February 15, 2011 (Vol. 31, No. 4)

Descendants of Nobel Laureate Make Their Marks in Computer Puzzles and Games, and Art

Do famous scientists spawn like-minded offspring? For Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and Nobel laureate, the answer is partially true. His son Michael Crick studied neuroscience at Harvard Medical School in the 1960s but sidetracked into computer science.

Today Michael and his wife Barbara, based in Bellevue, WA, create Cricklers—puzzles that run daily in the online editions of the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, and 40 smaller newspapers. Cricklers challenge players in diverse topics such as current news events, vocabulary, geography, and crosswords. Michael also helped to design iconic computer games like John Madden Football and WordZap.

Michael’s daughter Kindra Crick graduated from Princeton University in 1998 with a degree in molecular biology. She, too, took a detour to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Now she’s a full-time artist working in Portland, OR.

Right Place, Right Time

Looking back on his career, Michael Crick says that he had “a talent for being in the right place at exactly the right moment—in fact, several times.” While a neuroscientist at Harvard, he joined a team of computer scientists who were programming early computers to automate medical systems for hospitals. They recruited Michael because of his medical background. The same group helped to design the Arpanet network for the military, a precursor of the Internet.

“The central problem for the military was that they wanted a network that kept running, even if several nodes were damaged. That’s how the brain works—it has the ability to recover from substantial damage,” says Michael.

State-of-the-art computers in the 1960s had only 64K memories, were hand-built, and filled a normal size room. One of the first computers Michael worked on was encased in wood. Few people knew how to program computers back then, and you learned on the job.

While at Harvard Medical School, Michael designed a number of simple electric circuits that could be trained to learn by reinforcement using Skinner/operant conditioning. The trained circuits emulated the brain by creating their own connectivity patterns, and they kept a regular, one-second pulse or alpha rhythm. “That’s the way the Internet works,” says Michael, explaining that each node in the Internet sends out a periodic pulse that asks about where it is connected and to whom it is talking. This experiment prepared him to think about how the Internet should be designed.

After moving to Washington state, Michael worked at Microsoft where he wrote one of the early programs for the Windows operating system. In 1984, he started a company to design a computer football game, even though he had never played football. His business partner understood football but not computers. After years of work, Electronic Arts marketed the game as John Madden Football. The still popular game, now called Madden NFL Football, will soon be released in 3-D format. “I just happened to be in the right place again,” says Michael.

While growing up, Michael watched his famous father design dream houses with plasticine modeling clay and later observed his own children playing with Legos. This inspired him to write a prototype game in the 1980s that he called “Home Builder.” It evolved into the perennially popular The Sims.

Can Do Anything

Her father’s current endeavor into Cricklers doesn’t surprise daughter Kindra. “My dad has created computer puzzles and games for as long as I can remember,” she says. He created math and language puzzles for childhood treasure hunts and even posed puzzles on family hikes.

Kindra initially contemplated a career in physics or computer science. After her freshman year at Princeton, she lived with her grandparents in La Jolla, CA, and worked in a neurodevelopment laboratory at the Salk Institute. This influenced her to study molecular biology. Her grandmother, Odile Crick, was a figurative painter who nurtured Kindra’s artistic talent. “I’ve always done art, even while studying molecular biology,” says Kindra. Odile drew the illustration of the double helix for Watson and Crick’s historic paper on DNA in the April 25, 1953, issue of Nature.

Although Kindra enjoyed studying scientific concepts, she found laboratory benchwork tedious. “I’m a passionate person,” she says. So she redirected her passion to art, where she connects scientific perceptions with emotions. In her Ties series, she explores how the heart became a strong symbol for love, yet functions biologically and chemically apart from love. Paintings depict the human heart overlapping the chemical oxytocin or with a double helix passing over it while splitting and reproducing itself. “That’s a gorgeous image for continuing life,” she says.

After becoming a mother for the first time, Kindra delved into the overwhelming devotion a new mother feels toward her infant. She read about research suggesting that when a new mother looks at her smiling baby, a reward area of the brain is activated similar to narcotics. Her Mother series overlaps drawings of the brain with ones of a baby during different stages of pregnancy and after delivery. The Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery in Washington, D.C. is exhibiting her latest show, Paradigm Shift: Bonds and Binds, from January 26 to April 24, 2011.

Do Michael or Kindra Crick ever regret leaving the biological sciences? “In our family, we were told that we can do anything we want and to follow our passions, even if that means going back to school,” says Kindra. She points out that her grandfather didn’t start graduate school in molecular biology until he was 33 years old, after making a switch from a career in physics.

Kindra Crick’s Mother series overlaps drawings of the brain with ones of a baby during different stages of pregnancy and after delivery.

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