Monday, 08 April 2013 20:00

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"Secret of Life" letter goes under the hammer "Secret of Life" letter goes under the hammer

Those with a million or two in loose change might want to sign up for a paddle this week at Christie's in New York for the auction of a 60-year-old, seven-page, handwritten, and illustrated letter from a father to his 12-year-old son away at boarding school.

The father was Francis Crick, the son Michael Crick. Now 72 and a noted computer scientist who lives in Seattle, Michael Crick and his wife Barbara are auctioning off the letter with half the proceeds going to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. This, the Cricks explain, is partly in gratitude for the 27 years that Francis Crick spent at Salk, after his mandatory retirement from the Medical Research Council lab in Cambridge, UK. Francis Crick died in 2004.

Known as the "Secret of Life" letter after James Watson's famous lunchtime announcement in a Cambridge pub 20 days before, it was written on March 19, 1953 (or "19 March '53" in Crick's English dating). The letter came during a momentary calm for Crick and Watson between making the momentous leap of imagination that yielded what we know as the double helix and its publication in Nature on April 25, 1953. The secret of life was, of course, DNA or "des-oxy-ribose-nucleic acid" as Crick broke it out for his son. The exact timing of the letter amidst those events is ably recounted by Nicholas Wade in his short New York Times story.

Whether the letter disappears into a vault beneath the trophy home of some biotech billionaire or ends up, tax-deductible, where it belongs in a museum or library so the public can catch a glimpse is another question. Relics, even scientific relics, have a power of their own. (Feel the vibe inside Charles Darwin's study/laboratory at Down House south of London.) But the power of the Crick letter extends beyond its fountain pen ink and paper reality. The image and transcriptions of the text of the Crick letter are widely available. Cell biologists should behold it.

It is a common observation that modern biology is taught with little or no historical context. There is so much to cover in an introductory course that the history of biology often whizzes by in a few incidental PowerPoint slides. And yet biology is a science built on the bedrock evolutionary principle that everything living now is descended from something living before. The "secret" of this principle was DNA, and in this letter Crick explains it to a 12-year-old. "Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery," is how he began.

"In other words, we think we have found the basic copying mechanism by which life comes from life," he wrote near the letter's end. Biology is also a science obsessed with citation ,and what could be a more primary citation than this one?

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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