Biologist, educator, and author Sean B. Carroll honored with prestigious literary prize.
Rockefeller University established the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science to honor the rare individuals who bridge the worlds of science and the humanities.
Rockefeller University awarded the 2016 Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science to biologist, educator, and author Sean B. Carroll for his integration of science and literature. The prize recognizes writers whose stories illuminate the natural intersection of science and the humanities, provoking contemplation or even revelation. Carroll’s writing laces elements of science, exploration, and history into compelling tales. His 2013 book, Brave Genius, told the story of the friendship and adventures of biologist Jacques Monod and the writer Albert Camus. His 2016 book, The Serengeti Rules, wrestles with biology’s biggest question: How does life work? Carroll heads science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and is a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where his lab explores how animal bodies develop and evolve.
What does winning the Lewis Thomas Prize mean to you?
I read Lewis Thomas as a young scientist, so it is particularly nice to receive this award. The authors who’ve won this prize before me tend to be a population of scientists who want to tell their stories to the general public. It’s great company to be in. I’m flattered.
The Serengeti Rules is your seventh book. What inspires you to write?
My interest comes from an inclination to figure out how to share science with people who are not specialists. The audience I write for spans from students, to professionals, to the science-curious. If we don’t tell the story of science, people might not know what they’re missing.
How do you pick the subjects of your books?
I’m looking for great stories about important discoveries.
As an author, do you always know exactly where you’re going?
No, but let me tell you how I choose the ingredients. I look for scientists who’ve discovered something important, someone’s individual experiences – say, for instance, if they go out into the Serengeti, or the Arctic, to try to understand how the world works. I’m looking for drama and inspiration, someone who has faced odds or adversity. And I’m looking for surprise – things are often not what we expect.
In the case of The Serengeti Rules, I went to the Serengeti in 2014 with my family. You’d think I’d be prepared – I’ve been around a while, seen a lot of TV shows. That still didn’t prepare me for it. It’s the sheer number of giraffes, zebras, elephants, everywhere you look. Who wouldn’t be inspired, and who wouldn’t, especially if you’re a scientist, be curious as to how this place works? A big quest for biologists is to understand how biological regulation works, at all scales.
What is the most rewarding part of writing a book?
There’s a pleasure in researching material for a story. Who are these people, where are they going? There’s discovery, drama, insight. With that material in hand, you can say, all right, so tell me the story – how does it go? For me, that’s one of the most fun positions to be in. From all this disparate stuff, you somehow weave your way through and, hopefully, make something that’s enjoyable for someone else to read. It expands my science horizons immensely, and I think it’s made me a better educator. But as a scientist, perhaps the greatest dividend is broadening my understanding of what we know, and how we know it.
Why is it important to share stories with people outside the science community?
Humans crave stories. It’s why we go to the movies or hang out with each other. Science is an incredibly powerful way to learn about the world. It informs everything, from how we think about ourselves to how we act. And that generates stories. At some level, science is like every human endeavor: What’s the meaning of what we do unless we share it with others?
This interview has been edited for consistency and clarity.