great school blah blah blah. Rather, its that you're a genuine scientist head-wise rather than simply a good bench/grant/departmental allocation/PR technician?

FWIW I think Rosemary *was* somewhat robbed but things can and do change - I'm hoping so anyhow: note the "chick" part of the moniker. Besides, the fact that this debate is occurring means that her contribution is widely recognized today (and whats a medal and $1M between friends anyway)?

Permalink to Comment

POST A COMMENT




Remember Me?



EMAIL THIS ENTRY TO A FRIEND

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):




RELATED ENTRIES
Weirdly, Tramadol Is Not a Natural Product After All
Thiola, Retrophin, Martin Shkrell, Reddit, and More
The Most Unconscionable Drug Price Hike I Have Yet Seen
Clinical Trial Fraud
Grinding Up Your Reactions
Peer Review, Up Close and Personal
Google's Calico Moves Into Reality
Reactive Groups: Still Not So Reactive