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Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher,…

Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from… (edition 2013)

by Sean B. Carroll

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Title:Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize
Authors:Sean B. Carroll
Info:Crown (2013), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 576 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:science, Europe, history, biography

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Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize by Sean B. Carroll



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In the spring of 1940, the aspiring but unknown writer Albert Camus and budding scientist Jacques Monod were quietly pursuing ordinary, separate lives in Paris. After the German invasion and occupation of France, each joined the Resistance to help liberate the country from the Nazis, ascended to prominent, dangerous roles, and were very lucky to survive. After the war and through twists of circumstance, they became friends, and through their passionate determination and rare talent they emerged as leading voices of modern literature and biology, each receiving the Nobel Prize in their respective fields.

Drawing upon a wealth of previously unpublished and unknown material gathered over several years of research, this book tells the story of how each man endured the most terrible episode of the twentieth century and then blossomed into extraordinarily creative and engaged individuals. It is a story of the transformation of ordinary lives into exceptional lives by extraordinary events - of courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, the flowering of creative genius, deep friendship, and of profound concern for and insight into the human condition.
By Michael Dirda
The Washington Post
November 6, 2013

This book is a bargain. For $28 you receive the following:

1) A short biography of writer and philosopher Albert Camus, who was born 100 years ago — and whose life and work are being celebrated tonight at a special program at the Alliance Francaise de Washington.

2) A similar short biography of Jacques Monod, pioneering molecular biologist and eventual head of the Pasteur Institute.

3) A riveting account of the German invasion of France and the activities of the French Resistance in Paris, focusing on two of its leaders: Camus, the editorialist of the underground newspaper Combat, and Monod, member of the militant partisan group Francs-Tireurs et Partisans.

4) A potted history of molecular biology, from Erwin Schrödinger’s speculative “What Is Life” (1944) through Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix of DNA to the researches into gene communication by Monod and François Jacob.

5) Succinct analyses of Camus’s thought (in such books as “The Myth of Sisyphus” and “The Rebel”) and of Monod’s bestselling reflections on life, “Chance and Necessity.”

Initially, “Brave Genius” might seem to be trying to do too much, as it shifts back and forth between military history and biography, or pauses to describe philosophical arguments, political stances and enzyme reactions in bacteria. But Sean B. Carroll — a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and a regular contributor to the science pages of the New York Times — uses his multiple threads to build suspense and keep the reader turning the pages. It’s the rare book that can usefully complement both Alan Riding’s “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris” and Horace Freeland Judson’s standard history of molecular biology, “The Eighth Day of Creation.”

Camus, born in Algeria to a deaf and illiterate cleaning woman, and Monod, member of a cultivated, cosmopolitan family (his mother was from Milwaukee), didn’t meet until after the war, in 1948. So clandestine were their Resistance activities that only a few people knew the true identities of “Albert Mathé” and “Bauchard” (both Camus) and “Malivert” (Monod). But the two men hit it off immediately and from the start shared many philosophical views, beginning with the one thrillingly set down at the opening of “The Myth of Sisyphus”:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”

Yet, if one rejects suicide and the (supposedly) false consolations of religion, how does one find meaning in an indifferent universe? For Camus, a passionate embrace of life itself is the answer: “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Monod would agree, emphasizing in “Chance and Necessity” that humankind’s deepest purpose is the dual pursuit of creation and knowledge, that is, art and science. Consequently, a proper society should “defend intellectual, political, and economic freedoms” and “foster education . . . as its primary task.” Human life and history should be a progress toward ever more freedom, creativity and knowledge.

These might sound like austere, rather high-minded ideals, but Camus and Monod found in them the courage to risk their lives. To Camus, the unforgivable sin was to elevate abstractions and ideologies over living, breathing human beings — and this is just what the Nazis stood for and did. To Monod, the Nazis — and later the Soviet Union, McCarthyite America and conservative France — all curtailed, to varying degrees, the freedom of inquiry and exchange of ideas required by scientific research. In later life, Monod not only helped colleagues escape from Budapest after the failed Hungarian Revolution but also joined the students during the Latin Quarter protests of May 1968.

