Explore the Night Science Podcast

Through conversations with leading scientists, the Night Science Podcast takes a deep look at creativity in the scientific process, the hidden 'night science'. This episode with Sean B. Carroll is a great place to start exploring all the ideas shared in the podcast interviews.
Explore the Night Science Podcast
Like

Share this post

Choose a social network to share with, or copy the shortened URL to share elsewhere

This is a representation of how your post may appear on social media. The actual post will vary between social networks

Sometimes it is difficult to know what sparks and fuels creativity. The Night Science Podcast has been asking leading scientists a simple question: Where do ideas come from? Their answers are an engaging and inspiring window into the creative minds of renowned molecular life scientists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, and philosophophers.

The podcast is hosted by Itai Yanai, Professor at the NYU School of Medicine, and Martin Lercher, Professor at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf.

To start your 'night science' exploration, we invite you to listen to their interview with Sean B. Carroll, from 12 February 2024 (series 4, episode 14). Sean is a biology professor at the University of Maryland, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is also a writer and a film producer. The interview transcript is copied below, if you prefer to read it, but listening to their conversation will bring you even more joy. And if you enjoy it, there are plenty more Night Science interviews to dive into.

Image showing the controls of the podcast for Sean B. Carroll's episode.

The Night Science Podcast logo showing a black outline of a tree on a white background, with white roots below on a black background.

Interview transcript

Martin 01:18

Sean B. Carroll is a biology professor at the University of Maryland, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In the field of evolutionary and developmental biology, Sean is an absolute legend. He's a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, and also just about any other prestigious society you can think of, such as the American Philosophical Society.

Itai  01:56

Amazingly, Sean is not only a top scientist, but he's also a successful writer, having written some of my favorite books, including “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” and “Brave Genius”. He's also a film producer. Yeah, you heard me right, a film producer. About 10 years ago, he started a film studio at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. For his work there, he won two Emmys. One is for an adaptation of one of his books, “The Serengeti Rules”. And also, he produced a film – that I got a chance to be at the premiere of in New York City a couple of years ago – called “All That Breathes”, which was even nominated for an Oscar last year. So, there's really only one person like Sean, world renowned scientist, author, educator, film producer, welcome, Sean.

Sean  02:43

Hey, thanks for having me.

Martin   02:45

Yes, such a pleasure. You know, as Itai said, you are many things. But to get started, let's first talk about your amazing scientific work. So maybe you can tell us a bit about what is you r process of doing science.

Sean  02:59

I think this starts at a really high level of inspiration. And I love the animal kingdom, I really love the animal kingdom, I mean, you know that feeling you get when you hug a puppy? That's the feeling I get around snakes and salamanders and giraffes and elephants and the whole thing. So, the phenomena around the animal kingdom, how animals are built their patterns and the long history of animal evolution. And I believe, at least in my own case, that you have to have a deep emotional connection and it's not simply intellectual, it's broader than that.

Itai  03:33

It's interesting that you've talked about the emotional and aesthetic level, right, because some people might think that scientists are supposed to be just the facts and very rational.

Sean  03:47

It’s a total lie! I mean, it might be for some scientists, but I think it’s a total lie! I think as I've been in this profession for a good number of decades now, there's something we seem to suppress this emotional side of ourselves and sort of deny, for example, the aesthetic element. What's wrong with just admitting it that, you know, we're fascinated by some things because of beauty or something like that? Maybe it makes it sound then like it's not as rigorous or it's just an indulgent pursuit. But, you know, I think you talk to a lot of scientists, I mean, pin them down, find out really, really what makes them tick. Why did they have to become a scientist, and not something else? And I also think that emotional connection again, that sustains you. I mean, there's going to be a lot of struggle and failure, and it's a very long term endeavor. So, what's going to keep you going but a deep attachment to the material, to the subject, to the pursuit?

Martin   04:40

Yeah. You know, what you said about scientists suppress their emotional side and pretend that all of it is only intellectual: I think it stems from that we've been taught that when we communicate science in official channels, it has to be objective and it's only about or how does the idea integrate with the available evidence, and there's no room there in the official communications for emotions. But in reality, as Michael Strevens put it in his book, “The Knowledge Machine”, the heart of science is a human heart. And if you're not excited about what you do, you're not going to get anywhere.

