Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

I am Nicolaus Copernicus, and I approve of this blog

I am Richard Feynman and I approve of this blog

Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

HONOR ROLL OF SCIENTIFIC TRUTHSEEKERS

Henry Bauer, Peter Breggin , Harvey Bialy, Giordano Bruno, Erwin Chargaff, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Crick, Paul Crutzen, Marie Curie, Rebecca Culshaw, Freeman Dyson, Peter Duesberg, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John Fewster, Galileo Galilei, Alec Gordon, James Hansen, Edward Jenner, Benjamin Jesty, Michio Kaku, Adrian Kent, Ernst Krebs, Thomas Kuhn, Serge Lang, John Lauritsen, Mark Leggett, Richard Lindzen, Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock, George Miklos, Marco Mamone Capria, Peter Medawar, Kary Mullis, Linus Pauling, Eric Penrose, Max Planck, Rainer Plaga, David Rasnick, Sherwood Rowland, Carl Sagan, Otto Rossler, Fred Singer, Thomas Szasz, Alfred Wegener, Edward O. Wilson, James Watson.
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Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

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Nicholas Wade celebrates a genuinely original scientist

Book (review) shows Crick was exemplary

What a relief to read something intelligent in the newspaper of record about a truly sharp and original mind in science, unfettered by the chains of conformity and lack of imagination. Nicholas Wade shows himself to be a crack hack well up to the task of appreciating author, subject and the free thinking spirit in science with his review of a biography of Francis Crick last Tuesday (Jul 11).

The first biography of Crick, who died in 2004 at the age of 88, has now appeared. Called “Francis Crick, Discoverer of the Genetic Code,” it is by Matt Ridley, one of the few journalists Crick was in the habit of talking with. Mr. Ridley has created a vivid portrait that explains Crick’s scientific work with clarity, deftly outlines his career and provides sharp insights into the nature of Crick’s remarkable creativity.

One interesting point is that Crick never bothered to read newspapers, since he had found out during his war duties as a boffin designing sea mines that all the interesting stories never made it into their pages.

Mr. Ridley dwells only briefly on Crick’s heterodox views and experimental way of life. He seldom read newspapers, because working in intelligence had convinced him that most stories never reached the press. He experimented with marijuana and LSD, Mr. Ridley reports.

There is even a plug for Honest Jim’s “The Double Helix” as “deep but gossipy”, which Crick at first detested but later realized was clever.

Crick was slow to anger and quick to forgive. He was quite unreasonably furious at “The Double Helix,” Watson’s deep though gossipy account of their discovery.

The reason, Mr. Ridley suggests, is that Crick “saw himself as a dedicated seeker of great truths who had worked very hard, with long hours of reading, calculation, and intuition, to get to the point where he could make a great discovery; yet the world would now learn about the quest as if it had been just another soap opera.”

But the two men were soon friends again, Crick later remarking, “I now appreciate how skillful Jim was.”

Read this little review, consider the scene today in HIV?AIDS, and weep.

Mr. Ridley’s contribution is that he has extracted from existing material a considerably more complete and colorful portrait of Crick than has existed before. And by deft narration and analysis, he has captured the wonder of an unparalleled scientific mind at work and at play.

Of course, the ultimate question is, if Wade appreciates true quality in science so well, what has prevented him from seeing that the most fashionable disease study of the last two decades is the Enron of science?

(show)

The New York Times

July 11, 2006

Books

A Peek Into the Remarkable Mind Behind the Genetic Code

By NICHOLAS WADE

Francis Crick is associated with two discoveries, probably two of the most important in the 20th century: the double helix of DNA and the genetic code. The first he discovered with James Watson; the second he worked out mostly by himself, though with contributions from many others.

Despite Crick’s extraordinary distinction as a scientist, little has been written about his life aside from his brief autobiographical essay, “What Mad Pursuit,” and his leading role in “The Eighth Day of Creation,” Horace Freeland Judson’s outstanding oral history of molecular biology.

The first biography of Crick, who died in 2004 at the age of 88, has now appeared. Called “Francis Crick, Discoverer of the Genetic Code,” it is by Matt Ridley, one of the few journalists Crick was in the habit of talking with. Mr. Ridley has created a vivid portrait that explains Crick’s scientific work with clarity, deftly outlines his career and provides sharp insights into the nature of Crick’s remarkable creativity.

Crick, who set a high value on his privacy, seems not to have left biographers a great deal to work with beyond what is already on the record.

One source of new material developed by Mr. Ridley concerns Crick’s wartime career in the British Admiralty. Trained as a physicist, Crick worked on magnetic and acoustic mines and mine countermeasures. Intelligence agents learned that the German minesweepers known as Sperrbrechers carried an enormous magnet to make British magnetic mines explode harmlessly far ahead of them.

