'Brave Genius': A Tale of Two Nobelists

Oct 11, 2013
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Now coming up next, our Nobel hour continues, but I want to take you back to France in World War II, during the Nazi occupation. Living there were two gentlemen, the biologist Jacques Monod, and the philosopher Albert Camus. Remember Camus? Remember, you probably read "The Stranger" back in high school? I know I did. These two guys are both leaders in the French Resistance, trying in one way or another to free France from the Nazis. Later in life they became friends and both went on to win Nobel Prizes in their respective fields.

My next guest has chronicled the story of their lives. His new book is called "Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize." It's a great mix of wartime history, philosophy and the tale of how molecular biology was born. Sean B. Carroll is the author of "Brave Genius," he's also vice-president of science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He's a professor of molecular biology in genetics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Carroll.

DR. SEAN B. CARROLL: Thanks for having me, John.

DANKOSKY: And if you want to join our conversation, 1-800-989-8255. Again, our phone number is 1-800-989-TALK. So first of all, set the scene for us. You've got Jacques Monod and Albert Camus, the Nazis are invading France, what are they doing?

CARROLL: Well, let's go a couple of months before the invasion. I think if you'd bumped into them on the street or had a conversation, you would've seen nothing exceptional in them. Albert Camus is working as a layout designer on a mediocre newspaper in Paris. Jacques Monod was a relatively underachieving and old graduate student at the Sorbonne. As the threat of war increased, Monod enlisted in the army, in the communication engineers. He was concerned that he could at least use his scientific talents if war broke out.

And then war broke out. And really, it was the catalyst, sort of a perverse catalyst, to their rising to greatness. A series of accidents and incidents led to them having very prominent roles in the Resistance. And that experience of being deprived of their liberty for 50 months, I think, just gave them such a great sense of urgency and purpose when the war was over.

DANKOSKY: A lot of us have heard, and as I said earlier, read Camus, but in the United States, Monod is not as well-known. Tell us a bit more about him.

CARROLL: Well, Monod is a founder of the field of molecular biology. Now, in 1940s they said he was completely obscure and had not achieved anything. But he did make an observation. After the occupation of Paris set in, he - in the course of doing his doctoral work, pretty grim circumstances, he made an observation that he decided to stick with. And that observation was a really simple idea about how bacteria know when or when not to use a particular sugar. These were very simple questions in the 1940s about life because we didn't know a lot about biology.

You know, in comparison to physics and chemistry, biology was a really unknown frontier. And so he was studying simple phenomena. And he pursued that phenomena. And after the war, he broke open the question of how genes work. And this - and coupled with the pioneering work of Watson and Crick, this was really one of the major pillars of molecular biology.

DANKOSKY: Now, of course what your book tells us is, aside from this he was also sort of a superhero of the French Resistance. And what we'll do is we'll take a quick break and when we come back, we'll hear some more of that story with Sean B. Carroll, the author of a brand-new book called "Brave Genius." And you can join our conversation, 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK.


DANKOSKY: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away.

We're talking this hour about the new book "Brave Genius," the tale of a French philosopher and a biologist who became good friends. Both go on to win the Nobel Prize. Sean B. Carroll is author of "Brave Genius," he's also vice-president of science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a professor of molecular biology in genetics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Now, when we left - last left our heroes here, we were talking about Jacques Monod, someone who - not only a brilliant scientist, but also a real big player in the French Resistance. Explain just exactly how big he was in the French Resistance. John?

CARROLL: Well, he was an early joiner. In the fall of 1940, once the occupation was setting in, there was just really the first strands of the Resistance were forming, and he joined one of the first groups. Unfortunately that group was very quickly broken up by the Germans. And he lost some of his friends. In fact, one of his friends was executed by the Germans. Jacques Monod avoided that fate because when the whole group was exposed and all of their apartments and workplaces searched, he had not received any incriminating materials. And so he was cleared. But he learned he was going to have to be very careful about security in the future.