Sean  05:19

And your audience isn't operating on that level; your audience is operating on the emotional plane. I mean, we humans, we are story craving and storytelling creatures. And look how everybody spends their entertainment time, you know, listening to podcasts, watching movies, whatever it might be. So science has to operate on that plane, when we're going to engage the public, we have to know where our audiences at not where we're at. You know, okay, our sort of priesthood expects us to think in a certain way or conduct ourselves in a certain way, but the public audience is in a different place. And I think the science is detriment to not recognize that the heart is central to people's lives. And science has to earn a place in their hearts, not just their heads.

Itai  06:03

It’s really interesting, because there seems to be two things that we've just touched upon. One is the intrinsic, you need to love it, you need to have some kind of emotional aesthetic connection to the work. And then isn't the storytelling, a second part? Do you see it that way? That “Okay, now to get everybody to appreciate what I love so much, I'm gonna have to tell this in a way that's palatable in a way that they get into it.” I see you, Sean, as the greatest storyteller of our time. You just have this knack that I've known about for at least 25 years, in following your storytelling. So, what is it you see and how you communicate the story? What's the secret?

Sean  06:46

What's the secret? That's a great question. Well, if something was going to be on my gravestone, I would love it to say he told some good stories.

Itai  07:03

“Sean B Carroll – He told some good stories”

Sean  07:10

Here's the thing over the arc of these decades, I think something that makes me tick is I really enjoy other people's science, I really, really enjoy it. And when you realize that 99% of all the science or more that you're going to sort of consume, it's gonna be done by other people. I think it's really healthy, to love other people’s science, to really enjoy it. I especially love firsthand stories to hear their firsthand accounts of what inspired them and what choices they made, and what setbacks they experienced, and those thrilling moments of discovery and things like that. So it's great that I've been able to do original science with teams of scientists and collaborators over this time. But that pleasure has been multiplied by all of the great science that I've been able to first either sort of witness by being part of this community, and sometimes immerse myself in as being a storyteller.

Martin   08:03

So maybe tell us a bit more about how do you tell stories? Is there a formula that people could use to tell better stories?

Sean  08:11

Well: seek the emotion. I mean, that's it, three words, seek the emotion. I've learned from lots and lots of people. But I would say, especially filmmakers, no, their medium is all about emotion. And I think I can kind of make this really two categories: let's just talk about films. And if you think about all the films you've ever seen, documentary, fiction, whatever, well, maybe on the documentary side, you say, is it about a topic, let's say, genetic medicine, or something? Or is it about people, maybe the pioneers in that or maybe a patient who experiences it or something like that. And I just guarantee you that the latter is more emotional and compelling to an audience. It doesn't mean we shouldn't tell stories that are sort of surveys about topics and things like that there's a place for that. But those stories that reach into what makes people tick, and that's where the empathy comes in. It's all about the empathy. And if you're just talking about a topic, then you're just talking about information. So I think, is it about information? Or is it about really, emotion and empathy and the stronger story, is the better.

Itai  09:18

This reminds me Sean of your book, “Endless forms most beautiful”, where you have this one passage, when you're talking about Drosophila embryos and how you're trying to visualize the location of a particular protein. You know, that sounds very sciency, but the way you told it was, you were just like, exasperated, like you had tried everything before. If this particular experiment didn't work, then you're not sure you would be able to think of any other possible way of doing it. It's like this is the last one. And then you tell us that the result was that you saw the pattern. It worked. I guess I still remember it to this day, and I guess I felt your pain. I empathized with those with your situation.

