Carl Zimmer is a popular science writer and blogger who has specialized in the topics of evolution and parasites. He has authored many books and contributes science essays to publications such as The New York Times, Discover, and National Geographic.
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I am a science columnist for The New York Times and author of 13 books about science, including Parasite Rex, Evolution: Making Sense of Life, and the forthcoming She Has Her Mother’s Laugh. I’ve written for National Geographic, Wired,and The Atlantic and was a senior editor at Discover. I appear regularly on “Radiolab,” is an adjunct professor in Yale’s Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry, and have earned awards from the National Academies of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, and the Society for the Study of Evolution. I’m speaking at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival about genomes, Neanderthals, viruses inside of us, and the future of making babies, . Comment your questions below!
EDIT: Thanks everyone for your questions! I am going to close out this conversation, but look forward to doing another AMA soon.
FYI, here's a blog post I just wrote for the Aspen Ideas Festival about the genetics revolution we're living through. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/understanding-genetics-revolution/
Also, I'm giving a few different talks at the Aspen Ideas Festivalm and you will be able to find video and audio for them soon, at this link: https://www.aspenideas.org/speaker/carl-zimmer
What would you say is the greatest threat to the teaching of science here in the US, and how do we combat this?
There is plenty to be worried about. There are plenty of political actions that weaken science education. Florida, for example, just made biology classes friendlier to creationism. (Details here: http://www.flascience.org/wp/?p=2793 ) But I'm worried more about systematic problems--the winner-take-all approach to science, as manifested in science fairs (My own experiences were the subject of this piece I wrote last year: https://www.statnews.com/2016/04/13/science-fairs-white-house/ ) I think our society would be much better off if high school students graduated with a sound understanding of statistics, for example--not just the kids who go out of their way to take statistics.
What would be your advice for PhD students that want to break into science writing / science journalism?
I'll give a few thoughts here, but for a longer reply, see this: http://carlzimmer.com/writers.html
Start writing, rather than talking about becoming a "writer." Write for yourself at first if you have to. You need to become better. (We all do.)
Wean yourself from jargon that you've learned in grad school. Find plain English alternatives.
Decide if you want to be a full-time writer, or make it part of being a scientist. These are very different routes.
If you want to stay a scientist, figure out if you are going to be rewarded by your scientific community for writing, or if you'll suffer the "Carl Sagan effect."
When you feel ready to write for outlets, pitch them! Don't wait for someone to give you permission. In the end, it's all on you.
It increasingly seems that science has to be "clickable" to be funded. How can we fix this?
One approach I try to take is to report on basic science, to show how this kind of research isn't some odd diversion but a profoundly significant undertaking--both in the way it expands our understanding of the natural world and the insights that can lead to new kinds of technology, medicine, and other applications. We science reporters should resist flashiness, and try to understand how science is advancing in important ways that are going to endure.
What books would you recommend to an almost 40 year old who enjoys science/learning but isn't very smart? Asking for a friend.
Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is something of a miracle of a book about science--incredibly accessible but also sweeping in scope.
What's your favorite way to combat writer's block?
Glancing at the contract for the story I'm working on and thinking about how I won't get paid if I don't turn in something!
What is your opinion on science based policy and the approach the current administration has taken science policy?
The administration, in some areas, seems to not have any approach at all. They are not hiring scientists to top policy positions. That won't end well. See, for example: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/30/us/politics/science-technology-white-house-trump.html?_r=3
Are you related to Hans? You must get that a lot but I just wanted to know
No relation, I'm afraid.
What was your favorite piece or book to write? How did you prepare for it? And what was the process you engaged in to do the deep work possible to make the piece/book?
I had a great time working on my new book, on heredity. I just finished it after a couple years of effort, and it will be out next spring. I visited a number of places that are important to the history of heredity, and I also went to labs to talk to scientists who are changing how we think about heredity. I also had to read a ton of papers along with a bunch of books to find the right pieces to fit together into what (I hope) is a compelling story.
Your wrote about the challenges of getting access to your genomic data in "Game of Genomes". Do you think getting access to your own genomic data will become easier any time soon?
I am optimistic, based on conversations I've had since "Game of Genomes" with people in the genomics field. But it will still take a few years before you can get all your raw data. (Here is the link to the series: https://www.statnews.com/feature/game-of-genomes/season-one/ )
As someone accustomed to explaining science to laypeople, how do you think lawyers could do the same for a judge and jury? So many cases hinge on scientific evidence, especially debunking bad science. How can my profession learn from yours in terms of making good science and complicated nuances easy to understand?
I have always wondered how lawyers handle science in the courtroom. The statistics behind DNA identification, for example, can be really confusing--and it's easy to exploit that confusion to raise doubts. In science writing, it's always important to value concepts over jargon. Minimizing jargon in the courtroom might help--although legal demands might make that harder than in a newspaper article.
given the struggles and results of biosphere 2, and ignoring logistics of transporting materials and such. do you think permament/long term mission on mars is possible with current knowledge and technology?
Biosphere 2 certainly showed how badly things could go, and sometimes for unexpected reasons. (Concrete was a bad choice! http://biology.kenyon.edu/slonc/bio3/2000projects/carroll_d_walker_e/whatwentwrong.html ) But technology has advanced so much since the 1990s that I'd be guardedly optimistic that a human settlement on Mars would escape such troubles. I'm just skeptical that we'll marshall the collective will and money to launch such a mission.
