Greetings! We blog at Phenomena, hosted by National Geographic.We are, in alphabetic order:

--Virginia Hughes. I write about the human side of science, from the way genetic testing is portrayed in the press to the development of brain implants that may one day treat deafness and seizures. proof

--Brian Switek. I'm a science writer and distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex. Paleontology is my specialty, but I also write about oddities like sexual parasites and flying squid. proof

--Ed Yong. I write Not Exactly Rocket Science, a blog about the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky world of science, from bees that sense the electric fields of flowers, to microbes that ride hurricanes, to the alligator's bungee penis. proof

--Carl Zimmer. I write The Loom, and write for places like the New York Times and National Geographic. Although all biology obsesses me, parasites have lodged themselves particularly firmly in my brain. proof

At 2 pm ET, 3/14, we are gathering at NG Headquarters (except for Ed, in London), where we will be ready to answer your questions. Ask us anything!

Update: 4 pm ET: We've got to go off to take care of stuff (reporting, talks, taming pterosaurs). We'll make our way back this evening to answer more questions. Thanks again for joining us!

Comments: 323 • Responses: 38  • Date: 

PawnShop80423 karma

You all come across a lot of discoveries, what is one discovery that has just blown your mind?

CarlZimmer33 karma

This is Carl. I have to say my mind has now been blown by a virus with an immune system. I learned about this a couple weeks ago, and I can say that I NEVER thought such a thing was possible. And that was after writing a book on the friggin things. And yet the evidence is pretty overwhelming. AND it could help cure cholera. Mind blown. Details here:

aw9016 karma

What is the Number One challenge that is going to threaten the existence of mankind in the coming century?

CarlZimmer19 karma

We are so prone to think about the future existence of mankind, as if our species is about to go totally extinct. I just think we are far too cockroach-like (in a good way) to suffer that fate soon, no matter how we make life difficult for ourselves. I don't think a new virus will wipe out our species. I do think that 50 million people might well die in a short period of time in a pandemic in the next century, leading to huge social disruption. And we will say goodbye to a lot of our low-lying cities due to rising sea levels unless we really get our act in gear. Again, we will still exist, but we will lost something important.

JasonBittel14 karma

There's so much scientific bangarang happening every hour, every day. Your blogs and articles have always been proof of that. How do you choose which very few subjects to cover? What advice do you have for a young writer that may or may not have 18 tabs open trying to decide tonight's topic?

CarlZimmer10 karma

There is far more exciting stuff to write about every week--in the areas I like--than I could ever write about. So I do a kind of journalistic triage. What moves me? What do I want to write about most? What can I see advancing a field the most? What is just so unexpected I need to share the news? Unfortunately, this means keeping those 18 tabs open--and perhaps a lot more!

thinkorthogonal13 karma

If DARPA gave you the opportunity to fund one EXPERIMENT (price tag not an issue), what would it be and why?

CarlZimmer11 karma

Name and describe all species on Earth. Viruses and bacteria included. Boy, will those Defense folks regret saying the price tag wasn't an issue!

thinkorthogonal10 karma

If any of you were offered a spot on a multi-year Mars exploration trip, would you go? What would be the longest timeframe you would be willing to go for?

CarlZimmer8 karma

I'd love to go, except that I'm fairly certain I'd be stark raving mad by the time I got there. I can't even handle a long bus ride!

W0rdN3rd7 karma

How long will it be before I can print my own Batmobile with a 3-D printer?

CarlZimmer12 karma

How long before I can print out my own bat with a 3-D printer? That's MY question.

PlasteredPlatypus7 karma

What's the most spectacular place you have traveled to? And why?

CarlZimmer7 karma

Ok, I'm officially super-jealous of Virginia Hughes. I went to upstate New York for my honeymoon.

Most spectacular place for me was probably the rain forest of Sumatra, where I gazed up and saw orangutans striding from tree to tree. It's a painful memory, however, because that forest is now gone.

Lots426 karma

So how many people think Jurassic Park was real?

