Francis Crick

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Francis Crick : biography

8 June 1916 – 28 July 2004

Neuroscience and other interests

Crick’s period at Cambridge was the pinnacle of his long scientific career, but he left Cambridge in 1977 after 30 years, having been offered (and having refused) the Mastership of Gonville & Caius. James Watson claimed at a Cambridge conference marking the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA in 2003: "Now perhaps it’s a pretty well kept secret that one of the most uninspiring acts of Cambridge University over this past century was to turn down Francis Crick when he applied to be the Professor of Genetics, in 1958. Now there may have been a series of arguments, which lead them to reject Francis. It was really saying, don’t push us to the frontier." The apparently "pretty well kept secret" had already been recorded in Soraya De Chadarevian’s "Designs For Life: Molecular Biology After World War II", published by CUP in 2002. His major contribution to molecular biology in Cambridge is well documented in The History of the University of Cambridge: Volume 4 (1870 to 1990), which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1992.

According to the University of Cambridge’s genetics department official website, the electors of the professorship could not reach consensus, prompting the intervention of then University Vice-Chancellor Lord Adrian. Lord Adrian first offered the professorship to a compromise candidate, Guido Pontecorvo, who refused, and is said to have offered it then to Crick, who also refused.

In 1976, Crick took a sabbatical year at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Crick had been a nonresident fellow of the Institute since 1960. Crick wrote, "I felt at home in Southern California."Page 145 of What Mad Pursuit by Francis Crick. After the sabbatical, Crick left Cambridge in order to continue working at the Salk Institute. He was also a professor at the University of California, San Diego. He taught himself neuroanatomy and studied many other areas of neuroscience research. It took him several years to disengage from molecular biology because exciting discoveries continued to be made, including the discovery of alternative splicing and the discovery of restriction enzymes, which helped make possible genetic engineering. Eventually, in the 1980s, Crick was able to devote his full attention to his other interest, consciousness. His autobiographical book, What Mad Pursuit, includes a description of why he left molecular biology and switched to neuroscience.

Upon taking up work in theoretical neuroscience, Crick was struck by several things:

  • there were many isolated subdisciplines within neuroscience with little contact between them
  • many people who were interested in behaviour treated the brain as a black box
  • consciousness was viewed as a taboo subject by many neurobiologists

Crick hoped he might aid progress in neuroscience by promoting constructive interactions between specialists from the many different subdisciplines concerned with consciousness. He even collaborated with neurophilosophers such as Patricia Churchland. In 1983, as a result of their studies of computer models of neural networks, Crick and Mitchison proposed that the function of REM sleep is to remove certain modes of interactions in networks of cells in the mammalian cerebral cortex; they called this hypothetical process ‘reverse learning’ or ‘unlearning’. In the final phase of his career, Crick established a collaboration with Christof Koch that lead to publication of a series of articles on consciousness during the period spanning from 1990"" by Francis Crick and Christof Koch in Seminars in the Neurosciences (1990): Volume 2 pages 263–275. to 2005. Crick made the strategic decision to focus his theoretical investigation of consciousness on how the brain generates visual awareness within a few hundred milliseconds of viewing a scene. Crick and Koch proposed that consciousness seems so mysterious because it involves very short-term memory processes that are as yet poorly understood. Crick also published a book describing how neurobiology had reached a mature enough stage so that consciousness could be the subject of a unified effort to study it at the molecular, cellular and behavioural levels.The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search For The Soul by Francis Crick. (Scribner reprint edition, 1995) ISBN 0-684-80158-2 Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis made the argument that neuroscience now had the tools required to begin a scientific study of how brains produce conscious experiences. Crick was skeptical about the value of computational models of mental function that are not based on details about brain structure and function.