So a couple of years later, when he joined the most militant resistance group, a communist-led group that was really assassinating German officers in the streets and carrying out sabotage, things like this, he did so with this very serious purpose. He was interested in getting arms for the Resistance. Organizing arms drops. He made secret trips to Switzerland to talk to the Allies in order to arrange the delivery of explosives and things like that. So he got in very deep, so deep that when his superior was arrested and tortured, and one of his colleagues was arrested and deported, he was afraid that he was too exposed.

And so he went completely underground, wearing a disguise and sleeping from safe house to safe house. And as time went by - and this was really a story of the Resistance - as various members were arrested and deported or executed, sort of a process of attrition, that Monod just kept getting promoted, such that by 1944 he was chief of staff in charge of the operations bureau for the National Resistance Organization, and primarily concerned with things like sabotage, intelligence, arms drops, funneling information about targets to Allied bombing command, things like this, and right up through the days of the liberation of Paris, where he also had a pretty big hand.

DANKOSKY: But meanwhile, as you write periodically, still doing work in his lab, you write that at least one time the Gestapo stops by to check out his lab. What happens?

CARROLL: Well, they - Monod's account was he thought the Gestapo looked pretty uncomfortable in the lab, around all these microbes and things. And he - they didn't spend as much time there as - and he was grateful for that. But they did, you know, storm up the steps and that's, of course, a pretty unnerving experience. But they found nothing. So the Gestapo didn't haul people away - mostly, as far as I understand - unless they really had some kind of goods on them.

And especially in the scientific establishment, there was a fair amount of work still going on throughout the war, partly because the Germans wanted to see - at the Pasteur Institute, for example - vaccines continue to be made, or in physics institutes they were interested in some of the possible applications of research going on. So scientists were able to continue their work under really difficult conditions. And Monod was one of those. But he was living a double life. He had a alias. One of his aliases came from a character in a novel by Stendhal. And he - so it was sort of a double life, you know, biology by day and Resistance work by night.

DANKOSKY: We have a call here from Kala(ph), who's calling from Silver Springs, Maryland. Hi there, Kala.

KALA: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. I was wondering if there were other scientists who joined in addition to the two scientists that you cover in your book that were part of the French Resistance. And did they work together sort of after hours when they were not in the lab?

DANKOSKY: Good question.

CARROLL: Yeah. Thanks for the question. Yeah. Absolutely, the - especially around Paris. The birth of the Resistance owed a lot to sort of the intelligentsia - academics, professionals, doctors, lawyers, this sort of thing. And there were certain hotbeds of Resistance activity, and those people who knew each other professionally, you know, before the war, they - when they saw each other, they were obviously in cahoots with each other.

And so this meant, for example, gathering chemicals that might be used in sabotage. A very prominent French physicist, Frederic Joliot-Curie, actually a Nobel winner in 1935 - he was an important member of the Resistance and came up with a unique cocktail for - Molotov cocktails. And those ended up being manufactured in labs, sort of basement laboratories during the fight for liberation in August in 1944 and sort of sent out from that - those labs, you know, by runners to be thrown against German tanks and things.

So the - there were a lot of scientists involved in the resistance. There were a lot of intellectuals, artists, as I said, doctors, lawyers. I think that that class was really horrified at what was happening to France during the occupation and found a lot of similar attitudes among their friends and peers.

DANKOSKY: If you have questions for Sean B. Carroll about his book "Brave Genius," 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

So now, how does the other Nobel Prize winner fit in here, Albert Camus? What was he doing during the war? How does he come to befriend Monod?

CARROLL: Well, he - during the war, he does move around a little bit. He's actually struggling with tuberculosis. He contracted that when he was a teenager. He is writing. But in - by 1943, he starts writing some things that are contributing to sort of resistance literature, and he's in touch with other writers that are similarly engaged. And some of his old journalist contacts get in touch, and they're in the resistance. And the tide of the war is starting to turn.

And in the second half of 1943, the German advances in the Soviet Union have been reversed. Allies have landed in North Africa, and that's gone well. And so the resistance is really gathering some momentum. And Camus moves back to Paris, and he's introduced to some people running this newspaper called Combat. And he doesn't divulge his identity, although he would be known as a writer. He had published a couple of books including "The Stranger."