CarlZimmer7 karma

Maybe not Jurassic Park, but how about Pleistocene Park? Nat Geo is having a TEDx meeting tomorrow about the possibility of reviving extinct species that vanished within the last 50,000 years ago so. (I wrote an article on the subject for the April issue of the magazine, link to come tomorrow.)

dorothein6 karma

Let us make a leap in time and assume it is 10 years later. The Brain Activity Map is finished in time, all critics were wrong and we have the results. What non medical advantages would the results have? What kind of medical advantages could they have? In what kind of treatment could they result? Also were people against the human genom project at the beginning too, claiming it could never be done in time, or was that always a clear case?

CarlZimmer4 karma

Well, what exactly is the goal of the Brain Activity Map? We don't actually know, because it hasn't been formally articulated. Could it just be developing technology to listen to a million neurons at once? That's great--but it's not like the whole human brain will have been decoded. But that's okay, too, because it might let us study mouse brains and discover secrets shared by the human brain in terms of diseases like Alzheimer's. Also, the technology for brain implants for paralyzed people, etc., will move forward dramatically.

quarknugget6 karma


CarlZimmer7 karma

Getting a Ph.D. is a huge commitment of time and effort, which you could be directing to science writing. It may be the right thing for you, but think very carefully about it, and remember that NONE of us four has a Ph.D. between us.

BenFW6 karma

  • For Carl: I think it was yesterday during your dust up with a researcher who seemed to dismiss blogging in favour of traditional journalism, that you mentioned that Brossard's new study will change how you blog. Can you elaborate on that?

  • For Ed: Your recent story about Lilly Grossman was fascinating and wonderful. Where did you hear about it? Were you looking for a human story to put a face on genomic medicine?

  • More generally, and for anyone, is there any pattern to what stories catch your interest enough to write?

  • Also for anyone: a lot has been written about why more academics should blog. Do you think it's an important thing for journalism? Has anyone tried to estimate how many professors actually do?

CarlZimmer12 karma

This is Carl--Brossard and her colleagues have done a very elegant study in which they had people read blog posts about nanotechnology accompanied by comments. There were two sets of comments, almost identical, except that one was rude. That rudeness altered how people interpreted the science itself. Rude comments made them think it was more risky.

Here's a page with more details:

Managing my comment threads has been a lot of work for me for the ten years I've been blogging. I like a lot more rough-and-tumble than a lot of other bloggers. I like having creationists leave comments on my blogs about evolution, and I like having scientifically informed readers fire back. Better than looking the other way, I say. But trolls can really drag down the conversation--and, it turns out, alter the perception of what I write in the main blog post. So I want to find out more about this research--and I want more of it done!

BenFW4 karma

Thanks for the reply! It really is fascinating that bad comments can have such a strong impact on reader beliefs. I wonder if good comments can have the opposite effect.

CarlZimmer3 karma

I wonder, too. I am getting stricter about good manners on my blog.

An_enthuiast5 karma

What is one area of science that you feel most people have the least firm grasp of?

CarlZimmer13 karma

Statistics is a pet peeve of mine, because it is so important to everyday life. Everything from choosing a medical procedure to understanding the effects of climate change depend on understanding standard deviations, trends, etc. Why do we force students to take trig? Swap in statistics I say!

eran_dror5 karma

What one thing would you change about the way science is being done, promoted, or taught today if you could?

CarlZimmer10 karma

I'd like to see science taught deeply from kindergarten. Not forcing 6 year olds to learn all the families of flowering plants, but helping them to think like scientists (they already do, but somehow we beat that out of them by the time they're teenagers).

mddtsk5 karma

Carl: What is your favorite obligate parasite? What drew you to parasitism?

CarlZimmer6 karma

I have a revolving list of favorite parasites. But for some reason blood flukes keep rising back to the top. They live for decades in your gut, they essentially get married (and divorced), they grab human proteins to hide themselves like a hunter in camo,---AND they manipulate snails, too. It's too much.

johnsaigle5 karma

First, I would like to thank you all for taking the time to do this.

