Carl Zimmer’s award-winning science journalism regularly features in the New York Times. A Yale alum (’87) and professor adjunct, Zimmer has also authored fourteen books. His most recent, Life’s Edge: The Search For What It Means To Be Alive, was published in March of this year.
How did you become interested in communicating/disseminating scientific information through scientific writing? Where did this interest come from?
I was very lucky to get a job a couple of years out of college as an assistant copy editor at a science magazine called Discover. I graduated from Yale as an English major; I really loved to write and wanted to do something with writing but wasn’t sure what. I was then given the opportunity to do fact-checking, which was not only very important for the articles but also very good to learn how to be a science journalist. Then, I started to learn how to write articles about complicated things for a broad audience and I went from there.
How did you get into covering for the New York Times and what has that process been like?
I worked at Discover for ten years in total (the last four years I was a senior editor). And then I decided I just wanted to work on my own writing for a variety of publications. I left the staff of Discover and started writing for places like National Geographic or Wired, and in 2004, I decided to pitch an idea to the NYT just as a freelancer. The editor who read my pitch had read one of my books, so he was happy to talk about ideas and we started off with a story on why leaves change color in the fall. And after that, I started contributing stories to them on a somewhat regular basis. Eventually, about eight years ago my editor said, let’s just make this a weekly column. Let’s make it official and that’s been the timeline. I balance that with writing books and other projects.
And that’s your Matter Column on the NYT?
I saw that you have some really interesting articles ranging from topics regarding pythons, algae, ant zombies, singing mice and was curious about how you came up with these topics to write about?
Like other science writers, I try to keep up with the new research that’s coming out. If there’s something that’s particularly significant, eg. medical advances, or something that’s fascinating in showing us something about how the world works, then I’ll talk to my editor as that being my topic for the week. I write about biology, sort of broadly speaking. What I love about that is that every week there can be something new about singing mice or jellyfish or about plants fighting against insects, or what have you. But there’s this underlying unity: the same processes you see in one species, you’ll find it in the evolution of another. There’s this mix of variety and unity that is very satisfying to me as a writer.
What is the research process for your column and COVID-19 updates? Where do you get scientific information from, and how do you begin to dissect it and make it understandable to a broader audience?
When I start working on a story, I will read a number of papers—maybe one new study I’ll focus on in particular—but I’ll look and see, get familiar with the research that was important to make the new research possible. Then I just have long conversations. I’ll talk to scientists about the work that they’ve done. I might talk to outside scientists to get an expert opinion on whether or not the research really lives up to its claims. If it’s the kind of research that affects people’s lives, I will talk to those people.
For example, there are ancient skeletons of people who lived in the Caribbean before Columbus arrived. And comparing their DNA to living people shows you some interesting things about how people came to Caribbean islands and settled on them before moving from island to island. So, I talked to people who identify as Taíno, which is one of the groups that was there when Columbus arrived, about what these findings mean to them or [how they] fit in with their own experiences of their identities as Caribbean peoples. I try to hear as many voices as I can in the time that I have.
In terms of writing the articles, I always remind myself that I have spent several days or maybe weeks immersed in this subject, whereas my readers are coming to it completely fresh, so I can’t assume they live inside my head. I have to put everything that they need onto the page in order for them to follow the story. This requires constant reminding, that you have to tell a story that is clear and compelling enough that people who aren’t experts in the particular research will want to read it and will keep reading it and will understand it.
This is definitely reflected in the narrative aspect of your articles, where it’s not just about the discovery but it’s also about the people behind the discoveries. Some of your articles are in Spanish and can cater to different populations of people/less scientific understanding.
Yeah, that’s part of the NYT’s efforts to reach a number of audiences. They have had Chinese translations, Spanish and other languages, so they will pick certain articles to translate. And I think that they have been particularly interested in some of the COVID-19 stories that I’ve been writing, because I have been collaborating with a designer named Jonathan Corram on basic visual explanations of things. So how does the coronavirus hijack our cells/how do these vaccines work? How does the Pfizer vaccine work? AstraZeneca? We are trying to present pretty brief explanations of things that run through the key points of vaccination and how the immune system responds—something you can look at on your phone as well as your computer. Those things are of great interest to people not just in English-speaking countries but also people who speak other languages as well.
After these articles come out, how do you engage with your audience? Do you read reviews/feedback on articles and how have you adapted?
When I have the time, I will try to look around for reactions. Like everyone, I spend time on social media, so if I share something on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, there will typically be some comments in response. The NYT will sometimes enable a comment function on articles so I’ll try to read through those and respond to some questions that I feel I can help with. It is useful to get a sense of what people take from my stories. Sometimes the thing that I thought was really interesting turns out to not get a lot of attention. But people might be really interested in some other aspect of a story that I haven’t thought about as much. It’s good to know what things people find meaning from.
Where did the idea of the book, your inquiry about life, come from?
I think it’s one of these basic questions that I can’t remember when I first wondered it. I think a lot of people, even when they’re kids, wonder, “Well what is life, exactly, and what does it mean that we’re alive?” If you ask your parents, you might not get a satisfying answer, and it turns out if you ask scientists, you might also not be satisfied because everyone seems to have a different definition of it, and no one seems to be able to agree. It’s puzzling but also fascinating.