Sean  10:01

Well, I'm amazed and delighted that you remember that little passage. It was a formative experience for me as a scientist, as a postdoc. The first 18 months of my postdoc, I had nothing to show for it. I was trying to do something that technically, there was no recipe or manual for how to do, and you just don't know if something's going to work. And I tried what seemed like reasonable approaches, and I was really at the end of my cookbook. And I was like, “Whoa, what's going to happen here?” And so you're not sure whether you're going to get over this wall, or you're just gonna hit the wall, and you've just hit that wall and what are you going to do with the rest of your time? And that night, I cleared the wall and beyond that wall was almost unlimited pleasure. I mean, it meant we could do 1000s and 1000s of experiments that would occur to us. And you never know, when you're doing an experiment, I knew I've kind of exhausted my ideas but you also still never know, because day after day after day, you're doing something in the lab. And of course, technical things go wrong. So you're not really thinking, today's the day. You're just doing the same thing day after day, and then all of a sudden, it happens. And oh my gosh, there's a story I like to recount because maybe I wasn't quite sure how to put this kind of feeling in this kind of experience. But I'm a big fan of musicians. And I watch a lot of documentaries about musicians and all the favorites of the last five or six decades. And Paul Simon was being interviewed. And he's being asked about being a songwriter and all that. And he talks about the process; about writing Bridge Over Troubled Water. And he said one minute, it wasn't there. And the next minute it was there. And the rush, he said the rush was just tremendous, you know, and he said that rush is so powerful, that that's the experience he wants to have again and again. And that's what made him a songwriter for all these decades. And I think it is, I'm sure it is, right? And hindsight when you realize that you were in this long period of uncertainty and just banging away. And unexpectedly, something wasn't there for a year and a half, and then all of a sudden it was there. And then that just opened up the ability to ask all sorts of questions. It's exhilarating. And I don't know how to coach anybody to that other than just to say, there are going to be periods of drought, and you're not going to know what day the drought is going to break. And in some ways, you just have to keep digging until you hit some water, right? And if you hit a little bit of water, then you dig like hell.

Martin   12:26

So we got into this discussion by starting to talk about storytelling. Now. What I'm wondering is, when you talked about that, it seems you were talking about how to communicate science to non-scientists, or to the general public. What I would be curious about is how you see the role of storytelling in the process of communicating scientific results, officially, in journal articles. So is that also about storytelling? And is there a difference between how to tell those stories?

Sean  12:57

I think there is, I know, this is gonna get quoted: Papers are lies. I mean, they're not how the story unfolded, right? There's no room in there. It doesn't really tell the story of discovery. It packages it in a digestible way. It's totally rigorous. We know how rigorous it is. We know how reliable it is. We know we have all sorts of standards that allow us to reproduce what's in the paper .

Itai  13:24

It’s how the paper should have happened.

Martin   13:27

It's actually funny that you say papers are lies, because Itai wrote an article called “The White Lie of Science”.

Itai  13:37

It used to be a kind of meme, in the sense that it needs to have an efficient mode of communication. You know, you could give 10 different scientists the same discovery and ask them each to write the paper, you'd get 10 very different papers, right? And some of those manuscripts would be highly influential, and no one would read the other ones. So according to your experience, what are the things that people need to be mindful of how to make a paper that would be read?

Sean  14:06

Well, you know, I don't think I have a universal answer to that but for my own experience, outside your own tribe, you have to get on your audience's wavelength and think, what about this is generally interesting? Why might this be of interest to folks who don't know this field? And this is a subject that's surfaced many times in your writings in the podcast: a lot of the interesting things happen at the interface between disciplines. So how do those other folks in those other disciplines find out what you might have discovered? So I think you have to write for outside your field. And that's probably a little bit challenging because this is maybe not muscles that we all flex very often, but for me the experience of consciously writing for outside of the field, I think improved my writing for inside the field, because I think I just became always in search of what was the most significant general thing I could say about whatever we were talking about and to sort of surmount, what Gunter Stent calls “the infinitude of particulars” that biology is full of infinitude of particulars and that generalities are hard to come by. And I'm really interested in generalities, and I understand the power of particulars, but the danger is the scientific literature sort of representing that infinitude of particulars. So I think it's searching for those generalities and thinking about your audience that is not inside your own field, the folks who won't read it, unless you kind of open it up to them. Make it accessible to them.

Itai  15:35

That makes sense. I think when I write a paper, I think my audience is the people I see at the conferences, and it makes sense what you say that I should look beyond it. So you, for example, you were studying developmental and evolutionary biology, in Drosophila in the embryo in this particular structure in the embryo. So you're saying you weren't thinking about communicating it just to the other just Drosophila people, you were thinking wide to maybe even beyond developmental biology? Or how outside is outside?