For both men, the Resistance to the German occupation formed and tested their characters. Friends died. Entire networks were sometimes compromised and their members sent to concentration camps or executed.

One evening, Monod gave his briefcase to a young lab assistant and told her, “I am leaving tonight to [do] something dangerous; and I would like you to keep this for me.” He added that if he hadn’t returned in a certain number of days, “Please see that my wife is told.” The scientist then made his way to neutral Switzerland for a meeting with the U.S. agents Max Shoop and Allen Dulles to discuss operations for the “Secret Army” after the Allies landed, whenever that might be.

On June 1, 1944, a BBC radio announcer at last spoke the awaited code words: “Ma femme a l’oeil vif” (My wife has a lively expression_ — the signal that the invasion of Europe was imminent. In the following weeks, Monod and his Troisième Bureau would be largely responsible for the sabotage of railroads and munition depots. Later still, Monod helped oversee the uprisings in Paris against the Germans and commandeered the Ministry of War until the arrival of the leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle.

Throughout the Occupation, Camus’s editorials for the newspaper Combat, as eloquent as Churchill’s speeches, lifted spirits. They thrill even today: “A people that wants to live does not wait for its freedom to be delivered to it. It takes its own.” When Paris was finally liberated, Camus wrote:

“Nothing is given to mankind, and what little men can conquer must be paid for with unjust deaths. But man’s grandeur lies elsewhere, in his decision to rise above his condition. . . . What gives our heart peace, as it gave peace to our dead comrades, is that we can say before the impending victory, without scolding and without pressing any claim of our own: ‘We did what had to be done.’ ”

In 1957, Camus received the Nobel Prize for literature; in 1960 he was killed in an automobile accident at age 46.

After the war, Monod returned to his lab and the pursuit of what he once called “the secret of life.” In partnership with the brilliant François Jacob — who had joined de Gaulle in England and been seriously wounded in Normandy — he gradually recognized the importance of RNA and established “a general model for the logic of gene regulation.” In 1961, the two published their watershed paper “Genetic Regulatory Mechanisms in the Synthesis of Protein,” and, four years later, in conjunction with their colleague André Lwoff, they received the Nobel Prize in medicine.

“Brave Genius” is long, and I’ve done scant justice to its postwar second half, which relates, for instance, Camus’s falling out with Sartre and Monod’s eviscerating critique of Soviet pseudo-science (Lysenkoism). This is, in short, a gripping book throughout, and Carroll deserves all praise for his double portrait of two exemplary heroes of conscience and intellect.

"Suspenseful... Brave Genius is briskly paced and ambitiously sprawling, offering potted accounts of historical episodes large and small (the fall of France, the 1956 Hungarian crisis, Camus's famous feud with Jean-Paul Sartre, the discovery of the double helix), along with finer-grained descriptions of Camus's and Monod's work. Dr. Carroll has done some impressive archival digging. turning up fresh and often vivid details." --- The New York Times

“Carroll beautifully encapsulates how two men seemingly so far apart in their philosophies and achievements both ended up sharing exceptional lives transformed by exceptional events.”
—Scientific American

“An exciting and impressively told tale.”—American Scholar

"Brave Genius is scintillating in its entirety, reminding us that even in a time of profound adversity, it is genius, not misery, that loves — longs for, necessitates, thrives on — company."- Brain Pickings

"Carroll does a masterful job of keeping the many elements together and the story moving….In 1959, C. P. Snow wrote of the “two cultures” — that gulf between science and the humanities. Brave Genius provides an opportunity for those on both sides of the divide to sample a potent mix of genet­ics, philosophy and literature, forged in the twentieth-century tumult of war and cold war.”—Nature

