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Scientists' Nightstand: Sean Carroll

Greg Ross

Sean Carroll is an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he also teaches courses in genetics and evolutionary biology. His most recent book is Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom (W. W. Norton, 2005).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Sean CarrollClick to Enlarge Image

I am a biologist interested in how animals are made and evolve. I grew up in Ohio, where I did not have the opportunity to see very much wildlife, but I was drawn to biology because of a fascination with animals, especially their form and behavior. For the past 20 years or so, my research has focused on the genes that govern the formation and patterning of animals and how changes in the way these genes are used have shaped the evolution of the animal kingdom—from butterflies to humans. I have just finished writing my first book for a general audience, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, which describes the surprising discoveries that have revolutionized our understanding of how the many wonderful forms of the animal kingdom evolved.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I just finished The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris (W. W. Norton, 2004). I was motivated to read the book based on a review that suggested it would be both articulate and provocative, particularly in light of the current climate in the United States. It is a great read and very well put together.

Before that I read Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin, 2003). It is a fascinating account of the writer's long journey through Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town. On the way, he visits several places where he worked in the 1960s, and Theroux gives a pretty sobering description of the current state of Africa.

I am now reading Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain—And How It Changed the World, by Carl Zimmer (Free Press, 2004). He is a terrific writer, and it is a gripping story.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

Either late at night or on a quiet weekend afternoon—stretched out and very comfortable on a couch in a well-lit place.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Fiction: I read less now than when I was much younger. My favorites would include Vonnegut, Hemingway and Voltaire—a bit of a strange mix, I admit.

Nonfiction: I am a World War II history buff, so I have read dozens of books by many different writers. In science, I think that Richard Dawkins is the best writer—his prose is so crisp and clear, and his choice of material is always right on the mark.

What are the best books you've ever read? Explain.

I will mention two from the history of science. The first is The Eighth Day of Creation, by Horace Freeland Judson (Simon and Schuster, 1979). This history of the origins of molecular biology is an enormous achievement and should be read by any aspiring scientist.

The second is Darwin, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Warner Books, 1991). This is the story of Darwin and his times, and I think it should be read by every college student as part of their education about key ideas in Western civilization.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

I can't blame one book for my crimes. Several books influenced my interests and inspired me at critical times, including Chance and Necessity, by Jacques Monod (Knopf, 1971); The Possible and the Actual, by François Jacob (University of Washington Press, 1982); Ontogeny and Phylogeny, by Stephen Jay Gould (Harvard University Press, 1977); Embryos, Genes, and Evolution, by Rudolf A. Raff and Thomas C. Kaufman (Macmillan, 1983); and Wonderful Life, by Stephen Jay Gould (W. W. Norton, 1989).

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the new book by Jared Diamond (Viking, 2005).

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (Broadway, 2003).

The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin, 2004).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Dr. Seuss is great start, with wonderful creatures and a great sense of humor! Adults would also benefit from rereading Seuss. For those a bit older, I recommend Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine (Harmony Books, 1991)—full of great tales of adventure and a sobering but inspiring message about preserving what remains of the world's wildlife.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Random House, 1995). Nobody has done a better job of explaining what we do and how scientific knowledge differs from the beliefs that percolate through our societies.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

The Origin of Species (1859). Most scientists have not read the original, or did so at a stage when they were too young to appreciate the accomplishment. The breadth of topics Darwin contemplated still astounds, and the prose of the key arguments is very carefully crafted. Every fresh read spills out a few more gems.

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