An Evolving Perspective: Carl Zimmer, B.A. ’87

Carl Zimmer ’87 spoke at the 2012 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism. Courtesy of Carl Zimmer.

When Carl Zimmer graduated from Yale in 1987 with a degree in English, he never would have expected to someday have a tapeworm named after him (Acanthobothrium zimmeri) and have written a book dedicated to science tattoos (Science Ink: Tattoos of Science Obsessed). The boy who was deterred from taking many science courses in college by the 8 a.m. walk up Science Hill would be surprised that 25 years later, he would passionately speak about slime molds, the evolution of HIV strains, fMRI neuroscience studies, and fungi that hijack ant brains.

After graduating from Yale, Zimmer took a job copy editing at Discover Magazine, a monthly science publication based in New York City. “Originally, I was just hoping to get a job in the magazine industry, period,” he said. “But it didn’t take me long to realize that I was really fascinated by science and by the challenge of writing about these things, explaining these things, telling these stories to other people.”

Zimmer ascended to become a senior editor at Discover and quickly gathered a portfolio of scientific writing that spanned across all areas of science from physics to biology, astronomy to geology. Perhaps this multi-faceted experience has led to his belief that “the most exciting research comes at the intersections between the scientific disciplines.” After a few years, he claims that “I found myself gravitating towards the stories related to biology because they brought me the most satisfaction; biology is intrinsically weird and interesting.” Eventually, he would cultivate a particular fascination for evolution, parasites, and viruses.

In 1999, Zimmer stepped down from his staff position on Discover to write freelance pieces for a wider range of publications after completing his first book, titled At The Water’s Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back To The Sea, which was published in 1998. During this period, Zimmer sent article proposals to different magazines and got in touch with their editors, leveraging the contacts he had made during his time at Discover. While the majority of his articles have been published in the New York Times, Zimmer has been featured in a diverse set of publications including Wired, Slate Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Scientific American, Washington Post, National Geographic, and even Playboy Magazine. He has now published a total of 12 books and is a a contributing editor at Discover Magazine.

An unusual aspect of Zimmer’s line of work is the variety of types of media with which he is engaged. In addition to newspapers, magazines, and standard books, he also has flirted with the radio (National Public Radio’s “Radiolab”), Twitter (@carlzimmer), a blog (The Loom), more accessible textbooks on biology, a new website reviewing scientific e-books (Download The Universe), and, of course, spoken word. A recent sampling of Zimmer’s many talks include speaking about viruses to high school students in New Haven and then to a lab of virologists at the University of Maryland; he spoke about science tattoos at a tattoo parlor and then at the New York Academy of Sciences.

Today, Zimmer is a “freelance Yalie.” He is a lecturer in Yale’s Environmental Studies Program and is in his third year of teaching a seminar titled “Writing about Science and the Environment,” which is open to all undergraduate students. He is a fellow of Morse College, has spoken at a residential college Master’s Tea, leads an intensive, two-day writing workshop for Yale graduate students in the sciences, and is representing Yale along with mechanical engineering professor Ainissa Ramirez as a member of the “Nifty Fifty” — a group established by President Obama to headline the second annual USA Science and Engineering Festival in April and engage in outreach programs in classrooms across the country.