I am a science columnist for The New York Times and author of 13 books about science, including Parasite Rex, Evolution: Making Sense of Life, and the forthcoming She Has Her Mother’s Laugh. (http://carlzimmer.com ) I’ve written for National Geographic, Wired,and The Atlantic and was a senior editor at Discover. I appear regularly on “Radiolab,” is an adjunct professor in Yale’s Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry, and have earned awards from the National Academies of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, and the Society for the Study of Evolution. I’m speaking at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival about genomes, Neanderthals, viruses inside of us, and the future of making babies, . Comment your questions below! Proof: https://i.redd.it/dkh0ft6iw16z.jpg

EDIT: Thanks everyone for your questions! I am going to close out this conversation, but look forward to doing another AMA soon. FYI, here's a blog post I just wrote for the Aspen Ideas Festival about the genetics revolution we're living through. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/understanding-genetics-revolution/ Also, I'm giving a few different talks at the Aspen Ideas Festivalm and you will be able to find video and audio for them soon, at this link: https://www.aspenideas.org/speaker/carl-zimmer

EDIT: Whoa--a bunch of new questions showed up. I have some free time again, so I'll try to respond to some of them. Thanks!

EDIT: Got to go!

Comments: 282 • Responses: 43  • Date: 

TuckRaker200 karma

What books would you recommend to an almost 40 year old who enjoys science/learning but isn't very smart? Asking for a friend.

Carl_Zimmer331 karma

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is something of a miracle of a book about science--incredibly accessible but also sweeping in scope.

MustKnow-WillKnow165 karma

What would be your advice for PhD students that want to break into science writing / science journalism?

Carl_Zimmer227 karma

I'll give a few thoughts here, but for a longer reply, see this: http://carlzimmer.com/writers.html

  1. Start writing, rather than talking about becoming a "writer." Write for yourself at first if you have to. You need to become better. (We all do.)

  2. Wean yourself from jargon that you've learned in grad school. Find plain English alternatives.

  3. Decide if you want to be a full-time writer, or make it part of being a scientist. These are very different routes.

  4. If you want to stay a scientist, figure out if you are going to be rewarded by your scientific community for writing, or if you'll suffer the "Carl Sagan effect."

  5. When you feel ready to write for outlets, pitch them! Don't wait for someone to give you permission. In the end, it's all on you.

green49285100 karma

What would you say is the greatest threat to the teaching of science here in the US, and how do we combat this?

Carl_Zimmer179 karma

There is plenty to be worried about. There are plenty of political actions that weaken science education. Florida, for example, just made biology classes friendlier to creationism. (Details here: http://www.flascience.org/wp/?p=2793 ) But I'm worried more about systematic problems--the winner-take-all approach to science, as manifested in science fairs (My own experiences were the subject of this piece I wrote last year: https://www.statnews.com/2016/04/13/science-fairs-white-house/ ) I think our society would be much better off if high school students graduated with a sound understanding of statistics, for example--not just the kids who go out of their way to take statistics.

akamath50 karma

Are you related to Hans? You must get that a lot but I just wanted to know

Carl_Zimmer38 karma

No relation, I'm afraid.

ngc4431249 karma

It increasingly seems that science has to be "clickable" to be funded. How can we fix this?

Carl_Zimmer71 karma

One approach I try to take is to report on basic science, to show how this kind of research isn't some odd diversion but a profoundly significant undertaking--both in the way it expands our understanding of the natural world and the insights that can lead to new kinds of technology, medicine, and other applications. We science reporters should resist flashiness, and try to understand how science is advancing in important ways that are going to endure.

pipsdontsqueak36 karma

Hi Carl,

As someone accustomed to explaining science to laypeople, how do you think lawyers could do the same for a judge and jury? So many cases hinge on scientific evidence, especially debunking bad science. How can my profession learn from yours in terms of making good science and complicated nuances easy to understand?

Carl_Zimmer33 karma

I have always wondered how lawyers handle science in the courtroom. The statistics behind DNA identification, for example, can be really confusing--and it's easy to exploit that confusion to raise doubts. In science writing, it's always important to value concepts over jargon. Minimizing jargon in the courtroom might help--although legal demands might make that harder than in a newspaper article.

pipsdontsqueak9 karma

I can say firsthand that it's not easy. Part of the problem is we attorneys aren't the ones testifying. Is there a way you've found to ask scientists questions such that they deliver answers that are more readily understood without expertise? I know Radiolab has talked about the challenges of getting scientists to stay away from jargon. Do you have any specific techniques you use when interviewing to make sure that things don't get too technical?

Carl_Zimmer21 karma

There are actually programs to get scientists to speak more accessibly, adopting techniques from improv theater! See, for example: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/science/attention-all-scientists-do-improv-with-alan-aldas-help.html

ionicneon23 karma

What's your favorite way to combat writer's block? Edit: Thanks!

