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  • Quanta Magazine February 25, 2016

    Deep Secrets and the Thrill of DiscoveryOn the trail of a dangerous revelation about a Nobel Prize-winning dissident, the biologist Sean B.Carroll rediscovers the rush of an unexpected discovery.

    By Sean B. Carroll

    A variety of documents from the life of Jacques Monod. Click the image for more information.

    I have spent all of my adult life working in or running a biology research lab. It has been a veryfulfilling, full-time pursuit. So when colleagues discover that I wrote a book thats set in Paris anddelves into such topics as the French Resistance, the Cold War and the author Albert Camus, theyresomewhat baffled. The looks on their faces seem to say: Why the heck did you do that?

    I understand their concern. Perhaps they worry that I have abandoned the rigors of science.


    A monthly column in which top researchers explore the process of discovery. This months columnist, Sean B.Carroll, is a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and vicepresident for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His new book The Serengeti Ruleswill be published in March by Princeton University Press.
  • Quanta Magazine February 25, 2016

    So I try to reassure them. I first tell them that one of the principal characters in the story is abiologist Jacques Monod, a well-known, Nobel Prize-winning co-founder of the field of molecularbiology. Then I explain that Monod resisted the Nazi occupation during World War II, effectivelycriticized Soviet-style communism, and was friends with Camus. That seems to satisfy most.

    But what I really want to tell them is how laboratory science and nonfiction writing have a lot morein common than they might think. Indeed, my experience in science helped to train me for writing.The process of researching a question of testing hunches and digging for concrete evidence issimilar. And even better, the thrill of discovery is just as gratifying.

    A good example unfolded one December morning in Paris in 2011. I made my way to the Prefectureof Police just a few blocks south of Notre Dame Cathedral on the Left Bank. After showing the guardmy passport, she pointed me upstairs to their archives. I introduced myself to the receptionist andwas offered a seat at a large, wooden table in a small reading room.

    A list of names obtained by Paris policeon December 30, 1940, during the Nazi occupation. Jacques Monod is noted to have received20 copies of the illegal newspaper Rsistance.

    What was I, a biologist from Wisconsin, doing at the Paris Police Archives? I was playing a hunch a hunch that those archives might hold documents that could help me fill a gap in the story I waswriting. I knew that Monod was living in occupied Paris in the fall of 1940 and pursuing hisdoctorate in zoology at the Sorbonne. By examining his research notebooks, I found that during
  • Quanta Magazine February 25, 2016

    November of that year, he obtained the first glimpse of the phenomenon of enzyme induction inbacteria that would lead to his Nobel Prize 25 years later.

    But I had also learned from other sources that Monod joined the Resistance that fall, and that he hadexperienced some sort of close brush with the authorities. What I didnt know was how they caughton to him, or why he wasnt punished while others were imprisoned and a few even executed.

    It had taken me several months to find some clues and follow their trail to the Prefecture. Theattendant brought me a box full of hand-labeled, rumpled brown folders. I started browsing the casefiles, hoping that one document might at least mention Monod. Inside a bulky folder, I found a list ofpeople that the police had obtained from the interrogation of a suspect. There, fifteenth on the list,was Monods name and address. Goosebumps.

    Then, to my amazement, I came upon an entire dossier with Monods name on it. Inside, on delicate,tissue-thin paper, was a handwritten document. Knocking 30 years of rust off my French, I figuredout that it was a detectives report. I struggled but was able to decipher that it was the policemansaccount of searches he made of Monods home and laboratory. Mon Dieu, I knew I had storytellersgold: new and dramatic details that no one had unearthed before.

    Sean B. Carroll

    A very pleasant and yet familiar feeling swept through me.

    When had I felt this way before?

    A handful of times during my research career, I have been lucky to experience or share a eurekamoment (although thats not a word I have ever heard in a lab holy sh** is more likely). On eachof these very rare occasions, something spectacular appeared in a microscope something sounexpected that it made me call out to labmates or wake them up at home. And to make a victoryrun to the liquor store.

    The unexpected part is really important. Anything worth doing in science is hard and usually takes along time. The results are never guaranteed. So we dont bother spending much time trying toimagine what every possible good outcome might look like. In my case, each moment of discoverywas the visible result of an experiment an image that we had never imagined, but once seen madeus realize in an instant we had bolted into new territory.

  • Quanta Magazine February 25, 2016

    Inscription from Albert Camus to Jacques Monod onfrontispiece of Monods copy of Camus Actuelles. Translated, it reads To Jacques Monod, on thesame path, fraternally Albert Camus.

    The same phenomenon happened several times in the course of my research trips to Paris. Facingsome crucial gap in the story, I would discover something that gave me more than I could havewished for. Each breakthrough came from playing a hunch, from trying to find missing data. And, asin science, sometimes I got a lot of help.

    One of my toughest challenges was documenting the relationship between Monod and Camus.Despite all that had been written on Camus, there was virtually nothing to go on from hisbiographers. I asked Olivier Monod, one of Jacques twin sons (and a retired geologist), if he wouldplease look at his fathers copies of Camus books to see if any had been inscribed by the author.

    On a later trip to Paris, after visiting a former associate of his fathers, Olivier casually asked if wemight go for a coffee? Of course, I answered. We dropped into the nearest caf, and Olivier openedhis briefcase. He handed me copies of two inscriptions that were not only warm and playful, but theywere nine years apart.

    I was ecstatic. Here was the first concrete evidence of the duration of the two mens friendship.

    Then, Olivier interrupted my babbling to say that when he opened one of the books, something fellout. Grinning, he handed over a letter from Camus to his father with an even earlier date. My jawdropped. The letter had been tucked into the book for more than 60 years. No one in the family hadknown it existed. Neither he nor I could have possibly seen that coming.

    It got even better. In his letter Camus asked Monod for help with a delicate matter: His mistress
  • Quanta Magazine February 25, 2016

    father urgently needed medical care!

    I jumped up and hugged Olivier. He didnt see that coming either.

    This article was reprinted on Secrets and the Thrill of Discovery[Quantized]Quantized