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Probing the Passions of Science: An Interview with Carl Zimmer on the Art of Science Writing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Click here for Part Two: Carl Zimmer Delves Beneath the Surface of Science Writing

"Carl Zimmer" by Nathaniel Gold

  "Carl Zimmer" by Nathaniel Gold

Carl Zimmer is one of the most insightful and trenchant science writers working today. Whether he is delving into the soul of the scientific revolution or exposing the precise horror of parasites to reveal our relationship with the natural world, he evokes a passion for his subject with a graceful clarity of style. Unlike his literary icon, Herman Melville, he doesn’t adorn his writing with ornate flourishes or complicated scaffolding. His approach is simple, elegant, and potent, much like the microscopic lifeforms he so often examines. And, like these microorganisms, he is a marvel of adaptability and innovation. He is a Kavli award-winning journalist, Yale University instructor, blogger, and author of twelve books. But that’s only skimming the surface.

For those who are professional science writers, or enthusiastic readers of the latest science news, the name Carl Zimmer is well known. But what may not be as widely known is his incredible generosity and the passion he feels for his subject. He has the ability to turn complicated scientific topics into engaging stories that uplift a reader who might otherwise feel intimidated. At the same time he makes scientists familiar by revealing their own passion for the subject and bringing readers closer to them through a shared curiosity. Quite appropriately, given the topic he often writes about, the result is infectious.

I first met Carl in 2007 at the annual ScienceOnline conference and have learned a great deal from him both through his written work and our scattered correspondence. While all writers are natural observers, Carl is someone who listens. It is this combination of a keen eye for detail and the generous patience of a good teacher that makes his work such a pleasure to read. I had the opportunity to talk with Carl last week to probe his own passion for the art of science writing. It is my hope that others can learn from him as I have so that, together, we may continue to push ourselves and find innovative ways of communicating our shared passion for scientific discovery.

Carl Zimmer at the Koshland Science Museum, Washington, DC

Carl Zimmer at Koshland Science Museum, Washington, DC / Chris Suspect 2010, Flickr

Eric Michael Johnson: The National Book Award-winning novelist Joyce Carol Oates has written that one of the most important influences on a writer is their early failures. What was one of your most meaningful failures while you were learning to be a science writer?

Carl Zimmer: When I first started out I got a job at Discover magazine. I was very young and one of the first things they had me do was fact checking. I was given a story about the potential health risks of power lines, something that was a big controversy at the time. Someone had written an article for us and it was my job to make sure that it was right. I thought I had done a good job, but it turned out there was one detail I had overlooked. It was a number on some figure about cancer rates. This was about fifteen years ago so some of the memories are a little fuzzy.

But what’s not fuzzy is my memory of what happened next. The editor-in-chief, Paul Hoffman, called a staff meeting for the sole purpose of raking me, and the senior editor on the story, over the coals. He wrote the number on a big white board behind his desk and went completely ballistic about allowing those sorts of mistakes into his magazine. It was quite humbling. This was not calculus, it was just a simple number that I should have made sure was correct. The mistake cast a stain on the whole story because people knew it couldn’t be right and it caused them to question everything that came afterwards. That, for me, was a pretty big stumble and it was an incredibly important lesson. It showed me just how easy it is to make mistakes and for errors to creep into articles, especially articles about science. You have to take that extra step and double check everything. My experience at Discover really drilled that into me.

Johnson: Part of what I love about your writing is the infectious enthusiasm you display for the topic. Had you always known you wanted to write about science? At what point did it strike you that this is how you wanted to spend your life?

Zimmer: I definitely did not know early on that I wanted to be a science writer. I didn’t even know I wanted to be a science writer when I was actually working as a science writer. I knew I wanted to write when I got out of college, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would be. I was always very interested in science and would have taken many more science classes if they hadn’t all been at eight in the morning. Fortunately, science turned out to be a very good fit. I haven’t considered writing about anything else ever since.