"Carroll describes the intersection of these two lives in fascinating detail, but Brave Genius is also an important book because, at its heart, is an argument against allowing science to be directed by political expedience." Sydney Review of Books

“A rare chronicle of valiant thinkers fighting political oppression and transcending professional boundaries. Readers will learn a good deal about symbolism in Camus’ fiction and biochemistry in Monod’s molecular biology. But, above all, they will learn about a luminous friendship forged in dark times.”—Booklist (starred review)

“Carroll deftly weaves science and history together in his account of the lives, accomplishments, and friendship of two exceptional men…Spanning history, science, and philosophy, this dual biographical study of two significant 20th-century figures will appeal to a diverse audience.”—Library Journal

“Skillfully combines science, biography and history…An important story well-told.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Carroll has a winning way with words, and everything he writes about (especially difficult matters of science) sparkles with clarity.”—Publishers Weekly

“What is life, and how should we live it? Those two questions weave through Brave Genius, a remarkable profile of the friendship between the philosopher Albert Camus and the biologist Jacques Monod. With deep research and compelling story-telling, Sean Carroll follows these two Nobel-prize winners from the desperate depths of World War II to international fame.”
—Carl Zimmer, author of Soul Made Flesh and Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life

“Brave Genius is itself a brave, ambitious, unexpected book. Who knew that Sean B. Carroll, a brilliant biologist, could or would write such a work of literary, political, and scientific history? It brings many revelations, offers several heroes, but at its heart is Jacques Monod, emerging as one of the great, complete men of the 20th century.”—David Quammen

“A tour de force, a gripping narrative of a pivotal time in the history of Europe and of science. I am inspired by the determination of the key characters in the book, by their quest for liberty in the face of great injustice, and by the power their discoveries gave to understanding the living world.”—Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish

“The story of two brilliant men who understood better than anyone the randomness and absurdity of life, but who fought valiantly and fiercely to make the world a better place. History, personality, and ideas come together in this amazing tale of science, philosophy and friendship.”—Sean M. Carroll, author of From Eternity to Here and Particle at the End of the Universe

“Art and science are two essential components forming the very essence of what makes being human worth being human. Sean Carroll has done a yeoman's job of merging these two vital areas beautifully in this moving and carefully researched history of two great minds and two brave men. Their lives were tied together by the horrors of war and the courage to do something about it, and above all, by the intellectual integrity needed to promote reason and understanding in a world where insanity and hatred were in control. It is impossible not to be inspired by their story.”—Lawrence M. Krauss
The geneticist and the philosopher
Matthew Cobb
Current Biology
Volume 23, Issue 20
21 October 2013

To the surprise of the general public, and even to some students, scientists are human. Our lives and interests are not limited to the lab bench or the computer screen. This evident truth is highlighted twice over in Brave Genius, the new book by evo-devo geneticist and popular science writer Sean B. Carroll, which traces the lives of two Frenchmen who were close friends and both of whom won Nobel Prizes — Jacques Monod (1965, Medicine) and Albert Camus (1957, Literature).

Monod, who co-discovered the operon with François Jacob, was a talented musician with a lifelong involvement in politics, including an important period in the French Resistance during the Second World War. Monod’s life was not simply spent thinking about science. Equally, by writing what is effectively a joint biography of Monod and Camus, Carroll has explored his own fascination with the events surrounding the Occupation of France, and with the writings and personality of Albert Camus, as well as his understanding of Monod’s discoveries.

Camus and Monod met each other in 1948, when they both waded into the debate over the attack on ‘bourgeois genetics’ by the Soviet agronomist Lysenko. The two men agreed in their critique of Stalinism and of its distorted view of science, and their close friendship lasted until Camus’ death in a road accident in 1959. This episode, which in many respects should be the heart of the book, occurs over halfway through, after nearly 300 pages of description of the war, Occupation and Resistance.