Sean  16:09

Well, so let me tell you sort of the pivot between developmental biology and what's called Evo-Devo (evolutionary developmental biology). The amazing thing that happened in the early days of Evo-Devo that I never could have anticipated is that what we were finding out, caught the attention of paleontologists. Now, my experience with paleontologists was zero; I didn't know a paleontologist. We're in different departments, we publish in different journals, this is certainly the situation in the early 1990s. Biology gets balkanized. The same thing with ecologists, molecular biologists don't talk to ecologist every day, so you don't know each other. But then we were publishing some things and the greatest level of enthusiasm for the early findings of Evo Devo did not come from fellow developmental biologist, it came from paleontologists. They thought, oh my goodness, look at these new insights into the evolutionary history and to the diversification of this kingdom and things like that. And then they have this incredible background, they knew the history of life, they knew the story of how the various major groups came into being. And that's not readily accessible knowledge to an indoor molecular biologist like me. So it was a natural collaboration, it was a natural kind of mutual love affair – that’s putting a little strong – but some paleontologists in my life I treasure. And then some people had the bright idea to get both sort of molecular genetic type biologists and paleontologists to the same conference, and it was a blast. It was an absolute blast. So you never know who's gonna get interested. So that's the upside when things happen at the interface between disciplines and other disciplines get excited, they're communicating with you, and you're learning all sorts of things. And then, within a few years, I actually co authored, what turned out to be fairly influential synthetic reviews that tried to not just recap things, but sort of figure out what these new discoveries meant. So I think the reward of trying to communicate outside your immediate is huge, not just like broadcasting the work, but fertilizing new lines and richer lines of thought.

Martin   18:37

So one way to write great papers is to consciously write for people outside of your field, but are there other aspects of storytelling. I mean, you're a great storyteller, in your books and in your films. Are there aspects of that, that you think would benefit the writing of journal articles?

Sean  18:58

Well, I've met the enemy and the enemy is us. Again, and again, whether it was a word limit that some editor imposed, or just reviewers saying, ‘you know, this part of the discussion is speculative’, and cutting paragraphs out of discussion. And I just thought this was asinine. I mean, you know how hard earned discoveries are, I feel discussion sections, you should be looking around the corner, you should be communicating with other scientists about what this might mean. And if you sort of impose on discussion sections, either ridiculous word limits, and I'm not talking like we wrote pages and pages and we were just, you know, running off at the mouth. I'm really talking about one extra paragraph. And when I took the opportunity to write for a general audience, like the first trade book, ‘Endless forms most beautiful’, that was so liberating. Oh my gosh, it was so liberating I could actually unpack a story, I could actually fully develop some sort of point. I think it sort of saved me, honestly. I think if I only had the scientific literature as an outlet, I'd be a grumpy, pretty unhappy scientist.

Martin   20:16

Yes it's so unhealthy. Because, you know, you thought about the problems in your paper very hard, and for a very long time and you've got some ideas of what it could possibly mean, even if you have no evidence to show that but just your thoughts about that are so useful for other people interested in these problems. Cutting them out is really holding signs back.

Sean  20:39

It is, and why? And especially looking around the corner I think that it's good, it’s healthy to sort of disclose what you're thinking about; a little bit of a glimpse around the corner.

Itai  20:50

So Sean, we've talked about the storytelling that's involved in writing a manuscript, but one thing we want to ask you is, is there also storytelling that's a part of the actual discovery process, or alternatively, is storytelling just at the end to communicate the results?

Sean  21:09

I think there's a narrative you're trying to build. You're trying to say is reality like this, and you're sort of spinning up possibilities. And the experiments are hopefully winnowing those possibilities. And you're starting to kind of connect the dots. And connecting the dots is narrative, right? When we say something like, our team has done some piece of work. And you're like, that's going to be a good story, you might hear that in the lab, right? That's gonna make a nice story. I think we are creating narratives in a good positive sense of what that word means. Because we're trying to make sense of the world, right? We're trying to glimpse inside nature and say, Okay, how does she work? And if you get a decent glimpse, and you can test your interpretation, and then you say, Okay, I think nature works like this, or this piece of nature works like that. I think that is narrative. I think both what scientists have to share is narrative and I think the scientific process is narrative. And therefore, when you're trying to recreate that, certainly, in freeform, whether it's a lecture or a first-hand account, or something like that, you know, I just inevitably find there's a narrative.

Martin   22:18

So you're saying that, as scientists, what we do in our creative process is often connecting the dots, and that's constructing a narrative. So do you have any tricks that helped you to construct such narratives, or habits or something that you do in order to find what is the right narrative here.

