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Jacques Monod: a scientist whose revolution is still unfolding

Jacques Monod, right, and his collaborator François Jacob were the French equivalent of Watson and Crick; they provided the first lucid glimpse of how genes work.

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As a scientist, Sean B. Carroll works at the frontiers of "evo-devo," the field that seeks to trace the evolutionary history of life by looking at how organisms develop. As an author, he has chronicled the discoveries and epic voyages of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and other titans of his field.

In Brave Genius, his latest book, Dr. Carroll introduces readers to French scientist Jacques Monod, a seminal figure in molecular biology. The book uncovers new details about Mr. Monod's life, including harrowing times in the French Resistance and his close friendship with writer Albert Camus. It portrays a researcher coming to grips with the far-reaching implications of his work while engaging with the political tumult of his era.

The Globe and Mail caught up with Dr. Carroll ahead of his keynote address at this weekend's Toronto Science Festival.

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How do you decide what to write about?

My whole approach is storytelling. I really believe in storytelling as a way of communicating science and showing that science is done by real people who experience real life like the rest of us – in the case of Jacques Monod, sometimes more real than most of us experience.

What was Dr. Monod's contribution to science?

Dr. Monod and his close collaborator François Jacob were really the French equivalent of Watson and Crick. General audiences know about Watson and Crick because they discovered the structure of DNA. But it was Monod and Jacob who provided the first really lucid glimpse of how genes work.

How did they do it?

They found the first genetic switch, and called it that. Whether or not certain genes are switched on is the way that a bacterium "knows" how to make the right enzyme at the right time, or the way a cell "knows" what kind of cell to become, or the way an embryo knows how to develop. As early as 1947, Dr. Monod understood that he was seeing the simplest version of the complex and extremely mysterious way that life works. And while he and Dr. Jacob sorted that out, all the tools and tricks they developed laid the foundations for biotechnology.

How did his time in the French Resistance affect his life as a scientist?

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Dr. Monod's experience with the Nazi occupation made him desperate to return to science when the war was over. But he also felt that scientists had a responsibility to speak up and work against dangerous ideology. He did so during the resistance and then later as a public opponent of Soviet totalitarianism. I was astounded to learn, for example, that at the most intense phase of his scientific life, when he and Dr. Jacob were doing the work that was going to win them the Nobel Prize, Dr. Monod was also working day and night trying to get two scientists out of Hungary in a cloak-and-dagger operation.

Do you think scientists today should be so outspoken?

Absolutely. I don't think as a scientist you're obliged to, but because scientists have a knowledge base and a system of testing what's true, they're valued. That doesn't mean scientists should have an exclusive voice, because controversial issues are often driven by other human concerns and scientists can also have conflicts of interest. But not to have scientists at the table when we're talking about things like climate change, vaccines or GMOs, I think that's flying blind.

What part did Albert Camus play in shaping Dr. Monod's ideas?

I think there's evidence that Camus had a big influence on Dr. Monod, who embraced his view of the world and added a scientific dimension to it. Mr. Camus's philosophy is explicitly about relying on reason and the idea that our lives are what we make of them. Dr. Monod thought the new molecular biology had something to add because it revealed the omnipotent role that chance has played in the history of life on Earth. As he put it, all innovation in the biosphere was dependent on this chance process of changing DNA.

Today, the medical breakthroughs that flow from genetics are widely valued. Yet many people still have trouble with evolution, which is all about the action of genes over time. Why the disconnect?

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Dr. Monod said that society had accepted science's treasures but not its more profound message. He was worried about that and he thought it meant trouble ahead. It's paradoxical that science has blazed forward and produced so much usable knowledge, but some of it makes people uncomfortable and so they ignore it – but that doesn't make it less true.

In addition to your own research, you lead a science education effort through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. What are you trying to achieve there?

I've been interested in doing something about the landscape of science education in the United States. In my own activities, I've emphasized bringing stories about what we know and how we know it into the classroom – especially for students 12 to 22. I'm not sure there's a lot of changing of minds that goes on later in life. But exposing kids to the process of science, to the discoveries of science, to the lives of scientists – I think that has some potential.

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