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A World of Discoveries

A World of DiscoveriesSackler School graduate Sean B. Carroll explores the world's greatest pioneers in his latest book, "Remarkable Creatures."

Boston [02.20.09] As an evolutionary biologist, Sean B. Carroll says most of his past writing contained insights meant to "feed the head." His latest book, however, is meant to "feed the soul."

Coinciding with the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, Carroll's new book, "Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for Origins of Species," chronicles two centuries of discoveries and adventures in natural history. Each chapter gives insight into a different explorer and time period, looking at the discoveries by several dozen pioneers, including Darwin himself.

"I think that the experiences of these people are really remarkable and we can all get some inspiration from them," says the 1983 graduate of the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. "I thought if I could condense each of their life stories to a chapter as opposed to a whole biography, then I would have a sort of highlight reel of the greatest expeditions and voyages in natural history."

Currently a professor of molecular biology and genetics and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Carroll authored or co-authored more than 100 scientific papers and four books prior to this publication.

With over 25 years of personal knowledge, Carroll spent the past two years pulling from the library of stories in his own head, compressing them into a compact series of stories focusing on the central experiences of each character's life.

The book starts before Darwin with the man who inspired him, German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, an explorer of South and Central America who made his historic visit to North America to meet with Thomas Jefferson in 1804.

"Thomas Jefferson himself was quite interested in fossils, having written the first American paper on paleontology, which a lot of people don't know," Carroll says. "He was very interested in these creatures roaming the United States and he actually thought these things, like mammoths, were still alive and didn't go extinct. He had told Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for them."

With Humboldt and Jefferson setting the stage, the book is then divided into three large sections. The first pays homage to Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates, the three men who first gave traction to the theory of evolution. The second section, called "The Loveliest Bone," looks at expeditions in paleontology and the explorers who unearthed the history of life. The third section examines the natural history of humans and the pivotal pioneers who uncovered human origins, particularly African origins.

"The people are quite a constellation of personalities, but I found that what they all had in common was the passion to explore the unknown," Carroll says. "That passion had to sustain them through years of being separated from their families to putting their health, safety and comfort at risk and they were just eager to see what was around the next bend. They were driven to go where people hadn't been before."

While he did plan the book's publication date to coincide with Darwin's Feb. 12 birthday and the 150th anniversary of his publication "On the Origin of Species," Carroll says he didn't want the book to be centered around the famous scientist.

"Darwin's voyage and his works are well known, and rightly so, but there are a lot of other people who did interesting things at the same time, before, or after Darwin," Carroll says. "Science is done by people and sometimes very interesting ones. This is the narrative that is often missing when science is discussed."

With the anecdotal nature of the book, Carroll hopes that those who don't usually delve into science reading will find enjoyment from it as well.

"This is a book that is meant to help people understand what drives scientists, and to allow them to enjoy a walk in their boots," Carroll says."It was crafted for entertainment just as a fiction writer would, except with facts. I hope people will get some enjoyment and some inspiration from it, because I think these were some really admirable people who did very worthwhile things at significant personal risk."

By Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.

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