Sean  22:39

I think the one habit I have that has served me well, and may be a little different among scientists, is read, read, read, read, read. I've always read very, very, very widely in science. I'm gonna go for something here, see if you guys will buy it: I told you I love all these rock and roll documentaries, I got all my rock and roll heroes. And inevitably, it seems that when you go back to maybe sort of the golden age of rock and roll, and first and second generation, so in the first generation, if you think about Beatles, and Clapton and all that kind of stuff, they were listening to gobs of music, right, they were listening to these great black artists, they were listening to the 50s pop sound that people that had all kinds of voices, and all kinds of approaches to music, and they kind of merged those influences in various ways. And who knows, all of those little subconscious influences that wound up coming out in their music. So that's the analogy I use for my science: reading widely, just gobbling up science being done by all sorts of folks in multiple disciplines. I think that's somehow had some sort of contribution to the way I think and the sort of explanations I reach for. So it's not so direct, like ‘I've read this and I translate that to a strategy in the lab’. It's more like, as I said, I think I've been exposed to a lot of influences and somehow that's had some influence on my patterns of thought and does play out somehow in strategy. So I think we scientists can just keep fertilizing the garden. It's not a very formal recipe of plant here, and the seed will grow. It's more like, just keep pouring the fertilizer in.

Itai  24:24

So, Francois Jacob in a sense is the reason the three of us are talking today because he was talking about ‘night science’ and distinguishing it from ‘day science’. Day science was the account of science in the journals, once it's been written up, while night science for Jacob was the confusing part of science in the making. You don't know what's going to happen. So I'm wondering if you want to comment on the way you think about what Jacob was getting at with concept of night science.

Sean  24:55

Oh, absolutely. I was a huge admirer of Jacob and I actually had the chance to meet him a few times. So Jacob had several ideas that are very sticky; night science is a sticky idea, evolution is tinkering is a very sticky idea. The big eureka moment he shares in the book is he tells the story of some Sunday, he's kind of working on something doesn't feel too inspired, goes to movies with his wife. He's sitting there, the movie is not very interesting. And he realizes in that moment – it comes out of nowhere – that what he's been thinking about, which is the induction of the lambda prophage, is working exactly like the induction of beta galactosidase synthesis, of lactose metabolism. And that really was a lightning bolt. And it's great that he's shared that story with us, where that would come from and of course, what that meant for molecular biology is kind of legendary now, right? I mean, it's a foundational core of the molecular biology canon.

Itai  25:55

So what they proceeded to then do, Monod and Jacob, is explore that connection, explore that analogy, there's, well, if the induction of proteins of beta galactosidase disease, if that is similar, really, to lysogeny, then what else would be true? What else is like that analogy? And that guided their experiments? So I think it's this notion of making a connection, using it as a kind of abstraction as a kind of parallel thinking, and then going with it as new things to fertilize the gardens, as you might say.

Sean  26:29

Amazing. And, you know, we can go deeper than that, because what's astounding about – especially about a two year period, like 58 to 60 with Jacob and Monod – was, and it's fun, if those of you are inclined to look at the French literature – because the papers in the English literature that are fairly synthetic, there's a very famous Journal of Molecular Biology by Jacob and Monod. But the bits and pieces of what we would call the lac operon, those insights were coming every few months, first in the French Academy, The Compte Rendu, of the French Academy. And there were just a few experiments in the paper. And then in the discussion, you could tell they're already thinking about the next part. And so the concept of the repressor, the concept of the operator, the logic of regulation, that was coming – it's exhilarating to read it – they're talking about connecting the dots, boom, boom, boom, boom, and eventually messenger RNA. So in terms of the night science description, what is Jacob daydreaming about in that theater, that gives him that lightning bolt? And if we say that that moment of insight, if we think that's sort of, in a nutshell, the creative moment in science, how do you coach that? How do you reproduce that? How do you increase the likelihood that that's going to happen?

Martin   27:46

So you’re wearing different hats in your professional life. You're a scientist, and science requires creativity. You are also a film producer. And that requires creativity. Is that a different creativity? Or do you think it's all the same? Is that some ideas and concepts that you can transfer between those two areas?