Yale University, Linsly-Chittenden Hall

Linsly-Chittenden Hall, Yale University where Zimmer received his degree in English, 1987 / GK tramrunner229, Wikimedia Commons

Johnson: When you were first developing your voice as a writer, who were some of your most important influences? I know you were particularly fond of Melville and Faulkner as an undergrad at Yale. What did studying literature offer for developing your own style compared to the work of other science writers?

Zimmer: At the time I was reading Melville, Faulkner, or Mark Twain, I had vague ideas about writing fiction. That was my initial impetus for reading them. Gradually I realized that I was actually more interested in the natural world. It was at that point I began to appreciate really good science writing. I was reading people like Jonathan Weiner, John McPhee, or David Quammen, writers who could construct a sentence that left you breathless. But it was very important for me to have had that different experience in reading beforehand. It taught me how important it is to tell a story when you’re writing as well as all the different ways you can tell that story. These are elements you can bring into science writing to great effect.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

The fact is there is a lot of science writing in great literature. I’m a big fan of Moby Dick, for example. Melville’s novel is probably a quarter to a third science writing. It’s the story of an obsessed captain going after a whale interspersed with long passages about marine biology, paleontology, even consciousness. It’s all science. But he writes about it in a style that can be quite humbling. When you read it you see how beautiful someone can make these descriptions of the natural world. I’ve always been frustrated with the flatness of a lot of science writing. I think that science writers should try to aim high rather than going for a lot of these clichés you often see both in magazines and in books.

Johnson: That brings up a very interesting point. Communicating science offers some unique challenges for a writer. In fiction the exposition is usually hidden and the reader comes to understand a character through their actions. We’ll emotionally bond with that character and this pulls us into the story. But for so much of science writing, the science itself is the character. How do you effectively connect with a reader emotionally and, at the same time, provide the necessary scientific background to bring a reader up to speed?

Zimmer: That’s a great question. It’s really hard to articulate an answer to that because I tackle that challenge almost by a sense of touch or intuition. In terms of techniques for communicating that passion, I think part of what you have to do is make sure the beginning is completely captivating. You can’t start a piece with a lot of inside baseball. You have to remember that when you are writing about science you are ultimately writing about inherently fascinating and compelling things.

I just started reading a piece in the latest New Yorker about desertification called “The Great Oasis” by Burkhard Bilger. He could have gotten into a lot of technical detail right off the bat describing the various debates about the causes of desertification. But what he starts with is a beautiful account of what it’s like when it rains in Oman. He just describes how the rain rushes over the dry, stony surfaces in this relatively obscure country in the Middle East. It’s absolutely gorgeous writing. He simply provides the reader with an image. What he’s basically saying is, “Picture this. This is what I’m going to be telling you about.” Once you have people’s attention like that they will be willing to go with you a long way. It’s so important to bear in mind that big picture and not to get lost in the details. The details matter but they have to be fit into this larger scaffolding.

Johnson: Is it a matter of finding the emotional core of the story and opening with that feeling?

Zimmer: Yes. I don’t mean that you should be mawkish or sensationalistic, but every story about science has something that is truly absorbing. I think that’s what motivates the scientists themselves. Sometimes you can discover the way to frame a piece just be pushing scientists to explain why their research is so interesting. These are investigations that they’ll sometimes be doing for decades. Perhaps a few of them do it simply because it’s a job. But I think, for the most part, scientists are doing this work because they themselves have this intense passion and because they themselves find these things marvelous. You can sometimes find a way to frame your own story just by understanding the scientists’ passion for the subject.

Johnson: When mapping out a book or feature article how much attention do you pay to the structure? Do you have a system for organizing the flow of ideas or do you rely largely on what feels right?

Zimmer: I try to see the story in my head. I approach stories visually, I’m not sure why. If it’s too big to see it all in my head I will get out a piece of paper and draw a bunch of boxes with arrows and so on. Because you have to have the structure. One of the reasons that’s important is it prevents you from making the story too tangled up and complex. I teach a class at Yale and when I’m teaching students I often find myself saying to one of them, “You’re making the story too complicated. What is the one really important point that you want us to understand and how are you going to get us there?” Mapping out a story, either mentally or on a piece of paper, is incredibly important for getting that structure right.

