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Friday, June 6, 2008

Scientist Appreciation: Francis Crick

Since I missed last week's Scientist Appreciation installment, I figured I had better make sure I managed to remember this week. The scientist I have chosen is Francis Crick, although not for the reason that most people think of him. Unfortunately for Dr. Crick, much of his memory has been somewhat tarnished by the, as far as I understand it, substantially spurious claims that the credit of his jointly won Nobel prize and discovery of DNA was unfairly and intentionally withheld from Rosalind Franklin. Of course, I really have not studied the history much, but the most specious of those claims is that she should have also won the Nobel prize. That is simply ludicrous, since she had been dead several years before the time of the prize's presentation, and nominations for the Nobel prize are not allowed posthumously.

Anyway, this installment is not about the Nobel prize. It is about Francis Crick and his amazing commitment to knowledge and science. After he became a Nobel Laureate for something that was both profound within science but also simple enough to be widely circulated within the public, Dr. Crick could have basically retired and lived off his fame and accolades. However, he didn't do that. He went on and tried to tackle what he saw as the next big question in the life sciences: consciousness. With steadfast devotion to a naturalistic view, Dr. Crick understood that the hazy concept of a supernatural soul was just as baseless as the rest of religious creation. In his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, he discusses his approach and findings into the matter of human consciousness, and I think it would make an excellent introductory book to anyone interested in the subject. Also, his work in consciousness inspired one of his students, Christof Koch, to continue such endeavours. The only reason Dr. Koch has yet to be the subject of a Scientist Appreciation is that I am waiting to read more of his two books (which are sitting on my shelf right now).

Anyway, I wanted to close with a story about Francis Crick and religion that I read somewhere. In 1960, Churchill College, where Dr. Crick was a fellow, elected to erect a chapel. Francis Crick, believing that a religious institution had no place at a university dedicated to knowledge, made a fuss. During the fuss, he was apparently sent a letter by Winston Churchill pointing out that the funds for the chapel's construction had been raised by private means, and nobody would be forced to attend. Francis Crick's response was to propose the construction of a college brothel, since after all nobody would be forced to attend and he himself was willing to begin raising the funds for its construction. Unfortunately, while he did manage to offend, the logic of his humorous retort didn't seem to fully resonate and he ended up resigning in protest. I think stories like that poke a few holes in that ridiculous title "New Atheist" so often thrown about in reference to the commendable few contemporary fellows attempting to raise public willingness to question religion.