Sean  28:08

Well, let's go back to storytelling. I think the three media that I've worked in the formal scientific literature, the more general trade books for the general audiences, and films. And the storytelling part of that is, as I talked about, certainly, in the latter two, I've said, go for the emotion, seek the emotion. And that means if you want to talk about strategies or approaches to telling a story. And I know, you've talked about Alfred Wallace, in the podcast, one of my heroes.

Itai  28:42

We talked with him!

Sean  28:46

Fantastic – he really appreciates the contact. If a naturalist who doesn't have two nickels to rub together, goes to the Amazon for four years, decides he has to turn around or he's going to die of malaria, or some kind of yellow fever or both. He gets on a boat, is so relieved to be on his way home. The boat catches fire and sinks and he's in an open lifeboat for 10 days. If you can't keep an audience's attention with that story, or hook them in, you know? Forget it. So it's finding these pieces of people's lives and stories that you seek the emotion and the high drama. So when I'm plotting out a story, I know Wallace's epiphany is fantastic, and the circumstances under which it happens, and sort of the harder path he took to it. But I have to go back and find these other moments. Why did he go? Why did he turn around and head home? Why oh, my gosh, what happened on the boat? Wallace after going through shipwreck recovers in England – it had been quite an ordeal – and he decides to go back out and he goes island hopping through the Malay Archipelago for eight years. Can you believe this? So, I mean, what kind of soul does Wallace have? I mean, these are the kinds of people we need to tell stories about. So as a storyteller, I'm looking for that drama. I'm looking for those glimpses of what makes Wallace who he is, as well as the epiphany, the thrill and the moment of discovery and what it all meant. So I don't know if that gives you any sense of strategy. But I'm pretty much, in any fresh store that I'm going to tell, I'm going to dig, dig, dig, read, read, read every source, I can find. Oh, and I love diaries, I love archives, and everywhere I can find correspondence in bits and pieces, find all those pivot points, all the high drama, all those moments of doubt all those things where something might have gone the other way. And those will be the peaks and valleys through the story.

Itai  30:55

I think it's remarkable, Sean, that while some scientists are thinking about their own sort of Eureka moment and their own urge to satisfy this need for discovery, you're able to get the empathy that's required to understand other people's discoveries as well. I mean, that that could be your secret that you find a way to communicate to another person a discovery, as though it was their own discovery.

Sean  31:22

It's funny, you're sort of saying that I'm like, gosh, I think you're right. I think that's part of the process. And when I think about the characters: I wrote a book called “Remarkable Creatures” and that's where I first told the Wallace story, and I followed that book with “Brave genius”, which was the Monod and Camus. But spending time with these characters, getting insight into their lives, and what made them tick, etc. I mean, this just fills me up with inspiration. And hopefully, I share some of that inspiration out in the storytelling. I mean, why do I even tell these stories? I think I'll just confess to you that probably the two most important things, I think that’s scarce in the world and necessary and science or inspiration and hope. And I'm drawn to the stories, I'm drawn to stories that inspire me, I'm drawn to people that inspire me, I'm drawn to those stories that give me hope. I don't tell dark tales. I don't tell tales about evil doers and things like that, and nor that the film studio, those are covered. I want to be a source of light and have positive inspiration and hope. And so I find these stories and these people that inspire me, and I hope I can pass some of that on.

Martin   32:36

Well, I certainly think that you've inspired many of our listeners with the things that you said today.

Itai  32:44

Yes, Sean. It was really fantastic.