Carl Zimmer and David Dobbs

Carl Zimmer and David Dobbs discuss their craft, ScienceOnline2011 / Ryan Somma, Flickr

Johnson: Who are some of the science writers working today that you think do this most effectively?

Zimmer: It depends on the genre. In books, for example, Rebecca Skloot and Joshua Foer have each come out with a book that does a fantastic job of mixing together hardcore science with personal experience in a way that is original and very compelling. [Editor's Note: See David Dobbs' piece "How Rebecca Skloot built The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"]. In terms of magazine writers, I mentioned Burkhard Bilger and David Quammen. I’ve also been impressed with a guy named John Colapinto who also writes for The New Yorker. He did a piece on this linguist in Brazil called “The Interpreter” that I thought was fantastic. It was so deeply reported and so sweeping in exploring a scientist’s whole life, including his science. I was very impressed by that. There are also bloggers who are doing so many interesting things out there. I’ve read Ed Yong’s stuff from close to when he started and have watched him develop his own personal genre at his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science. In the very best sense he’s been making up the rules as he goes along. He’s got an approach that’s all his own.

Johnson: You’re a strong advocate of incorporating history into your science writing. My favorite book of yours, perhaps one of my favorite popular science books of all time, is Soul Made Flesh about the origins of neuroscience in 17th century England. But most of your writing focuses on contemporary research. What does the history of science offer when writing about the biology of fireflies or the viruses that kill thousands of people every year?

Zimmer: I think there a couple of good things that come out of utilizing history when you’re writing about new science. One is that, if you explore history it can make journalism more exciting. You can show how the work that people are doing today is helping to address questions that people have been struggling with for decades or even centuries.

One good example of this is the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. It’s pretty cool when you read about what people have done in the last couple of years by putting together a genome based on ancient DNA extracted from fossils. But it’s much more profound when you look back at the 150 years or so of research about Neanderthals. When these fossils came out of the ground people were struggling desperately just to make sense of what they were. Were they human beings? Were they some other species? Were they our ancestors? Could they talk? Did we humans kill them off? Now we have an entirely new way of addressing those questions. Understanding this history just makes it so much more exciting and more profound.

The other way that history can be useful is that it can make you as a journalist more skeptical about the importance of new results. The fact is that people will come out with an experiment and then send you a press release announcing that it’s the greatest thing ever. But, if you know your history, you’ll realize that scientists knew this thirty years ago and that this latest experiment is just rehashing old results but with new technology. I think that the more journalists know about the history of science the better.

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich discuss their award-winning RadioLab in New York / Pete Jelliffe 2006, Flickr

Johnson: As a writer who is constantly entering into new fields, where are you going to push yourself next?

Zimmer: One of the things I like is to get involved in projects where the medium seems very different from what I’ve been dealing with before. For example, I’ve been working with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich at the radio show RadioLab and it’s just been fantastic. The way they turn science into sound and find a way to work within their medium is astounding. Twitter may limit you to 140 characters, but radio limits you to just your ears. You have to figure out how to work within these constraints and turn them to your advantage.

The weirdest experience I had was when I spent one long afternoon talking with Jad and Robert about the evolution of the eye. I was explaining all the new research on how eyes evolved on a molecular level. It’s truly amazing research. Then they took that, teamed up with the dance company Pilobolus, and incorporated it into a live performance. I was able to see the show in Berkeley recently. I was literally watching dancers on stage playing the part of photoreceptors in the retina, and they got it right. It was great! They managed to get across the molecular biology quite well. Afterwards, I was talking with one of the dancers and he was excited about how they could do more dances based on science. There are so many different ways of doing this job. It’s a very exciting time to be communicating science.

Click here for Part Two: Carl Zimmer Delves Beneath the Surface of Science Writing

Previous Interviews at The Primate Diaries:

Frans de Waal on Political Apes and Building a Cooperative Society
Lee Alan Dugatkin on Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism, and Cooperation in Nature

Eric Michael Johnson About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Follow his work on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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