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How we came to write the genetic code


George Gamow and the RNA Tie Club
Francis Crick Scientist
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If you look in Who’s Who it doesn’t say I belong to the RNA Tie Club apart from the fact it’s defunct now. It always had a rather ethereal existence. It was a… an idea of… of [George] Gamow's. He called himself Joe Gamow because he spelt his name G-E-O and he thought that was pronounced Joe. All his friends called him Joe or Geo, what he would like to say. And he became interested in the idea… he had an idea that DNA, the DNA structure, was a template for protein synthesis, which was wrong, but it made us begin to think about the coding problem, how you translate from nucleic acid sequences to proteins. It made us begin to think about this in a systematic way, and the club was simply his friends so it was a very mixed lot of people, some of whom were in the field and some of whom had got nothing to do with it specially but just some people Gamow knew. And Gamow would… seeming somewhat whimsical, there had to be 20 members, one for each of the amino acids and you had a tie pin, which I don’t think I ever got, and a tie, which I still have, and there were four honorary members for the four bases, I think two were appointed. I don’t know if we ever got up to 20 members. The club as a whole never met. Occasionally there would be local chapters meeting. There’s a picture of four of us in our… my sitting room, three of us wearing our ties, for example, and we would write occasional papers because there was not many people interested in these very speculative ideas and we’d just send them, as it were, to the members of the club and they would show them occasionally to other people. So… well, nowadays people do the same thing with electronic mail, you see. They chat to each other on electronic mail on a much faster time scale and things of that… of that sort. Gamow was a very amusing person to talk to. He… he had quite a lot of imagination but he… he was at an age where he didn’t absorb the… all the scientific details completely accurately so occasionally he’d get cytosine and cysteine mixed up and a few things like that but… but he at least told the general outlines of the problem. The sad thing was that this general approach of… regarding it as an abstract problem which you could solve in an abstract way has turned out… turned out to be a complete failure. Because now we know the answer, we know there was no way of deducing it from first principles, at least nobody has been able to discover in the last 20 or 30 years, now that we know the answer, what… how you would deduce it from first principles although people have tried. So, in actual fact it was all a waste of time but it did focus our idea on various aspects of the problem and made us think of various experiments so it was useful in that way. So… but that often happens in science, somebody will produce a theory which everybody’s attempt to focus on that thing and disprove it often turns to be quite fruitful. So even an incorrect theory can sometimes be… that doesn’t mean to say that all incorrect theories are useful, but a minority are.

The late Francis Crick, one of Britain's most famous scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is best known for his discovery, jointly with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, of the double helix structure of DNA, though he also made important contributions in understanding the genetic code and was exploring the basis of consciousness in the years leading up to his death in 2004.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Who’s Who, RNA Tie Club, George Gamow

Duration: 3 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: 1993

Date story went live: 08 January 2010