That opening half of the book will interest readers who have not read anything about this period, but these pages are not focused on Camus and Monod. Further, the image of the Resistance and the Liberation presented is a conventional one that does not describe the conflicts between the various Resistance groups, the mutual suspicions of the Resistance and de Gaulle’s Free French, or the hostility of the Allies towards de Gaulle and their suspicion of the Resistance. Positioning Camus and Monod in this nuanced political context would have brought these passages to life.

When the moral difficulties of living and working under the Occupation are raised, Carroll seems surprisingly reluctant to examine them. The German censors insisted that if Camus wanted to publish his book The Myth of Sisyphus, he would have to remove a chapter on Kafka, who was a Jew. “Camus had no option but to comply,” writes Carroll. But Camus did have an option, which was not to publish under those conditions. During the Occupation, people made choices that had lasting consequences for their subsequent reputations. Exploring Camus’ choice would surely have been an appropriate response to the actions of this existentialist philosopher.

Combining a general history with a dual biography inevitably exaggerates the roles of both men during this period — Camus’ newspaper, Combat, was one of many Resistance publications; the most important, Défense de la France, had a print-run of over 400,000. Even so, the impact of any of the Resistance newspapers on public opinion and Resistance action is uncertain. During the liberation of Paris, Monod was operations chief-of-staff for the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, but his leadership role was nowhere near as important as Carroll suggests. It is striking that there is no mention of Monod in any of the French or English books on the liberation of Paris, nor in collections of documents from the period.

Perhaps as a result of this emphasis on a general description of the Occupation, there are key events in the intellectual histories of both Monod and Camus that are not described. For example, as Carroll explains, the split between Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre came into the open in 1952, with a savage review of Camus’ The Rebel by Francis Jeanson in the pages of Les Temps Modernes. But six years earlier, in 1946, the fault-line between Camus and Sartre had begun to emerge when Camus attacked the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty for his defence of the 1930s Moscow show trials and his criticism of the ex-communist Arthur Koestler. Sartre’s refusal to distance himself from the standard Stalinist defence of the USSR showed the difference that would soon split the two men. Although Carroll situates the row in terms of the Cold War, his description lacks the specifically French context, and feels strangely unrooted.

Similarly, in the late 1950s, Monod began writing a book entitled Enzyme Cybernetics — the French popular interest in cybernetics was deeper than that in the USA or the UK, and it would have been interesting to know how this affected Monod, and if it contributed to the development of the feedback model of operon function. Instead, Monod’s work is connected only to the standard account of the development of molecular genetics.

Carroll’s extremely detailed description of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and its crushing by the Soviet Union seems out of place, as neither Monod nor Camus were directly involved. It forms the backdrop to an account of Camus’ eventual championing of the rebel’s cause, but we are not told if Monod took a public position, nor why Camus remained silent until he was publicly called upon to comment, a week after the tanks rolled in.

Monod subsequently spent a great deal of time trying to help the young Romanian-born scientist Agnes Ullmann escape to the west, which Carroll describes in great detail. These passages are full of failed plans and involve a drugged lion, an escape across the Danube, and an unseemly squabble over finances that occurred between Monod and Arpad Csapo of the Rockefeller Institute in New York. Ullmann finally escaped in 1960, hidden in a caravan. With Monod’s help, she made it to Paris, where she subsequently worked with him at the Institut Pasteur until his death in 1976.

The treatment of the other great event in the life of French intellectuals in the 1950s — the Algerian war — is disappointing. There is no mention of the widespread use of torture by the French army, and the war is said to have involved “atrocities committed by both sides” — an even-handed description that would undoubtedly shock Algerians and that few in France would now agree with. Camus’ muted declarations, and his utopian suggestion of a “civilian ceasefire” need to be understood in terms of his past and his politics, and contrasted with the more vigorous declarations and actions of others.