Sean  32:46

I was going to tell you one more story. I've never told this story publicly. And you have to know a little bit of biology to appreciate it. “Serengeti rules” - all that we've talked about my inspiration of the animal kingdom and all that that is on display in “Serengeti Rules”. I mean, the book starts in the Serengeti, and ends in a wilderness in Mozambique, but in between, there's an awful lot of science. But I knew nothing about ecology, I mean, zero, okay, I just had been apart from it. And all the things that have happened in college in the last 40 years. I didn't know that they weren't my neighbors. They weren't the journals, I just didn't know. But I really felt embarrassed by that lack of knowledge. And I felt I had to kind of go up the learning curve. And I stumbled across a review article in science, by Jim Estes and co-authors about essentially keystone species and trophic cascades to use the technical terms. But in there, I learned something. And this is what I learned. It showed that in the kelp beds, for example of the Pacific Coast that otters were necessary for those kelp beds, and the reason why they were necessary was that otters ate the urchins that would otherwise eat those kelp beds. And when you take out the otters, the urchins overwhelm the kelp and it's completely denuded. And you say, Why am I telling you that I thought, well, you know, when a biologist looks at a system who would think that kelp need otters, right? And then you go into Yellowstone and you realize that the trees need wolves, you take the wolves out, and the aspen trees are disappearing. Okay, and in the Pacific Northwest and rivers, those trees need fish; they need salmon. Okay? And there's reasons – connect the dots. Okay? But if you go back to the otters, urchins, kelp, that is the exact same regulatory logic as lactose and repressor in the lac operon: it's a double negative, right? That the insight for Monod, the logic of the operon and the repressor, and he was stuck for a while because everybody thought it was all positive regulation, right, something turned on his genes to metabolize lactose. They didn't think of that idea that lactose inhibited an inhibitor of essentially enzyme expression, right? So it was a double negative logic. And once they had that, there they went. And it turns out these things I just told you ecologically, it was double negative logic. And when I could write on the board, the same regulatory logic of otters, urchins to kelp, as lactose to repressor to operon. That was the beginning of “Serengeti Rules”. I said, there was some logic out there in the big world that was familiar to me from the molecular world. And that was probably my movie theater moment, akin to Jacob. And I thought, okay, I should explore the logic of nature out there at these different scales. And then if you think about oncogenesis, and you think about what are tumor suppressors, etc. right? There's all this logic, all this regulatory logic that governs the behavior of cells. And as it turns out the behavior of organisms and ecosystems. So I owe the “Serengeti Rules” to the lac operon. To write a book heavy on ecology, molecular biologists, what the hell am I doing? Okay? And I pretty much thought I was gonna get crucified in some parts. But I think honestly, what happened was, I think the book was so pro-ecology and so pro these discoveries and what is a keystone species? That's a big piece of “Serengeti rules”. How do these strong indirect interactions work, these regulatory cascades? Whatever sins I committed, I was forgiven, because I was clearly in such praise of the discoverer of the pioneers.

Itai  36:36

So what you're saying is that with good storytelling, all sins are forgiven.

Sean  36:43

Now someone will say, “Hey, Sean, I tried that. And I got my head handed to me.” Now, I don't know what the lesson is. I feel the ecologists were so kind to me when I didn't necessarily expect it. I don't know if I deserved to expect that reaction. But it comes from my conviction that their work is existentially important to biology, and so whatever I could do to put a spotlight on it for the kingdom I love, yeah. And then if you see the “Serengeti rules” movie, it's told totally differently. And when I saw the first day, 40 minutes of the film, I turned in the nice and the five principal scientists are going to cry. It's so powerful, the cinematography, the sense of place, and why are these people so attached to these places, I could never reach that level of emotional resonance and emotional power with words alone, you add music and cinematography and firsthand storytelling, it's something different. So I guess that's the other message I would say is, you know, lots of different media out there to work in, and they all have their strengths and powers.

Itai  37:45

Yeah, and you've certainly used them. Well, Sean this was a tremendous discussion. Thank you so much.

Sean  37:52

Well, thank you, guys, you've stirred my heart up. I'm gonna be thinking about these things now for weeks. You know, you don't think about this consciously. A lot of this just goes on subconsciously, and you kind of forced me to think about not just why I do certain things, but how I do them. And I hope for the listeners, there's some ponies in there somewhere.

Martin   38:15

That's the whole point of doing this podcast, right? To encourage people to bring that to their consciousness. And to think about it and to talk about it.

Sean  38:23

And I do mean when I say that, I think you're out saving souls. I think the Collection of Interviews you're doing on the podcast, the articles you're writing, it's a beacon of light in an otherwise fairly staid world. And I hope you're getting that feedback from especially the younger folks who are confronting all these uncertainties and challenges and need some source of inspiration to sustain their resiliency.

Martin   38:52

Wow. That's poetry to us. Thank you.

Sean  38:55

It was a great privilege. Thanks so much. Keep up the great work!


Top photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

Join the FEBS Network today

Joining the FEBS Network’s molecular life sciences community enables you to access special content on the site, present your profile, 'follow' contributors, 'comment' on and 'like' content, post your own content, and set up a tailored email digest for updates.