Review: Brave Genius

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

Reviewed:  Broadway Books, 2014.  Trade Paperback, 592 pages.
Also Available:  Crown, 2013.  Hardcover, 592 pages.brave genius cover

Written in a flowing style, this duel biography was written by a molecular biologist, not a historian. Brave Genius opens to an introduction that explains why how Carroll’s scientific research led to a historical story which he chose to investigate more in-depth and how this book grew out of that curiosity.  Next, the book jumps right into the beginning of World War II and the Fall of France.  Carroll explains the apprehension that fell over the country as war was declared up until the “hot” war began.  Then as France fell, he showed the political and military maneuvering that led to the Fall and the rise of Vichy.  Amidst this backdrop, the two foci of the book are introduced:  Albert Camus and Jacques Monod.  In addition to their roles in occupied France, their backgrounds are provided.

The next two parts of the book discuss the war after France’s fall.  Monod, a biologist, joined France’s army at the onset of war but never saw front line action.  When the Germans invaded, his engineering unit moved south and eventually was disbanded after the armistice.  Returning to his lab, Monod soon became involved in the intellectual resistance.  However that was not enough and he joined the Communist party in order to become part of the armed resistance.  Monod eventually rose through the ranks to become a lead member of the resistance council organized before D-Day to coordinate all resistance efforts in France.  Camus, a tubercular philosophical writer, found himself first traveling out of Paris with his newspaper company.  However, he soon returned and later became a writer and editor of Combat, one of the leading resistance newspapers (it was also Communist-influenced).  When Paris rose up against its Nazi captors as Allied troops approached, Camus directed the formerly monthly paper into daily publication, reporting on the resistance efforts and troop movements (something Monod was a direct participant in).

After the war, Camus continued with Combat for a while.  A prominent writer during the war (his books were published, but with some editing to keep the Germans’ happy), he returned to his chosen field after the war and his fame and popularity only grew.  He wrote philosophical novels, essays, plays, and the occasional newspaper article.  His topics covered nihilism, revolt, human existence, and anti-death penalty arguments.  In essence, he offered a new way of life those in post-war France could choose to follow, based partly on his experiences with the war and the resistance.  Monod, meanwhile, continued his research began during the war.  He had been looking at something later called enzyme adaptation.  His research progressed and he became well-known in the scientific community along with his scientific partner François Jacob.  Both Monod and Camus came in contact over how they turned their back on the Communist groups they served with during the war and spoke out on how Communist was just another form of dictatorship (Camus also wrote on this topic).  With this common bond, they soon became good friends and both frequently participated in humanitarian causes (including Monod’s rescue of two Hungarian scientists from behind the Iron Curtain and Camus’ efforts to seek peace in Algeria).  Both would also go on to earn Nobel Prizes for their respective works.

In all, I enjoyed reading the first two-thirds of the book, the parts covering the war and its immediate aftermath.  I especially liked reading about how a prominent writer managed to also write for a resistance newspaper without being discovered and how Monod lived a double life as a family man scientist and a resistance leader.  Both stories were fascinating.  And Carroll’s descriptions of the history and politics during the era, as told from the French perspective, were equally interesting.  When it came to discussing the works of each man, Carroll provided excellent descriptions of their work.  There is no need to consult another volume or website to understand Camus’s writings or Monod’s research.  Carroll includes summaries any readers should be able to understand.  In fact, I learned a great deal about enzyme adaption and DNA/RNA that were covered as part of that and I now want to read some of Camus’ works (especially The Plague and The Rebel) because they sound very interesting.  In all, a very worthy read.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Updated 12/1/14 @ 3:30 PM CST with a few thoughts I left out and determined should be added.


One thought on “Review: Brave Genius

  1. Pingback: Review: Avenue of Spies | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

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