I talked with scientists and philosophers and spent time looking at particularly weird and amazing forms of life, whether it’s hibernating bats or slime mold or just a maple tree, and talk with the researchers who are studying these things. It grew into what I consider a journey. I start the book in the familiar heartland of life, thinking about things no one would really argue are alive—like ourselves or a snake or a tree—and then move out to the borderlands, where it suddenly gets much harder to decide whether things are alive or not—whether they are synthetic life or protocells which may have first evolved four billion years ago. Even viruses. These are the things that are very much a part of our world, but we’re not sure what to call them.
You write in your book, “All life gives way to half-life and then to no life at all.” Do you think we fundamentally characterize life wrong, or through your investigation do you have a different way of characterizing life?
Something like a virus shows you how shaky the whole edifice of the definition of life is. Definitions, as we think of them, are kind of arbitrary lists or hallmarks. The hallmarks you think are important might not be the ones other people think are important. You don’t really get at something fundamental about nature. So, I don’t think it’s really possible to define life. We can have some sort of rough and ready definition, which is fine, but in Life’s Edge, I compare it to asking an alchemist in the 1500s to define water:
They would probably say: It’s wet, it’s transparent, it’s liquid, and if I make it cold it gets hard. But then you say: Okay well, the stuff it becomes, is that water too? Then they would say: No that’s ice because water as I just told you is liquid.
So, it’s kind of a meaningless exercise to ask an alchemist to define water. What you really want is a theory of chemistry. You can say: According to your theory you call that stuff water. What’s in it are these molecules, and I can tell you what molecules are, and I can tell you how this particular substance has molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen. It’s still water when it freezes because the molecules just arrange in different shapes. So suddenly I’ve told you something deep and profound about water because I have a theory of it. However, we don’t have a theory of life that everyone agrees on yet.
Could you tell me about the timelines of the book and whether the COVID-19 pandemic shaped the outcome of your book/the direction the book was going?
I was working on this through much of 2019. I was making plans on doing the last few trips into May and June of 2020. But by February it was pretty clear I was going to have to cut things short. I had this one last trip at the end of February where I went to an abandoned mine in the Adirondacks to go with some biologists who study hibernating bats. We have these super insulated waders, basically climbing through this icy stream to get into this mine with these bats that are spending the winter—great experience—but drove home, and pretty soon after that everything shut down.
So, I wasn’t able to do those last few trips, but it was okay. I realized that I actually had enough to work with. I started wrapping up the book and at the same time started ramping up my work for the NYT for the COVID coverage. I went from writing about anything to writing about this one virus. I’ve been writing like crazy about vaccines and about variants, so in the meantime, the book was working its way through the publication process. But I had a chapter already written about viruses and whether viruses were alive. And over the summer I updated that and focused on the coronavirus. I said, okay so here is this new virus that is taking control of the world and scientists don’t agree if it’s alive or not.
When people go to books/websites/journals, they almost expect to come out with something that they’re sure of/better informed. As scientists, we have to exist in this realm of uncertainty. So as someone who serves as the medium through which this information is being spread to the public, how do you deal with the uncertainty and explain that to your readers in a way that doesn’t induce severe panic?
It’s hard. It’s hard because you want to give people the best understanding that scientists have, and there’s a wide range of uncertainty. But just because scientists are unsure about something doesn’t mean that they don’t know anything at all—you have to find a way to balance those things. How much you should be afraid of the virus? Well, that’s a difficult thing and it’s not entirely a scientific question. These variants that have sprung up, we’ve only really become aware of them in January, and they’ve been a dominant concern ever since. We as reporters need to write about these variants and the new research that comes up about them. If there’s evidence that they could be transmitting faster, we have to share that. If they’re possibly evading vaccines, we have to share that. But we also don’t want to give people a sense that it’s all hopeless and that these new variants will destroy our efforts to reign it in. We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen with variants, but we have reason to be hopeful. The lesson to take from the variants is that we just have to be vaccinating as fast as we can.
Do you have any advice for Yalies who want to engage with scientific writing?
It takes a lot of practice, so nobody should expect to do a spectacular job of science writing their first time out. It’s a big challenge to learn about complicated things and write about them in a way that is exciting and comprehensible. We’re writing things that people don’t have to read. We’re writing things that people can just skip over, so the challenge is how you keep people reading and give them a story that is as accurate and as close to the truth as you can make it. An important thing to remember is to try to write it the way you actually talk. Don’t try to show how smart you are when you’re writing about science; that’s not a fun thing to read. Tell us a good story about science and we’ll want to read it!
Do you have any mentors you particularly look up to? What do you do in your free time?
I had a couple of great teachers at Yale. One was a writer named Peter Matthiessen, who wrote about nature, and the other was a poet and an essayist named Vicky Hearne. I feel very fortunate to have been able to start trying to write with their guidance; that was a very lucky experience.
I’ve been writing so much, so other things—it’s hard to think about. I have to say, I live in Guilford, and we’re lucky that there are huge amounts of forests, hills, and trails here. I try to get out a few times a week at least to explore what we have here, and that’s definitely kept my sanity intact this past year.