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Lewis Thomas Prize to be awarded to Wisconsin’s Sean Carroll

January 28, 2016

University of Wisconsin–Madison evolutionary biologist, educator and author Sean B. Carroll will be presented with The Rockefeller University’s Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science, it was announced today.

Carroll will receive the award at a March 14 ceremony in recognition of his body of work, including his 2013 book Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize.

Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll

Rockefeller University’s Board of Trustees established the award, originally called the Lewis Thomas Prize for Scientist as Poet, in 1993 to honor “the rare individual who bridges the worlds of science and the humanities — whose voice and vision can tell us about science’s aesthetic and philosophical dimensions, providing not merely new information but cause for reflection, even revelation.”

The award is named after its first recipient, noted physician, scientist and essayist Lewis Thomas.

Carroll is a professor of molecular biology and genetics at UW–Madison and vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He was instrumental in building the field of evolutionary developmental biology, known colloquially as evo devo. His research focuses on the genes that control animal body patterns and affect the evolution of animal diversity.

Carroll’s 2005 book Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom, offers a framework of the then-emerging field. He has written several other books, including Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, which was a 2009 National Book Award finalist, and 2013’s Brave Genius.

Brave Genius tells the overlapping stories of Jacques Monod, a co-founder of molecular biology, and his eventual friend, the French novelist Albert Camus. Both were involved in the French Resistance during World War II and each went on to win the Nobel Prize in their respective fields. And both men grappled with fundamental philosophical problems.

“It’s a brave book. It takes on major lives and hard problems in biology, as well as sensitive and difficult philosophical and historical issues,” says Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment and chairman of the selection committee.The book is an ambitious endeavor, and Carroll succeeds. It’s a really admirable work.”

Carroll’s newest book, The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters, which addresses key questions about the rules regulating life in the natural world, will be released in March.

Carroll’s work as a science communicator embodies the prize’s original intent to honor those who inspire others. In addition to his writing, Carroll is a skilled public speaker and has made frequent appearances in the media, often to discuss new findings in evolutionary science. He created the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s science filmmaking initiative and has been the host or executive producer of more than a dozen films.

Other recent winners of the Lewis Thomas Prize include neurologist Oliver Sacks, research physiologist Frances Ashcroft, surgeon Atul Gawande, and mathematicians Steven Strogatz and Ian Stewart.