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Francis Crick: Hunter of Life's Secrets

Subject Area(s):  General Interest TitlesAutobiography/BiographyHistory of Science

By Robert Olby

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© 2009 • 538 pp, illus., indexes
Hardcover •
ISBN  978-087969798-3

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  •     Description    
  •     Contents    
  •     Reviews    
  •     Related Titles    


This engrossing biography by one of molecular biology’s foremost scholars reveals the remarkable evolution of Francis Crick’s scientific career and the shaping of his personality. From unpromising beginnings, he became a vital contributor to a remarkably creative period in science. Olby chronicles Crick’s life from his early studies in biophysics, to the discovery of the structure of DNA, to his later work in neuroscience and the nature of consciousness. This account is woven together with insights into his personal life gained through access to Crick’s papers, family, and friends. Robert Olby’s book is a richly detailed portrait of one of the great scientists of our time.

About the author: Robert Olby, a prominent historian of science, is research professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the highly regarded Origins of Mendelism (1966, 1985) and The Path to the Double Helix (1974, 1994). He has published and lectured widely on 19th and 20th century topics in biology, genetics, and molecular biology. Olby is a member of the History of Science Society and the International Academy of the History of Science.


Time Line
1. The Call to Stockholm
2. A Difficult Act to Follow
3. From the Provinces to the Big City
4. War Work for the Royal Navy
5. Biology at the Strangeways
6. Helical Molecules at the Cavendish Laboratory
7. The DNA Fiasco
8. Two Pitchmen in Search of A Helix
9. A Most Important Discovery?
10. Publishing the Model
11. Employed by the John Wayne of Crystallography
12. The Genetic Code
13. Preaching the Central Dogma
14. Crick as Experimentalist Attacking the Genetic Code
15. The Excitement of the Sixties
16. Speaking out on Controversial Subjects
17. Biological Complexity
18. Leaving the ‘Old Country’
19. Taking the Plunge: Neuroscience
20. From the Searchlight to the Soul
21. Eighty-Eight Years
Sources and Notes
Illustrations Credits
Biographical Index


review:  “The heart of Olby’s book is the long section on the code; it is carefully researched and written in a style that allows the science itself to drive the narrative, it is absorbing and captivating...The writing is pleasant and easy to follow, a nice mix of detail and reflection...[Olby] explains the ideas, the data and the changing viewpoints step by step.”
      —Current Biology

review:  “ terms of access to the subject, since Crick read and discussed much of this book before his death, as well as historical knowledge and attention to detail, this is the fullest account of the life of arguably the most important Englishman in science in the second half of the 20th century...Olby relates the scientific life with great skill, and has more space for key experiments and arguments. His book is an essential complement to other historians’ recent studies of the great days of molecular biology.”
      —Times Higher Education

review:  “Crick could have wished for no more suitable biographer than science historian Robert Olby, who knew him for almost 40 years and who has had full access to family members and documents...Olby gives a vivid account both of Crick’s work over a period of 60 years, and of his life, and there is much in this book that will prove to be unfamiliar, perhaps especially to geneticists...For exploring and documenting all these and other aspects of Crick’s life in a readable, sensitive and not uncritical manner, readers from all backgrounds have much to thank Robert Olby for. His story will help to confirm Francis Crick as one of the key people responsible for the transformation of our understanding of life and its processes.”
      —Human Genetics

review:  “Olby has compiled a substantial but enjoyable biography with 50 pages of references. Pen portraits of 70 of the principal characters are a valuable aid in this fine exploration of a remarkable mind.”
      —Chemistry World

review:  “All throughout, Olby intersperses detailed accounts of the science with Crick’s persona. Neither perspective is at the expense of the other and together they enable and elevate the book, the two wound together in the mutual relationship of a helix. The personal details are as interesting as the science and, if anyone was wondering — yes, a genius like Crick was not uncomplicated...I suppose reviews of a biography could be divided into ones by those who knew the subject versus those who did not. I knew Francis Crick quite well and think Olby has gotten him right on all scores. Crick was guarded on first encounter but once he thought a person was ‘OK’ he let all loose. He knew and trusted Robert Olby and the result has given us something truly memorable.”
      —Thoru Pederson, Nucleus