It is not clear from Brave Genius what Monod felt, either about Algeria, or about Camus’ interventions. For example, Monod did not sign the ‘Manifesto of the 121’, a June 1960 petition that denounced the use of torture and called for recognition of the rights of conscientious objectors. Was this a principled stance on Monod’s part, or was he not even asked (the signatories were mainly literary folk, but included his distant relation, the naturalist Theodore Monod)? Did he sign other petitions or make other declarations?

The views of both men — and their silences — could usefully have been highlighted by examining the claims of ex-résistants, including Camus’ Combat comrade, Claude Bourdet, that the French state was acting in Algeria like the Germans had done in France during the Occupation. In Carroll’s account, it would appear that when it came to Algeria, both Monod and Camus did not live up to their previous stances against oppression.

Carroll’s interest in the period and in his characters is evident. The description of Jacob and Brenner’s work on messenger RNA is particularly effective, if largely taken from the accounts of the participants themselves. But more space was needed to develop apparent insights for this account to have lasting influence.

One of the most telling examples of this problem is when Carroll points out that Monod’s work on enzyme ‘adaptation’ bore a superficial resemblance to Lysenko’s suggestion that environmental challenges would bring forth appropriate hereditary changes in organisms. Carroll claims that “Monod decided it would be best to banish the Lamarckian and Lysenkoist connotations of the term ‘enzyme adaptation’ and henceforth preferred ‘enzyme induction.” But the 1953 Nature article in which Monod and Cohn proposed the change in nomenclature refers to ‘adaptation’ only in terms of modifications that increase fitness — there is no reference to Lysenkoist or Lamarckian ideas. Here, as at a number of other points, it is hard to tell if Carroll has made an insight that he has not been able to explore due to his decision to deal with more general aspects of the period, or if he has over-interpreted the material to hand.
  meadcl | Jul 10, 2016 |
This is a review that I submitted to Goodreads some time ago when I received the book as a Publisher's Advance in exchange for a review. I liked my review so much that I thought that I should share it here with other LibraryThing users....

Disclaimer: I won this book through Goodreads giveaway program. Lest you think that fact would overly influence this review let me reassure you that this is a book that I would have happily purchased, borrowed or taken out from the local library.

This book is a winner for at least 3 reasons: it has Nazis, Nobel Prizes and knowledge. It is not just a book about what happened in France during World War II. It is not just a book about French culture from the mid-20th century and all the differing political and cultural mixes that made and still make it one of the world's most vital centers. It is not just a book about how to become a respected author/journalist/playwright or a biological scientist.

Personally, I have some reasons for being interested in the topics of Brave Genius. Four of my in-laws are scientists and two of them live and work in Paris; both are biological scientists. All of us are too young to come from the same generation as the protagonists written in these pages but my French sister-in-law's mother certainly heard of Camus and Monod and was aware of them as contemporary public figures when she was alive and growing up.

The author divided the book into separate parts: the fall and occupation of France, how Camus and Monod reacted during this time by joining in Resistance activities at great risk to themselves, how they each developed their intellectual basis for their separate achievements and eventual world recognition.

The author's access to personal archive materials and memoirs of those closely involved with Monod and Camus reveals the rather intense sense of human concern that both of them had and how they felt (...acting with...) a personal sense of political responsibility to speak and act against unfair oppressions both domestic and international; they both had conscience and acted accordingly.

I enjoyed the author's writing style. Some works of non-fiction just relate the facts and events and hope that the interest by the reader will just carry them through the read; this book is far more that that. Carroll is constantly engaging and weaves the sometimes complicated events in each chapter in such a way that you are hooked and ready to jump into reading onward even if it is too late at night. I had to ration my reading.

And speaking of late at night, I actually had to stop reading the book just before retiring when he was describing the uneasy feeling of being a citizen in a country occupied by a threatening enemy. This was real and it was scary. And not just scary as many of the cliche war movies have shown it to be…it was a truly dangerous time just to be a pedestrian out for a walk around the streets of Paris and other cities; there was a finite chance that you could be picked up and made a hostage at actual risk to your own life. Carroll's writing brings this terrible sense of Zeitgeist home to me. I actually stopped reading these parts of the book in the late evening, it wrecked my sleep patterns just ruminating about how uneasy life in Vichy occupied France was for everyone, let alone as members of the Resistance as both Monod and Camus heroically were.