This question is for all of you: Is there a single blog post you have written which completely changed your life?

CarlZimmer8 karma

I don't know if a blog post ever changed my life, but certainly my first blog post 10 years ago blew my mind as a journalist. I wanted to write down some thoughts about some brain research, I sat down, I wrote them, and I pressed PUBLISH. And that was that. I thought, "Well, life is never going to be the same."

bryson_huybers4 karma

You all help to bridge the gap between technical scientific research and public awareness. What tips do you have for ''dumbing down'' the science without resorting to metaphor? What do you think could be further done to help improve scientific literacy in the general public?

I follow you all on twitter, and do my best to keep up with the blogosphere. Thank you for doing what you do, and for taking the time to do this AMA!

CarlZimmer9 karma

I agree with what Ed just said. Start with abandoning the notion that you are "dumbing down." That is a doomed strategy. Say, how can I convey what I find so interesting about this to someone I've just met?

natselrox4 karma

This is to all four of you, what do you think of the Brain Activity Map Project? CZ, you were on the panel of that Movshon-Seung debate, would be interesting to hear your views.

CarlZimmer4 karma

I have been talking a LOT with neuroscientists about the Brain Activity Map for something I'm working on, but I need to talk to them more to figure out what it all might mean. It's hysterical to see how it's getting distorted by some folks into THE PLOT TO CONTROL ALL OUR BRAINZZZ. But $3 billion (reportedly) to develop new technology to record and manipulate lots of neurons is definitely a big deal. Some scientists are antsy that it's going to suck up a lot of neuroscience funds, but the advocates of BAM say they don't want that to happen.

eggplantpip4 karma

This isn't really a question but I just wanted to say THANK YOU FOR PARASITE REX. I came across it by accident (as all wonderful books do) and I've been interested in parasites ever since.

CarlZimmer8 karma

Awesome. I love hearing back from people who have had good experiences with my books.

ConnieMac4 karma

As intelligent people with a passion for science, what drew you to science writing instead of a career as a research scientist or academic?

CarlZimmer6 karma

I was an English major in college who loved science. Never considered for a moment doing science. Finally stumbled into a science writing job at Discover, and I've been grateful for my good luck ever since. I still don't want to be a scientist, but I do enjoy hanging out with them and learning from them.

guble3 karma

Hi there. Fellow scientist here (ABD PhD in Natural Resources, Aquatic Ecology). What are your respective positions on climate change? When people say we are going to "fight" it or "stop" it I always cringe a little, because it seems as though the damage is done atmospherically and all we can do now is brace for the damage. What do you think?

CarlZimmer3 karma

We definitely have supercharged the atmosphere and oceans with heat and Co2 that will change life as we know it for a long time. But there is a lot more damage we could do in the next 50 years if we just cower.

guble3 karma

To Carl, specifically, I am a scientist about to finish my PhD and looking to get out of academia and into science communications and the application of research to policy (ie helping scientists to get their work out to the people that need it!). Any career advice? I need a job stat!

CarlZimmer5 karma

Are you writing every day? Science communication is a skill, just as doing science is.

QTKB3 karma

Do you think we will in our lifetime ever see life on other planets?

CarlZimmer8 karma

I suspect there will be some tough Martian microbes lurking under the crust, which some Rover will uncover. It won't be quite, "Greetings, Earthlings," but it will be amazing.

dorothein3 karma

What kind of readers do you have in mind when you blog? Do you write a draft first and then do the research or do you first research everything and then start to write.

CarlZimmer4 karma

I read an interesting paper, then call up the scientists involved, call up outside experts typically, and sometimes even zip off to visit them and seen them in action. I'm drafting and outlining all along the way, but in a very rough way. Then I get serious once all the research is done.

As for readers: anybody I could have a conversation with.

klondon73 karma

If you could change the laws of physics to suit you specifically. What would your number one thing to change in order to help in your career?

CarlZimmer5 karma

Allow me to see viruses and microbes with the naked eye. People walking down the street would be moving pillars of life.

kmanfitz3 karma


CarlZimmer6 karma

Start writing. Write for your school newspaper. Write for the alumni magazine. Just write for yourself. Get better at the craft. Take a science class or two (or three).