You know, you can't give out your name in the resistance, you're real name. It's incredibly dangerous. So he just said, well, you know, I could help out. And what happened, again, this matter of attrition, that when some of his colleagues were taken away - one to a concentration camp, another died in a shootout with the Germans - he became editor of the newspaper.

And the newspaper went from being a monthly publication, usually exhorting resistance and recounting various German atrocities, and they were planning daily, getting ready for daily publication in anticipating the liberation. And the editor at the time of liberation, these crucial days in Paris in mid to late August 1944, was Camus. And what made him really famous was that as the newspaper came daily and first started appearing on the streets and in the open, he wrote these editorials.

Now they were still anonymous while in the days that the Germans still controlled the city. But these editorials are some of the most remarkable pieces of journalism - inspiring, eloquent journalism ever written. And when the public found out who had written these things, they loved him for it. And that was the beginning of Albert Camus very public career. But you could look at it as really a series of accidents that he found himself in that position. But he rose to the occasion when the opportunity came.

DANKOSKY: He doesn't befriend Monod until after the war when there's another threat that they both see - even both being former communists, they see the threat from the Soviet Union.

CARROLL: Yeah. Camus was a communist in Algeria for a short time, but he wasn't too sympathetic with the cause. And Monod had joined the communist party really just as a matter of obligation. When he joined the resistance, he realized that if he wasn't a communist, he'd have almost no say in how the organization was run. But he had serious reservations about the communists.

Well, after the war - and this is really the beginning of the Cold War - both Monod and Camus developed serious reservations about what was going on in the Soviet Union. And there were different triggers for each, but they both went public with those reservations. And that was a strong bond for them. Now Monod went public over matters of science, and it was introduced to Camus. And Camus learned a lot from Monod.

I learned this in the course of writing the book that, clearly, Camus was cribbing some information from Monod in a book that Camus published called "The Rebel" that was a really clear-eyed damning indictment of the Soviet system. And this friendship was really important to Camus because that point of view cost him many, many friendships with Frenchmen on the left, most famously his friend Jean-Paul Sartre. They never spoke again during Camus life.

So Monod's friendship - their friendship was blossoming just at the time when other things were disintegrating in Camus life. And you can see in the notes between them, letters between them that there was an intimacy, a very strong friendship, a very strong kinship, and they were united now against another oppressor. They - after experiencing the Nazis, they really saw the Soviet Union as pretty much the same thing; a dictatorship, you know, run by a delusional tyrant in a totalitarian state that strips citizens of all their liberties.

DANKOSKY: What specifically was Monod's problem with Soviet science at the time?

CARROLL: Well, Stalin after the war - after World War II really began a process of sort of the Sovietization of science. And the idea was to sort of strip science and the Soviet Union of Western influences. Soviet scientists were becoming barred from publishing in the West. They were not receiving Western journals. And Western ideas were considered bourgeois, erroneous and that they had to be abandoned, including - and this is what shocked Monod - 50 years of genetics.

So this - there was a public announcement in the Soviet Union that Mendelian genetics, the genetics of Gregor Mendel and the chromosomal theories of genetics that were the Nobel Prize-winning work of T.H. Morgan in the 1930s in the United States, that these were to be abandoned and that there was another theory being promoted by a complete charlatan in the Soviet Union. And this sounds like, you know, some completely obscure event, you know, behind the iron curtain, but this had profound consequences.

It gutted Soviet biology, I would say, really, since that time; that Soviet biology never really recovered from this long episode of genetics being suppressed in the Soviet Union. And it had disastrous consequences for Soviet agriculture and Chinese agriculture because China adopted the same sort of ideological approach to agriculture and had miserable crop failures and famines in the 1950s. So, you know, sounds like a bizarre academic, you know, point, but it had profound consequences.

DANKOSKY: We're talking with Sean B. Carroll who is the author of "Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures From the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize." I'm John Dankosky, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Now at the end of your book, you write about some of the parallels between Camus and Monod, how they both arrived at some of the similar conclusions about the meaning of life and our place on Earth, one coming from philosophy, the other through science. Tell us about this.

