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Explain DNA to me like I’m a twelve-year-old
September 13, 2013 1:14 PM   Subscribe

"Read this carefully so that you understand it. When you come home we will show you the model. Lots of love, Daddy." In 1953 Francis Crick, sat down to write his twelve-year-old son Michael a letter explaining his brand-new discovery: the double-helix structure of DNA. Now you can read the original, seven-page hand-written letter, complete with an interactive feature that lets you click for details, context and explanations. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Michael, now 72, went on to help design Arpanet and the first spell-check tool for Microsoft Word. The Crick family sold the letter at auction in April for $5.3 million, sharing the proceeds with the Salk Institute.

Related. Related. Related.
posted by evilmomlady (18 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cool. What does the last sentence say?

"...???? and we'll show you the world."?
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 1:23 PM on September 13, 2013


"When you come home we will show you the model." Michael was off at boarding school.
posted by theatro at 1:27 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I used to live next door to 19 Portugal Place. Sigh.
posted by lalochezia at 1:31 PM on September 13, 2013


What would one have said instead of "It's just in their DNA to…" before the discovery of DNA?
posted by OwlBoy at 1:34 PM on September 13, 2013


What would one have said instead of "It's just in their DNA to…" before the discovery of DNA?

"It's in their blood."
posted by yoink at 1:35 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a scientist who dreams scientist dreams of discovering something that will change the world, and who has a child, this really resonated with me. I hope that I have occasion to write a letter like this to my daughter one day. It would be a win on so many fronts. Thanks for posting this. I've already send it around to many of my colleagues who have young kids.
posted by scblackman at 1:40 PM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Michael, now 72, went on to help design Arpanet and the first spell-check tool for Microsoft Word.

Clearly evidence that brilliance is hereditary.
posted by scblackman at 1:41 PM on September 13, 2013


My undergrad was molecular genetics, and I was completely in love with the subject material... or so I thought... until upon graduation my 22-year-old self couldn't stomach the prospect of working in a lab or continuing in academia.. I'm far down a different career path now, but reading this makes me think to those days of having no other responsibilities in the world except hungrily digesting that amazing knowledge, and what a high percentage of the time my consciousness was filled with wonderment. It makes me :') It's probably some combination of tickling at some overdeveloped sense of nostalgia for my more-naive self, plus a strained relationship with my own dad and having some far-out daydream of 'what if' my own dad wrote me a letter like that, with all of the same amazing undertones. yes, they encompass the sheer magnitude of the discovery, but we can't all be watsons and cricks... more importantly, I'm referring to the meaning, motivation, and instruction that underlie the writing of a letter like that to one's own child.

:') all the way
posted by jolyn at 1:48 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


scblackman: "Michael, now 72, went on to help design Arpanet and the first spell-check tool for Microsoft Word.

Clearly evidence that brilliance is hereditary
"

or taught by brilliant parents.

(I was going to say "or that it's micro-cultural" but I'm not even sure that is a thing)
posted by ArgentCorvid at 1:56 PM on September 13, 2013


>Michael, now 72, went on to help design Arpanet and the first spell-check tool for Microsoft Word.

Clearly evidence that brilliance is hereditary.


I dunno, when I stare bemusedly at what autocorrect does with my typing, "brilliance" is often overshadowed by "madness."
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:58 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


We won't introduce you to Rosie though. -Daddy
posted by anthill at 2:06 PM on September 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


This rather press-release-like article on Michael Crick makes some unverified claims about his connections to The Sims and Madden Football... did he perhaps at some point work for Maxis and/or Electronic Arts? Earlier he had programed C64 games published by Creative Software.
posted by larrybob at 2:28 PM on September 13, 2013


What a great letter. I feel like Crick was able to explain DNA better and more concisely, while better emphasizing how important the discovery of the structure was, than any text I've read.

I also loved the anecdote about son Michael stumping his dad with the code he made, which turned out to have a lot in common with the genetic code.
posted by twoporedomain at 2:45 PM on September 13, 2013


anthill: "We won't introduce you to Rosie though. -Daddy"

The story that gets told today about the discovery of the double helix in textbooks is really not that much less simplistic or inaccurate than the narrative Jim Watson tried to bullshit the world with that it attacks, and sadly Francis Crick gets all the shit credit he never deserved. Francis Crick was an amazingly sweet and kind man who was in no way the villain of that story, that would be Wilkins who stabbed Rosalind Franklin in the back in an act of jealous and deeply misogynistic betrayal. It was Wilkins who stole photo 51, to this day one of the most gorgeous crystallographs ever taken of the double helix, and handed it to Jim Watson in a desperate attempt to stay relevant in a lab he was being dramatically upstaged in by a woman he could not manage to see as more than an object that did not dress the way he preferred. It was Jim Watson who, gleefully in that cartoonishly toddler-esque villainous way of his, then took the photograph he knew to be stolen and shared the essential information with Crick to build their model. Crick never really talked about it, but from Jim Watson's ramblings on the subject it becomes pretty clear that Crick believed that Wilkins really did at least have a plausibly leading role in producing the data they used, at least until it was really to late to do anything meaningful about it.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:23 PM on September 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


This letter makes me happy in many ways; thank you for posting it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:26 PM on September 13, 2013


Francis Crick was an amazingly sweet and kind man who was in no way the villain of that story

I thought I read somewhere that Crick stayed by Franklin as she was dying of cancer soon after all this shit went down.
posted by Jpfed at 7:36 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a researcher myself, this made me realise that caring about someone enough to really want to share your ideas and findings with them is a true sign of love. Like, I imagine it's possible that a kid getting a letter like this is all, God, Dad. Do we always have to talk about your work? Why can't you write like normal people? And Crick instead was thinking that he had made the most important discovery of his life and he wanted to share it with the most important people in his life. The amount of time and effort you have to put in to explain complicated science to someone without the necessary background is immense, and it's so tempting to just not bother. But that creates a barrier between you and the person because there's then a whole part of your life they can't share, and if you love them deeply, you don't want that barrier to be there.
posted by lollusc at 9:21 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


For some reason, I'm now irrationally angry with my father for missing my hockey games.
posted by Sphinx at 7:18 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


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