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August 6, 2006
Where Do They Come From?
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.
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