CARROLL: Well, Camus was, I think, very influential. He published a book same - virtually at the same time as "The Stranger" called "The Myth of Sisyphus." And some people may have been fortunate to read that, and that had a strong influence, I think, not just on other thinkers but a lot of scientists.

And when his work was discovered, especially after the war, I think it really struck a chord with people like Monod. So much so that Monod, after winning his Nobel Prize, he decided to take up the philosophical implications of molecular biology. Now you might say, you know, it takes a Frenchman to take up the philosophical implications of molecular biology, but why Monod?

And there was a good reason because, really, he was thinking about the significance of science to sort of understanding humans' place in the universe for 20 or 30 years. And had encountered ideologies that had rejected, you know, science - scientific understanding, including what would - what had gone in the Soviet Union. And so I think one way to think about it is he sort of took Camus' approach, which was sort of traditional philosophical reasoning and added to it a new empirical body of evidence, and this came from molecular biology.

And what Monod really emphasized in his book called "Chance and Necessity" was the ubiquitous role of chance in life on Earth, and that we now knew from the mechanisms of molecular biology that chance, chance mutations were at the root of everything in the biosphere. And this, he felt, was an - was such a profound idea, but it had not been grasped by philosophers, by governments, he even said, let alone by theologians. And so his book explored the ramifications of sort of the new biology but in a very Camusian way.

In fact, the opening epigraph of "Chance and Necessity" were the closing paragraphs of Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus." So there's a direct link between the two. In fact, seeing things like that is what prompted me to start to investigate the story and sort of the influence that one had on the other.

DANKOSKY: Well - and that's where I wanted to go before we run out of time with you. You've been asked this question in your book. How does a middle-aged American biologist wind up writing a story about world-turning events and remarkable people in France more than 70 years ago? So, yeah, how did that happen?


CARROLL: Well, I - my own research is in some ways related to what Monod did. But I sense that there was a story there. And as I dug, I found more than I could have hoped for or imagined, sort of one pot of storyteller's gold after another. You know, if I told you that there was this scientist who had, you know, movie star looks, he was a talented musician, he was this member of the resistance, he was friends with the leading voice of his time and this great author, he helped later in life smuggle scientists to freedom from behind the Iron Curtain, and, oh, yeah, he was a Nobel laureate, you'd sort of think it was a piece of fiction.

But, you know, this was who Monod was. And Camus was this incredibly inspirational, eloquent person who I think really embodied the French ideal of, you know, of brotherhood, equality, liberty. This is what was emphasized in Camus' editorials and his essays, well, even his works of fiction. And so they - these were two men of extraordinary spirit and, you know, really courageous deeds. And so, you know, our picture of scientists as, you know, eggheads in the ivory tower in white lab coats, you know, Monod does a lot to shatter that.

These were people very much involved in the, you know, world-changing events of their times. And I thought it was a story worth exploring, and it was probably one of the most rewarding adventures of my career.

DANKOSKY: What - and to actually dig into this book, you had to go hunting through old archives in Paris. It seems like a historian's job more than that of a scientist. But did it sort of compare to the work that you do?

CARROLL: It's the same thing. It's the great thing about it, John, which is you are playing hunches. You're looking for evidence. And when the evidence falls into your hand, it's the same rush that all your guests this hour have been talking about, those eureka moments. It's just as gratifying, just as thrilling. You can't wait to tell people about it because you've filled in some blank.

In my case, I also met extraordinary people. So Monod's assistant in the resistance, Genevieve Noufflard, is 93 years old and alive and well in Paris. And she handed me a memoir she wrote in 1945 but never published, as well as about 50 or 60 documents from the resistance. And then I got to, you know, meet her and hear the tales firsthand.

I mean, that was just extraordinary experience. And that was just a sample of the things that happened to me; of having documents that no one knew existed, batches of letters, telling inscriptions, police archives that, you know, members of Monod's own family didn't know that he had. There were police reports on him sitting in the archives for 70 years. So I think my research skills came into play and rewarded me.

DANKOSKY: Yeah. I'll bet they did. And it's a wonderful book. Sean B. Carroll is the author of "Brave Genius," also vice president of science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Sean, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

CARROLL: Thank you, John. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.