review:  “Olby brilliantly follows Crick through [his] creative years. By highlighting the scientist’s interactions with a growing group of others devoted to developing the field, he captures the excitement, false dawns and triumphs that followed the Watson-Crick model of DNA. Olby is fair to all of the early participants in DNA work: Linus Pauling, Maurice Wilkins and, above all, Rosalind Franklin and her collaborators at King’s College London...Issues of priority generate passion, but Olby’s account can be recommended for its dispassionate analysis and mastery of archival sources.”

review:  “This book provides a detailed and authoritative account of the life in science of this very remarkable man and should have a wide readership, not only among scientists.”
      —The FASEB Journal

review:  “ outstanding work that probes the personal motivations and technical details of Crick’s research on the structure of DNA, the genetic code, the mechanism of protein synthesis, and his later research in the neurosciences...Olby emphasizes the creative tension between Crick’s imaginative theorizing and his critical demand for sound evidence. Highly recommended.”

review:  “Robert Olby does a wonderful job of conveying how Crick’s personality and environment shaped his science... He refrains from judging his subject, preferring to imply rather than spell out the sharper edges of Crick’s character, and leaves it to the reader to assess Crick as a scientist and person...[Olby] offers a scholarly and well-researched (though highly readable) account of the life, quests and times of one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century.”
      —Physics World

review:  “Olby was the right person to write such a scientific biography, as all of the readers of his already famous book, The Path to the Double Helix (1984. London: Macmillan) can attest. They will appreciate the same qualities in the present work: a wealth of information and scrupulous honesty.”
      —The Quarterly Review of Biology

review:  “The readers of PSCF will be especially interested in the way in which Crick’s uncompromising scientific naturalism informed and guided his choice of scientific problems and his approach to their solution...

Olby has written an interesting and informative intellectual biography of Crick, one of the foremost scientists of the twentieth century. By means of the book, we see both the scientific genius and the personal foibles of Crick, the hunter of life’s secrets.”
      —Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

review:  “Olby...was supremely qualified to undertake this project. He has long been recognized as a leading historian of genetics...(Crick and Olby) first met in Oxford in 1966, and it was out of this collaboration that the idea of a biography first emerged, but with Crick’s stipulation that it would not appear until after his death...Olby...benefited from a trove of historical riches — including Crick’s personal papers, correspondence, manuscripts, laboratory notebooks, and autobiographical writings...Olby’s volume, produced by a venerable historical of science at the pinnacle of his career,...will surely be regarded as the definitive scientific biography of Crick...This biography, in short, is not only a fitting tribute to Crick, but also a shining addition to Olby’s distinguished corpus.”
      —Journal of the History of Biology

review:  “Olby’s biography could be considered the product of an open conversation with Odile Speed Crick — Crick’s wife — and others that extended for almost forty years. What is more, Crick himself read and critically commented on the first fourteen of the twenty-one chapters of the book, with only one condition imposed on Olby, for it to be published after his lifetime....In the preface of Olby’s book, he states that he hopes for his work to ‘make an additional contribution’. Needless to say, he largely achieves this and in so doing, proves wrong those who, like myself, thought that enough was known about Francis Crick’s life. Olby’s book is written in a lucid style with an impressive display of sources and a smart and engaging narrative. Definitely a pleasurable read.”
      —Medical History

review:  “Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press has produced a handsome book, and Olby makes excellent use of schematic diagrams to explain the technical developments he discusses....Francis Crick: Hunter of Life’s Secrets is a book of indisputable scholarly value that will certainly draw readers from beyond our profession, and for this Olby should be commended.”
      —ISIS (Journal of the History of Science Society)

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