Thursday, September 02, 2010

Francis Crick

Of the Nobel prize winners I've talked to, some were in the category of "smart people who got lucky" and some were in the category of "people much smarter than the smartest people you've ever met". Francis Crick was one of the latter. He was a big thinker. You got the impression talking to him that if it hadn't been the structure of DNA it would have been some other huge thing. Toward the end of his life, he spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship of consciousness to the underlying biological process. I wish he'd had more time to work on the problem.

Oliver Sacks on Francis Crick

in the New York Review of Books:

It was not until May of 1986 that I met Francis Crick, at a conference in San Diego. There was a big crowd, full of neuroscientists, but when it was time to sit down for dinner, Crick singled me out, seized me by the shoulders, sat me down next to him, and said, “Tell me stories!” I have no memory of what we ate, or anything else about the dinner, only that I told him stories about many of my patients, and that each one set off bursts of hypotheses, theories, suggestions for investigation in his mind. Writing to Crick a few days later, I said that the experience was “a little like sitting next to an intellectual nuclear reactor…. I never had a feeling of such incandescence.
and in an interview by Steve Silberman:

Silberman: A vision researcher I know online, Mark Changizi, told me he had lunch with you at Caltech in 2005, when you were writing the chapter of your book on “Stereo Sue.” He said that you asked him if he considers himself a naturalist. “Although that’s not a term I readily use,” he said to me in email, “I realize that I am indeed a naturalist, as the fundamental premise of my research concerns understanding our biology in the context of the natural evolutionary environment.” But Mark is still not sure what you meant by asking him that question.

Sacks: I don’t think I meant anything quite as lofty as this. What I meant was that although I love general principles, I am no great shakes at extracting them myself. I feel that I’m sort of collecting specimens and observing phenomena. In this way, I’m like Wallace or Bates, but not like Darwin. Darwin of course was a fabulous collector, but his son says that he seemed to be charged with theorizing power, so that everything immediately generated a hypothesis. Crick was also like that.

Silberman: Didn’t Darwin himself say something about how his mind had become a “machine” for generating hypotheses?

Sacks: Yes, yes, exactly. There’s a peculiar passage in Darwin’s autobiography where he says how, when he was young, he took great delight in poetry, and painting, and music. But now, he said, his mind had become a sort of machine for extracting general laws from large collections of facts.

When I met Crick at a neuroscience meeting in 1987, he seized me by the shoulders at dinner, sat me down next to him, and said, “Tell me stories.” In particular, he wanted to hear stories of visual disorders. You probably saw the piece I wrote about Crick in the New York Review of Books. Crick was a theoretician who felt starved of the data that he needed. Some of this data would come from experimental work, but some of it would come from observations like mine, which look at experiments of nature, in a sense. It’s similar with Ramachandran, though he is more active and ingenious at devising experiments.

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