December 20, 2011 | 1
Click here for Part One: Carl Zimmer on the Art of Science Writing
Carl Zimmer has an uncanny knack for getting under your skin, quite literally. While travelling through the village of Tumbura in southern Sudan he encountered invisible monsters that live inside the subcutaneous tissue of their innocent victims. Under a microscope these creatures, known as Onchocerca volvulus, resemble coiled worms. As they crawl through your flesh they provoke an immune response that leaves an itchy rash all over. People have been known to scratch themselves to death. Later, they crawl through the outer layer of your eyes causing blindness. In Tumbura nearly everyone over the age of 40 had gone blind as a result of these parasites.
This is just one of nature’s bizarre creations that Zimmer has spent more than a decade exploring. His writing projects, whether in books like Parasite Rex and Soul Made Flesh, at his award-winning blog, or in regular features for The New York Times, are as fascinating and provocative as the subjects he covers. He is, at the same time, the busiest science writer working today and the one who most consistently pushes boundaries to communicate science in a way you’ve never experienced before.
As shown in part one of this interview, Carl Zimmer has entertained and informed readers for more than a decade. His latest books, all released this year, have found new ways to get under the skin of readers. A Planet of Viruses examines the fascinating world of virology and delves to new levels in the world of the very small. Meanwhile, Science Ink explores the tattoo art of the science obsessed and illustrates the passions that drive scientists to search just beneath the surface of current knowledge. His two e-books, Brain Cuttings and the aptly titled More Brain Cuttings, dig deep into his unpublished archives to expose nature’s marvels to the light of electronic paper. It is a collection of work that reveals just how fortunate we are to have a science writer like Carl who possesses such passion and efficiency.
Eric Michael Johnson: You’ve been extremely prolific this year. You’ve published two e-books and two hardcover books, one of which is called A Planet of Viruses. It reads almost like a collection of love letters about some of your favorite infectious pathogens. Influenza, West Nile, Ebola, smallpox; each get their own chapter where you emphasize the wonder and mystery of what most people would consider a scourge on humanity. You even write about how if you close your eyes and say the word aloud, “influenza” sounds lovely. I think you’re right. This is your third book on microscopic parasites. What is it about this topic that you find so fascinating?
Carl Zimmer: There’s something endlessly fascinating in biology about the fact that there’s this huge invisible world of things that are incredibly important and sophisticated and highly evolved but that we don’t think about much in our daily life. My first way of exploring that was with my book Parasite Rex. Then, a few years later, I was thinking a lot about the old question “What is life?” I was fascinated by how scientists were starting to address this question in some very specific ways. They were able to start laying out an organism’s entire network of genes and show how they interact. It occurred to me that most of this work had been done with just one species of bacteria, E. coli. Most people, if they’ve heard of E. coli, just think that it’s something they should avoid in their hamburger. And yet, in a lot of ways, modern biology is built on this organism. That was the inspiration for my other book Microcosm.
What was funny then is that I didn’t think I could get much more microscopic. But recently I was invited to get involved in an education program about viruses. What I started to do was write essays about individual viruses and try to use these essays to talk about some general developments in this whole science of virology. I was really quite floored by the things I was discovering. For example, there are 10 to the power of 31 viruses on Earth, or 1 followed by 31 zeros. That’s way beyond any other kind of life form. I also discovered that the majority of the genetic diversity on Earth is in the genes of viruses. It was astonishing to me. There was this whole world of viruses that I hadn’t fully appreciated. Now I think that virology is really the most exciting branch of science these days. There is so much that’s happening.
Johnson: There is a certain irony that your second hardcover book published this year could, if it’s done incorrectly, actually be the cause of infectious disease.
Johnson: With Science Ink, what was the biggest surprise as you began receiving the hundreds of photographs of scientifically-inspired tattoo art?
Zimmer: I just think the fact there were hundreds of pieces of scientific tattoo art was surprising in itself. I had no idea this would happen. I just noticed one neuroscientist with a DNA tattoo on his shoulder and I took a picture of it to post on my blog. With it I just asked an open question about whether there were other scientists out there. I thought it was funny enough that there was just one. Then, lo and behold, there were actually hundreds upon hundreds of people with these tattoos. But what became interesting was how much these tattoos could tell. A lot of times people would get tattoos about the science that they studied. Maybe it was a particular type of neuron that they did their PhD on, or it was the mathematical equation that governs all their research. It was this totally different way of probing the passions of scientists.
Johnson: I suspect the word “scientist” brings to mind a very specific image for most people, one that probably doesn’t include someone with a tattoo that covers their entire back. Throughout your work you have sought to bring science home and emphasize that scientists are largely doing what we all do. They’re sorting out the ideas that work from the ones that don’t, just at a more precise level. It’s what the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley called “organized common sense.” Are you concerned about the public perception of scientists, and science more generally? How does this factor into your work?
Zimmer: I think that, for the most part, people feel that scientists are some other species. They don’t know scientists personally and largely just read about what they do or see them on TV. There’s definitely a gulf there. I think it can be a valuable thing to show scientists as they are, as human beings.
