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

Photo illustration by Olena Shmahalo/Quanta Magazine

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 very fulfilling, full-time pursuit. So when colleagues discover that I wrote a book that’s set in Paris and delves into such topics as the French Resistance, the Cold War and the author Albert Camus, they’re somewhat 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.

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


A monthly column in which top researchers explore the process of discovery. This month’s columnist, Sean B. Carroll, is a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His new book The Serengeti Rules will be published in March by Princeton University Press.

But what I really want to tell them is how laboratory science and nonfiction writing have a lot more in 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 — is similar. 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 Prefecture of Police just a few blocks south of Notre Dame Cathedral on the Left Bank. After showing the guard my passport, she pointed me upstairs to their archives. I introduced myself to the receptionist and was offered a seat at a large, wooden table in a small reading room.

Dossier BA 2443, Archives de la Préfecture de Police in Paris

A list of names obtained by Paris police on December 30, 1940, during the Nazi occupation. Jacques Monod is noted to have received 20 copies of the illegal newspaper ​Résistance.

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 was writing. I knew that Monod was living in occupied Paris in the fall of 1940 and pursuing his doctorate in zoology at the Sorbonne. By examining his research notebooks, I found that during November of that year, he obtained the first glimpse of the phenomenon of enzyme induction in bacteria 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 had experienced some sort of close brush with the authorities. What I didn’t know was how they caught on to him, or why he wasn’t 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. The attendant brought me a box full of hand-labeled, rumpled brown folders. I started browsing the case files, hoping that one document might at least mention Monod. Inside a bulky folder, I found a list of people that the police had obtained from the interrogation of a suspect. There, fifteenth on the list, was Monod’s name and address. Goosebumps.

Then, to my amazement, I came upon an entire dossier with Monod’s name on it. Inside, on delicate, tissue-thin paper, was a handwritten document. Knocking 30 years of rust off my French, I figured out that it was a detective’s report. I struggled but was able to decipher that it was the policeman’s account of searches he made of Monod’s home and laboratory. Mon Dieu, I knew I had storyteller’s gold: new and dramatic details that no one had unearthed before.

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 “eureka” moment (although that’s not a word I have ever heard in a lab — “holy sh**” is more likely). On each of these very rare occasions, something spectacular appeared in a microscope — something so unexpected that it made me call out to labmates or wake them up at home. And to make a victory run to the liquor store.

Sean B. Carroll

The unexpected part is really important. Anything worth doing in science is hard and usually takes a long time. The results are never guaranteed. So we don’t bother spending much time trying to imagine what every possible good outcome might look like. In my case, each moment of discovery was the visible result of an experiment — an image that we had never imagined, but once seen made us realize in an instant we had bolted into new territory.

Courtesy of Olivier Monod

Inscription from Albert Camus to Jacques Monod on frontispiece of Monod’s copy of Camus’ ​Actuelles​. Translated, it reads “To Jacques Monod, on the same path, fraternally Albert Camus.”

The same phenomenon happened several times in the course of my research trips to Paris. Facing some crucial gap in the story, I would discover something that gave me more than I could have wished for. Each breakthrough came from playing a hunch, from trying to find missing data. And, as in 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 his biographers. I asked Olivier Monod, one of Jacques’ twin sons (and a retired geologist), if he would please look at his father’s 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 father’s, Olivier casually asked if we might go for a coffee? “Of course,” I answered. We dropped into the nearest café, and Olivier opened his briefcase. He handed me copies of two inscriptions that were not only warm and playful, but they were nine years apart.

I was ecstatic. Here was the first concrete evidence of the duration of the two men’s friendship.

Then, Olivier interrupted my babbling to say that when he opened one of the books, something fell out. Grinning, he handed over a letter from Camus to his father — with an even earlier date. My jaw dropped. The letter had been tucked into the book for more than 60 years. No one in the family had known 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’ father urgently needed medical care!

I jumped up and hugged Olivier. He didn’t see that coming either.

This article was reprinted on TheAtlantic.com.

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  • Excellent observations, and thank you for inquiring on a chapter of history all too many are anxious to forget, lest the biggest, and most uncomfortable, yet enlightening questions, be asked.

    All original thinking is thus: not following the reassuring and comforting herd, but going where creative imagination leads us, with its dream-like world. To have the courage to enact dreams, giving serendipity a chance, is how new understanding blossoms.

    Science and thinking, progresses through dangerous questions in unusual settings. Why were Monod and Camus resisting? The nobility of the human spirit, the same urge which drives all deep thinking? Dangerous questions, like why is it that the French Republic, basically alone, fought the Nazis, Soviets and Italian fascists, from September 1939 to June 1940? Those dangerous questions would inform the present state of the world.
    In any case, thank you.

  • I love this, Sean! I was reminded of my own thrilling discovery as a grad student. While writing my research proposal in grad school I stumbled on a publication that mentioned the existence of some eastcentral Illinois bird migration records dating back to the 1920s. I began to investigate where these records might be if indeed they still existed. A librarian for the Illinois Natural History Survey directed me to a pole barn at the University of Illinois's South Farms. Sitting on the dirt floor of the barn among rows of old filing cabinets from the offices of retired and deceased professors were the cabinets of former Illinois Natural History Survey ecologists, Jean and Richard Graber. Still carefully organized in the first drawer I opened were the yellowed, fountain penned records–and they dated all the way back to 1903 and records kept by Stephen Alfred Forbes and the students in his annual spring ornithology course. A thrilling discovery and the inspiration for my first published paper on bird migration phenology and climate change.

  • I loved this article! Camus is one of my heroes–I am brushing up my French by reading "L'Exil et le Royaume"–and Monod is a name always at the periphery of my reading, asking to be pursued, and Carroll's "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" has a special place on my bookshelf, offering an explosion of insights into our oneness with creation. Right now, reading this, I have been having an almost Eureka moment, and a feeling of real joy, that Carroll's new book is going to bring together so much that is close to my heart. While I can bring nothing informed or substantive to the discussion, I can be more than civil, and offer him back some of the joy I felt reading this.

  • What I want to know is what was in the police report? Why was he released when others were not? Some of us readers are in other professions.

  • Dear QUANTA
    Thank you for this moving article by Professor Sean Carroll. I was in the States working on my Ph.D. thesis in Genetics when Monod's famous paper "On the Nature of Allosteric Transitions: A Plausible Model" was published in 1965 in the Journal of Molecular Biology. I do remember that our Professor of Molecular Genetics, a new at that time class in the Geneticists to be Curriculum, interrupted the continuity of his lectures to announce "a very-very important publication from France" and went on to present in detail Monod's paper. Of course, I always keep in my library the Greek translation of his ground breaking Philosophical Essay "La hazard et la nécessité. Essai sur la philosophie naturelle de la Biologie moderne" Editions du Seuil, Paris 1970. The 1st Greek translation of the book was published in Athens in 1971 the very same year that the English translation was published in New York, something that says a lot about the international fame and the contributions of the late Professor Jacque Monod on the advancement of the Science and the Human Culture in general.
    E. G. Sideris
    Athens GREECE

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