When a Royal Air Force plane photographed a Sperrbrecher with its wake cutting through the wash of a mine explosion, Crick realized he had the physical information to calculate the weight and strength of the magnet. On that basis he designed a mine so insensitive it would detonate only right under a Sperrbrecher.

He had considerable trouble persuading British admirals to invest in a mine that all other ships passed over unscathed. But that obstacle overcome, his devices worked splendidly, sinking more than 100 Sperrbrechers and stripping German waters of their defenses.

Rejecting a promising career in military physics after the war, Crick was influenced by two friends, the Austrian mathematician Georg Kreisel and the physicist Maurice Wilkins, to begin a new career in biological research.

As Mr. Ridley notes, Crick was in middle age when he embarked on his career of scientific discovery, in contrast with the many scientists who make their marks when young.

Crick forged his own path through life. Mr. Ridley dwells only briefly on Crick’s heterodox views and experimental way of life. He seldom read newspapers, because working in intelligence had convinced him that most stories never reached the press. He experimented with marijuana and LSD, Mr. Ridley reports.

Crick and his wife Odile held lively parties and enjoyed the company of their many bohemian friends, like John Gayer-Anderson, who made pornographic pottery.

“Though they did not have an explicitly ‘open marriage,’ Francis was an incorrigible flirt,” Mr. Ridley writes, “and Odile at least affected not to mind.”

Crick refused to meet the queen when she visited Cambridge’s new Laboratory of Molecular Biology because he disapproved of royalty, and he declined a knighthood. He deeply disliked religion, saying once that Christianity was all right between consenting adults but should not be taught to children.

He refused to attend weddings or funerals, though he was always up for the party afterward. He resigned from Churchill College when it decided to build a chapel like any other Cambridge college.

Desire to undercut religious obscurantism was a cogent motive in Crick’s scientific career, shaping his choice first of the gene and later of consciousness as problems that, if cracked, would destroy the last refuges of vitalism.

“Throughout, he stayed true to himself: ebullient, loquacious, charming, skeptical, tenacious,” Mr. Ridley writes in an eloquent coda. “He would have liked to find the seat of consciousness and to see the retreat of religion. He had to settle for explaining life.”

Among the many virtues of this short, beautifully written book are the sharp glimpses it offers into a mind of remarkable creativity.

An unusual aspect of Crick’s work habits was that his thinking was forged in the challenge of argument. This required a constant interlocutor or intellectual sparring partner. Mr. Kreisel, the mathematician, was the first holder of this unusual position, followed by Watson for the discovery of the double helix, Sydney Brenner for the work on the genetic code, and Christof Koch for the study of the brain and consciousness.

“In the periods when he had no such sounding board he was visibly at a loss,” Mr. Ridley says.

Another feature of Crick’s mind was that he excelled in being able to visualize the physical relationship of objects. He could intuitively imagine in his mind’s eye the space-group symmetry of a crystal’s unit cell, meaning how far it must be rotated to look the same again. A glance at Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray photos of DNA told him what she had not grasped, that the two parallel chains of the DNA double helix must run in opposite directions.

“Although it is necessary to be able to handle the algebraic details, I soon found I could see the answer to many of these mathematical problems by a combination of imagery and logic, without first having to slog through the mathematics,” he said.

Another special feature of his approach to science was the difficult balance he always maintained between theory and empiricism.

He tried every possible theoretical approach to the problem of how the 60 possibilities allowed by a four base triplet genetic code might yield 20 kinds of amino acid but never trusted the answers, however elegant. That essential caution left him open to the empirical approach by which the code was finally broken.

He had the gift of being able to scan vast amounts of confusing experimental data, reject parts that seemed not to fit and divine the correct answer. Before DNA, biochemists had stamp-collected a large number of amino acids. In 1953 Crick and Watson, in sessions at the Eagle pub in Cambridge, set out to select some finite number of amino acids that DNA might reasonably code for.

Ridley observes: “They came up with 20. That they got the list exactly right, despite being amateur biochemists, is a minor miracle.”

Crick’s special ability to combine his intuitions with theoretical and empirical judgment was at its finest in his astonishingly prescient paper of 1958 on protein synthesis.

In it he laid out the field’s several fundamental axioms, including that all proteins are composed of combinations of the same 20 amino acids, and that the linear order of amino acids determines the three-dimensional structure into which the protein is shaped. “All these propositions were guesses,” Mr. Ridley writes, “and all are correct.”

Crick was slow to anger and quick to forgive. He was quite unreasonably furious at “The Double Helix,” Watson’s deep though gossipy account of their discovery.

The reason, Mr. Ridley suggests, is that Crick “saw himself as a dedicated seeker of great truths who had worked very hard, with long hours of reading, calculation, and intuition, to get to the point where he could make a great discovery; yet the world would now learn about the quest as if it had been just another soap opera.”

But the two men were soon friends again, Crick later remarking, “I now appreciate how skillful Jim was.”

It would be unfair to criticize the author for making essentially the same judgments about Crick’s historical role as can be found in Mr. Judson’s book, for both are correct. And it would be quite wrong to dismiss Mr. Ridley’s biography because it does not contain much new information, although in truth it does not.

Mr. Ridley’s contribution is that he has extracted from existing material a considerably more complete and colorful portrait of Crick than has existed before. And by deft narration and analysis, he has captured the wonder of an unparalleled scientific mind at work and at play.

7 Responses to “Nicholas Wade celebrates a genuinely original scientist”

  1. McKiernan Says:

    Why is he important ? What was his position on Jonas Salk’s proposed AIDS vaccine ?

  2. Truthseeker Says:

    The post referred to Wade’s love of an original mind in science, except for Peter Duesberg, for some reason.

    As for Crick’s record in later years, was this another sad case of the effects of experimenting with drugs on a fine mind? We cannot bear to look into it for fear of disllusionment.

    The good Dr. B knows first hand, but may not tell us. If he does, we bow to his authority.

  3. J. Prynne (Cambridge, UK) Says:

    Mr. Truthseeker,You recently published the following on your weblog:”Meanwhile, we understand that you spent 48 hours with Francis Crick, in 1975 in his house in Cambridge. There are large numbers of people waiting for this anecdote. … No doubt it concerns imbibing certain drugs together, judging from Wade’s book review, and our suspicions.”Having been with Dr. Bialy on that memorable weekend in the summer of 75, I can assure you that no drugs, other than fine wine, were consumed by any of us. But I do have it, on reasonably reliable authority, that he may indeed have “imbibed” some of the original “Batch” along with another Nobelist, famous for creating the paradigmatic biotechnological invention (“more and more from less and less” as mi compadre Bialy put it in a marvelous book review that I believe you have read). Should you wish to discern something of our discourse, you might examine this text

  4. McKiernan Says:

    Okay, J. Prynne (Cambridge, UK),Some do not understand whom was palzey-walzey with whom. It seems un-important to the science.Wikipedia says: “His (Crick) remaining career as the J.W. Kieckhefer Distinguished Research Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies was spent in La Jolla, California until his death.And the question is:What was Crick’s position on HIV/AIDS specificaly in regard to Dr. Jonas Salk’s offering of an AIDS vaccine ? Did Crick accept HIV=AIDS ? Or did he have another position which he openly stated ?Did Crick have a role in the promotion of “Salk’s” AIDS vaccine ?

  5. Truthseeker Says:

    Even before going to review your excellent and informative text, as we know it to be, Mr Prynne from Cambridge (not Cambridge, Mexico, we hope) we hasten to point out that while being ourself too dull and hidebound to experiment, the example of Dr. Kary Mullis has long ago convinced us that LSD and similar stimulants may well be a very good way of escaping earthly bonds and coming up with something original, and we are quite confident that whatever the chemistry in Dr B’s unpredictable neural workings, it exhibits the same persuasive self-referential recommendation for such an influence as does the record of Mullis or Crick.

  6. Truthseeker Says:

    McK, since Dr. B seems to want us just to admire his own handiwork, it seems that he knows no more than the rest of us, which is very little, judging from Google, about what Crick thought of HIV∫AIDS. However, let’s note a phrase from What Mad Pursuit, (Basic Books, 1988) Crick autobiography, p.161)”Nobody likes to ask if a model is really correct…” Also, Mullis was a neighbor of Crick’s in La Jolla.By the way, Mullis helped ABC with a segment on HIV∫AIDS once, so perhaps his influence will be felt again.

  7. Truthseeker Says:

    Update: We hear from a constant source that we are forbidden to name that in fact, as we thought, Crick never took much interest in HIV∫AIDS, certainly “never took a public position on it otherwise that would have been in Nature”. But in 1990 Peter Duesberg did give a talk in San Diego at the Salk Institute, and Crick proved “delightfully uninformed on the topic” but did say foolishly that he had faith in the “emerging molecular medicine”.

    Extraordinary how difficult it is to get top people to read just a few pages of the most interesting critique of a universal paradigm that has been written for half a century or more.

    How men narrow as they grow old.

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