In a sense what I try to do in all my writing is to help readers become better scientists themselves. If you’re walking through the woods and you happen to see some weird little colored blobs on a log you might just walk past and not think about it at all. But those are what are known as slime molds. If you’re a scientist that studies slime molds they turn out to be immensely fascinating things, some even spend their entire lives studying them. So when I write about slime molds I want readers to become curious so that the next time they’re out in the woods they’ll stop and take a closer look. I want them thinking about the same questions that the scientists are asking. What is this thing? Is there a weird intelligence to this blob as it probes around on the forest floor and sucks up food? Does this slime mold tell me something about how my own ancestors came on land? So, to answer your question, yes, public perception is an important concern for me.
Johnson: There are now so many new ways to communicate science directly with the public. Blogs, social media, and now e-books have offered a unique interaction between writer and audience. You have already been blogging and tweeting for many years, but 2011 marked your first exploration into e-book publishing with your collection of essays entitled Brain Cuttings. In all of these different mediums do you find the message itself changes? What would be your advice for writers looking at the diversity of options available to them?
Zimmer: My advice at this point would just be to experiment and to find things that work well for you as a writer. I just came out with a second collection of pieces called More Brain Cuttings. It’s not a very exciting title. [Laughs] But after doing two of these things now I still don’t feel that I have the answers sorted out. It’s been interesting to experiment with this and it’s been nice to create another way for people to read some of my stuff, but I think there a lot of serious questions about whether science e-books will be particularly successful as a way for reaching people. There are still a whole lot of stumbling blocks put in people’s way and we’ve got to keep experimenting and figuring those things out.
That being said, I guess my advice would be that the goal of science writers should not be to become a science journalist circa 1980. That doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of people may mourn the loss of that kind of science writing, when staff writers on city newspapers and magazines would produce regular articles. There was a lot of good that came out of that model, but the fact is that it’s gone. What’s taken its place is very chaotic. But I think that for people who want to experiment and play around with software or genres, they can help to discover something brand new about how to write about science.
Johnson: With the advent of blogs there developed a now well-established genre of doomsaying about the future of books and long form writing in general. Do you give any credence to those who bemoan what is sometimes called “short attention span theater” (and, if you could, please answer in 140 characters or less)?
Zimmer: [Laughs] Yeah, right. There has been a lot of doomsaying and I think that the most extreme doomsayers need to retract everything they’ve said. It’s just not true. People are still reading books. Maybe a quarter of them are reading these books on their phones, but they’re still reading books. There’s a whole flourishing niche of what people call #longreads where people will write pieces that are thousands of words long and put them online. You have places like The Atavist putting out really long reads that are 20,000-30,000 words. They’re not long enough to be conventional books but they’re way too long to be traditional magazine pieces and people are snapping them up.
I think people were just so scared of all the new possibilities that were opening up that they were sure it was all going to end badly. Of course there’s a lot of garbage out there. I’m not going to dispute that. As readers we have to discipline ourselves about how we read. There’s always something vaguely interesting just another click away and we have to structure our time if we don’t want to get swept along in a flood. But that’s different than saying that long form writing is dead.
The flip-side of that is Twitter. For the life of me I can’t understand people carping about Twitter. They keep getting confused between the system and what people are writing on it. The fact that you can only write 140 characters does not mean that, by default, everything people write on it is unimportant. I’ve literally seen people say, “Everyone tells me as a journalist that I need to be on Twitter, but I don’t want to be writing about what I ate for breakfast.” No one’s forcing you to tell us what you ate for breakfast on Twitter. You could actually look at it as an experiment or an opportunity to be creative, a way to distill things down to very short and sweet statements. It’s like bemoaning haikus by saying that they’re so short and it will be the death of poetry. That would be exactly the same thing. It’s just silly.
Johnson: This seems to tie in with the old debate about whether blogging is journalism. Are you optimistic about what blogging has done for the profession?
Zimmer: Absolutely, that debate is over. Let me give you a personal example. I was asked to give a talk last year at a scientific conference. It was very intimidating because I’m a journalist and here I was being asked to stand up in front of a bunch of scientists. I had no idea what I was supposed to say. What I decided to do was to take advantage of the strength that we science writers have, which is that we’re not stuck in one tiny sub-specialty. We move around, we talk to lots of different people, and we can see connections sometimes that they might miss. My talk was addressing people who were working on genome sequencing and looking for important patterns that might lead to the development of drugs or identify the causes of disease. I tried to get them to think like ecologists. I explained that health is an ecosystem, it’s not whether we have a particular gene or not. I developed this talk about all the microbes that live in us, the microbiome, and I thought it worked out pretty well.
But afterwards I felt very depressed. I worked so hard on this talk, I’d spoken to several hundred people, but then that was it. It was over. I really wanted to give this an extra life, so I sat down and started writing. I wrote everything down and even inserted some of my slides. This was not something that would have worked as a magazine piece. So I just stuck the whole thing, all five thousand words, up on my blog. I know there are people that would say this is too long for a blog post. But it became one of my most read posts of the entire year. The journalist Steve Silberman picked it as one of his five favorite longform pieces of 2011 and it’s going to be my contribution to the book Open Laboratory, the annual anthology of science blogging. So, for me personally, this gibberish about the death of long form writing is just that. It’s gibberish. This is a wonderful time to be a writer and there are endless opportunities to explore and innovate. It’s a lot of fun.
Click here for Part One: Carl Zimmer on the Art of Science Writing
Previous Interviews at The Primate Diaries:
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX