Francis Crick has never before been the subject of a significant biography. His personality, however, is the subject of one of the best-known lines in science literature. “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood,” James Watson declared in the first sentence of “The Double Helix” (1968), his celebrated account of how he and Crick came to identify the structure of DNA in 1953. Thus the popular image of Watson’s scientific partner: a brash and boastful figure who shared responsibility for a singular breakthrough.
Now, two years after Crick’s death at age 88, the science writer Matt Ridley is attempting to revise the historical record. Ridley’s short biography examines the paired strands of Crick’s life and work, but gives the work a further twist: in his account, the heart of Crick’s career merely began in 1953, and lasted until the mid-1960’s, during which time Crick, having deduced DNA’s form, led the scientific charge to understand how it functions. Ridley claims this effort was “in many ways a greater scientific achievement than the double helix,” and his own effort to explain it should deepen his audience’s understanding of both Crick and DNA itself.