When you finish reading Brave Genius you really feel that you have lived a rich life along with these two amazing people and gone through sometimes extraordinarily personally challenging times. This is a book of great merit that will affect you both at the time of reading and later on when you reflect on how these two intense Frenchmen both lived lives richly examined by this author. ( )
  schwarzenberger | Feb 4, 2015 |
A fascinating look at the operations of the French Resistance during World War II, and the role of Monod and Camus in that movement. Very well written and highly informative. ( )
  VGAHarris | Jan 19, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This was a very thorough and impressive book. I was engaged throughout though at times it was a little slow going so it did take me awhile to get through. The author did a tremendous job of delivering complexed scientific and philosophical prinicipals at the perfect level. He didn't make it so complexed that a layperson couldn't understand but at the same time it was thorough enough to keep persons from a scientific background engaged. The stories of Monod, Camus, Jacob and others were fascinating. I honestly don't have a strong background in WWII history so it was great for me to learn about the struggles that France went through as well as post war Europe. The only criticism I have is that at times the book dragged and I never felt a strong emotional connection to struggle that they went through. With that said, it was still a fantastic read and it makes me want to learn more about both WWII and the biological and genetic advancements of the time. ( )
  phranchk | Oct 31, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Knowing only a little about the French Resistance of WWII, Albert Camus, and Jacques Monod, I was curious to see how they all fit together. Perhaps Monod's own definition of genius can help explain the danger embraced, connections, and similarities of these two Nobel Prize winners. Genius is not so much having exceptional intelligence as being
"an artist and a dreamer ... to be fascinated by mirages of an imagination that always tended to go beyond the horizons of knowledge ... ambitious and dominating ... satisfied only with real and complete victories ... rigorous and demanding toward himself..." (496)

Carroll writes a clear and excellent account of the French Resistance from the perspective of those who lived, struggled, and overcame the German occupation of Paris with determination and bravery. Camus, a philosopher and writer, and Monod, a scientist and inventive thinker, became good friends - both understanding the importance and cost of true freedom. Experts deeply involved in different disciplines, their discoveries and thinking ultimately converge in pondering why we exist and the meaning of our lives.

In my opinion, 500+ pages turned out to be the perfect length to cover the events and philosophies of this amazing and important time of history. Well written, integrated, and understandable this is no shallow treatment of the subjects undertaken by Carroll. Highly recommended. ( )
  -Cee- | Oct 9, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307952339, Hardcover)

The never-before-told account of the intersection of some of the most insightful minds of the 20th century, and a fascinating look at how war, resistance, and friendship can catalyze genius.
In the spring of 1940, the aspiring but unknown writer Albert Camus and budding scientist Jacques Monod were quietly pursuing ordinary, separate lives in Paris. After the German invasion and occupation of France, each joined the Resistance to help liberate the country from the Nazis, ascended to prominent, dangerous roles, and were very lucky to survive. After the war and through twists of circumstance, they became friends, and through their passionate determination and rare talent they emerged as leading voices of modern literature and biology, each receiving the Nobel Prize in their respective fields.
Drawing upon a wealth of previously unpublished and unknown material gathered over several years of research, Brave Genius tells the story of how each man endured the most terrible episode of the twentieth century and then blossomed into extraordinarily creative and engaged individuals. It is a story of the transformation of ordinary lives into exceptional lives by extraordinary events--of courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, the flowering of creative genius, deep friendship, and of profound concern for and insight into the human condition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:06 -0400)

"The never-before-told account of two of the most insightful minds of the twentieth century--Jacques Monod and Albert Camus--and a dramatic story of how hardship and courage can unleash creative genius"--Dust jacket back.

(summary from another edition)

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