Deep Secrets and the Thrill of Discovery

Sean B. Carroll in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_1739 Mar. 01 17.15I 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.

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.

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.

More here.