Would you rather robotic missions to every icy moon of Saturn and Jupiter, or people on mars before 2035?
Robots to Saturn and Jupiter's moons! I think it's more likely life is there, and, if it is, then it's going to be weirder than Martians could ever be.
Hey mr zimmer I'm subscribed to your Friday elks and i love them. My question is why do you think that people don't believe in evolution and is there a better way to teach it in schools?
Thanks! (Friday's Elk is my newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/carlzimmer )
About evolution: some people think that if evolution is true (it is!), then all sorts of morally repugnant things must follow. That's not the case, but it's hard to make that clear. Some people find the process of evolution hard to fathom--the idea that complex things can evolve. That's a legitimate question to ask, and evolutionary biologists have answers. Conveying those answers in grade school or high school can be a challenge, though, because evolution taps into so many different branches of biology--genetics, ecology, paleontology, etc. It also doesn't help that a lot of teachers are worried about getting grief for teaching a lot of evolution, so they don't dive deep into as they should. I would encourage teachers to look for the cool case studies, whether it involves feathered dinosaurs evolving into birds, or bacteria evolving into superbugs. The evidence is there in the bones and the DNA, and it's fascinating to boot.
I'm teaching a research methods course to a group of high school AP students this coming fall in which they will design and defend their own original research. Any advice (either for me or the students?)
Make sure their methods and research aren't so overwhelming that they can't actually reflect on what they've done and explain it clearly. This is their first step--they don't have to pretend to be full-blown scientists.
I'm a photographer with a background in science looking to tell more science stories, especially about the ocean and conservation. I'd really like to work with writers closely on their articles to tell a cohesive story. Do you have any advice for getting in touch with writers and developing stories?
You might simply want to "cold call" them (or is it cold email now?) If there's a writer who's doing stuff you like, get in touch. It's not easy for writers and photographers to collaborate, because it's an expensive proposition. But there are great things that come out of such partnerships, like this piece on fisheries in Mexico: http://www.vqronline.org/reporting-articles/2015/04/ocean-apart
Can you please share your thoughts on how we can use story-telling to engage the layperson about big science issues like climate change and vaccination? Can an engaging story be created that parallels the inoculation effect of immunization with the protective effects of climate change (if we all do our part?). Thank you for indulging us with your thoughts and words.
I think story-telling can be very effective. The trick is to respect your audience, rather than condescending to them, and to make sure that anecdotes don't trump data. It's also crucial to find individuals to make the characters in your stories. Stories are about people, in the end.
Any advice on rationalizing with an irrational 3 year old?
Wait for their prefrontal cortex to kick in.
What do you think is the better way to make the case for biodiversity conservation: describe the bad things that will happen if it isn't done, or the good things that will happen if it is?
As a reporter, I don't make cases. When I'm reporting on biodiversity, I sometimes write about the bad outcomes of species extinctions, and sometimes I discuss the positive side--such as the estimated value of ecosystem services. (i.e., https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/05/science/earth/putting-a-price-tag-on-natures-defenses.html ) On the other hand, there is a lot of psychology research that explores how framing influences how people take in science news and form opinions about the issues involved. Negativity can be very appealing as a frame, but positivity turns out to be very powerful.
Hi Carl, I'm sure this is a question you get asked a lot. I love reading your articles and admire how effectively you're able to communicate science to the general public. What is one tip that you could give on writing popular science articles?
Don't make ships in a bottle! (https://medium.com/@bobbie/carl-zimmer-on-writing-dont-make-a-ship-in-a-bottle-e163795c95af )
This might sound stupid but: What do you legitly think human's next evolution in a hundred years will be? And why?
If you meant genetic evolution--a change in the frequencies of genetic variants--I think there will be some subtle changes in people's height, blood pressure, weight, etc. It's happening now, and will continue to do so. Here's one example of the research documenting ongoing evolution: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868361/ I know that this isn't as fun as our evolving wings or giant brains, but evolution doesn't run like a movie.
What steps should I take to put myself in the same career position as you?
Err...travel back to the early 1990s, before magazines had web sites? Here's my own story: http://carlzimmer.com/writers.html But you need to find your own way, and the routes in 2017 are different than in 1997!
what are some future projects you are targeting and would like to work on?
Having just finished my next book, on heredity, I'm taking some time to relax and regroup. But podcasting is certainly intriguing me more and more.
I can say firsthand that it's not easy. Part of the problem is we attorneys aren't the ones testifying. Is there a way you've found to ask scientists questions such that they deliver answers that are more readily understood without expertise? I know Radiolab has talked about the challenges of getting scientists to stay away from jargon. Do you have any specific techniques you use when interviewing to make sure that things don't get too technical?
There are actually programs to get scientists to speak more accessibly, adopting techniques from improv theater! See, for example: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/science/attention-all-scientists-do-improv-with-alan-aldas-help.html
suppose you froze to death somewhere and were revived in 1.3 million years, humanity have not visited much of the galaxy but we have filled this solar system and some others with small ring worlds to deal with living space. would you be satisfied with that future?
If we're not extinct and if we have a decent standard of living as a species, I'll be satisfied. Everything else will be a bonus.