Dumma17292 karma

What advice would you give to someone wanting to blog on science?

Especially when one of you has already done a great job writing about what I want to write on?

CarlZimmer5 karma

There's always room for a new angle on things. Don't get scared off.

prancingpapio2 karma

The four of you are summoned into a room and are asked the same question: Cake or pie? GO!

CarlZimmer6 karma

Cake. Pie has always seemed rather primitive fare to me.

An_enthuiast2 karma

Do you think the process of conducting science will change in the future with more crowd-funded projects (e.g. Scifund) and private research institutes (e.g. Craig Venter) especially since the state of academic/governmental science funding seems to be a bit gloomy these days?

CarlZimmer5 karma

Great question. As a journalist, I certainly help to give lots of attention to crowd-funded or private research projects, but I think we are drawn to the oddity. When you compare what these small projects are pulling in compared to government spending, it's quite small. It's a bit like saying, "So, blogging is really big now, so it's okay that the newspapers are collapsing. We can all blog now!"

19bokami782 karma

Climate change is making glaciers a thing of the past. What other ways do you think the planet will look/feel like a different place in 50 years?

CarlZimmer6 karma

I think the trees will be the most striking change for a lot of us. I am surrounded at home by maples. Rising seal level is expected to kill off a bunch of them, and more southerly trees will take their place. Climate-driven pest outbreaks in Colorado are wiping out lots of high-altitude pines. The landscape of our grandkids will be different.

thisllbegonesoon2 karma

Do you guys get to do a lot of travel for your research? Or is most of your work done behind a computer and over the phone (obviously this is aside from the writing)?

CarlZimmer3 karma

I traveled a lot more before I had kids. Now I'm a lot more leery of putting myself in danger. But I do still travel a fair amount--just not so much to places where I met get Ebola.

An_enthuiast2 karma

All of you are well-established science writers now but how interested in science were you in grade school? And why do you think you were or weren't?

CarlZimmer3 karma

I was interested a lot in science, but as a way of understanding nature, not so much to run experiments. I'd come across an old skull in a field behind my house and wonder what species it was, how it had decomposed, etc.

septimus492 karma

Have any of you guys read Lisa Cron's Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence? What do you think? Her focus is on writing fiction, but how much of what she says transfers to science nonfiction?

CarlZimmer4 karma

I'm not familiar with her stuff, but I am very leery of this kind of neuro-self-help stuff. It either states the obvious, or overblows very tentative research.

kayleeebrown1 karma

What advances have been made with the recreation of the baby mammoth?

CarlZimmer2 karma

As ammcurious points out, TEDx will address that tomorrow. I will also link to my own article tomorrow in National Geographic. There are no baby mammoths running around at the moment, but there are a couple promising paths to reviving them.

engti1 karma

how do you think the practice of science has changed the most in the past 50 years? for e.g., do you hear about or look at the work methods of pre-computing era scientists right now and say to yourself, "how quaint!"?

CarlZimmer2 karma

Genome sequencing. Reading how scientists slaved to sequence a few bits of viral DNA in 1960, it's just stunning.

elegantbutter1 karma

Question for Carl Zimmer: What do you think about probiotic supplementation (such as those found in yogurts), and do you think we should be doing more research on their potential benefits.

CarlZimmer5 karma

Just any old bunch of bacteria in your yogurt may not do much of anything in your gut. You might be putting some house cats on the Serengeti, when what you really need are lions. Scientists are starting to pinpoint some of the species that could really do some good, but those insights aren't reaching out to the marketplace yet. And people can stick "Probiotic" on anything without any scientific evidence. So buyer beware.

PatrickMT1 karma

Which part of the brain is the part that makes us the most "human?"

CarlZimmer3 karma

There's no single part, but there are certainly some interesting regions that have a role--especially in the prefrontal cortex, where we do a lot of the heavy lifting for uniquely human stuff like language and getting inside other people's heads.