Carl_Zimmer112 karma

Glancing at the contract for the story I'm working on and thinking about how I won't get paid if I don't turn in something!

notTHATwriter21 karma

You do a lot of work with Radio Lab. What's it like working with Jad and Robert?

Carl_Zimmer18 karma

It's a great pleasure. Every now and then the path of their work and mine cross, and I end up in their studio to talk about the stuff I've been learning. We just talk for a long time, tell a few jokes, and then I go home. Then the Radiolab team gets to work, and sprinkles pieces of our conversation with all the other sound they've gathered.

Nano_Burger15 karma

What is your opinion on science based policy and the approach the current administration has taken science policy?

Carl_Zimmer36 karma

The administration, in some areas, seems to not have any approach at all. They are not hiring scientists to top policy positions. That won't end well. See, for example: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/30/us/politics/science-technology-white-house-trump.html?_r=3

pedrulo12314 karma

Hey mr zimmer I'm subscribed to your Friday elks and i love them. My question is why do you think that people don't believe in evolution and is there a better way to teach it in schools?

Carl_Zimmer33 karma

Thanks! (Friday's Elk is my newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/carlzimmer )

About evolution: some people think that if evolution is true (it is!), then all sorts of morally repugnant things must follow. That's not the case, but it's hard to make that clear. Some people find the process of evolution hard to fathom--the idea that complex things can evolve. That's a legitimate question to ask, and evolutionary biologists have answers. Conveying those answers in grade school or high school can be a challenge, though, because evolution taps into so many different branches of biology--genetics, ecology, paleontology, etc. It also doesn't help that a lot of teachers are worried about getting grief for teaching a lot of evolution, so they don't dive deep into as they should. I would encourage teachers to look for the cool case studies, whether it involves feathered dinosaurs evolving into birds, or bacteria evolving into superbugs. The evidence is there in the bones and the DNA, and it's fascinating to boot.

msrether12 karma

Would you rather robotic missions to every icy moon of Saturn and Jupiter, or people on mars before 2035?

Carl_Zimmer32 karma

Robots to Saturn and Jupiter's moons! I think it's more likely life is there, and, if it is, then it's going to be weirder than Martians could ever be.

StrongPayne10 karma

Any advice on rationalizing with an irrational 3 year old?

Carl_Zimmer73 karma

Wait for their prefrontal cortex to kick in.

ksebby9 karma

Your wrote about the challenges of getting access to your genomic data in "Game of Genomes". Do you think getting access to your own genomic data will become easier any time soon?

Carl_Zimmer7 karma

I am optimistic, based on conversations I've had since "Game of Genomes" with people in the genomics field. But it will still take a few years before you can get all your raw data. (Here is the link to the series: https://www.statnews.com/feature/game-of-genomes/season-one/ )

fading_reality9 karma

given the struggles and results of biosphere 2, and ignoring logistics of transporting materials and such. do you think permament/long term mission on mars is possible with current knowledge and technology?

Carl_Zimmer11 karma

Biosphere 2 certainly showed how badly things could go, and sometimes for unexpected reasons. (Concrete was a bad choice! http://biology.kenyon.edu/slonc/bio3/2000projects/carroll_d_walker_e/whatwentwrong.html ) But technology has advanced so much since the 1990s that I'd be guardedly optimistic that a human settlement on Mars would escape such troubles. I'm just skeptical that we'll marshall the collective will and money to launch such a mission.

timobriggs8 karma

I'm a photographer with a background in science looking to tell more science stories, especially about the ocean and conservation. I'd really like to work with writers closely on their articles to tell a cohesive story. Do you have any advice for getting in touch with writers and developing stories?

Carl_Zimmer11 karma

You might simply want to "cold call" them (or is it cold email now?) If there's a writer who's doing stuff you like, get in touch. It's not easy for writers and photographers to collaborate, because it's an expensive proposition. But there are great things that come out of such partnerships, like this piece on fisheries in Mexico: http://www.vqronline.org/reporting-articles/2015/04/ocean-apart

clayt68 karma

How did you approach cold-calling sources for interviews before you had a powerful, "I'm a science journalist working for Company X" intro line?

Carl_Zimmer10 karma

It's inevitably awkward when you're starting out, don't have a reputation yet, and don't have a big publication at your back. But what's the worst that will happen? Some people won't reply to your email. But at least a few will. That's especially true in science writing--scientists love to talk and spread the news of their work. So brace yourself for some rejection, and look forward to a few good conversations!

NotoriousMOT8 karma

Hi Carl. I love your books. I recommend Parasite Rex to every fellow sci-fi/fantasy writer I talk to. It's inspired some of my work as well. Have you thought about writing fiction? Also, what is the strangest scientific topic you want to write about? PS. Did I mention I love Parasite Rex?

Carl_Zimmer8 karma

Thanks! I'm fond of that book too. I tried out some fiction in my youth, but I didn't feel like I had enough in me to keep it up over the long haul. But science writing is like a fountain that never stops flowing. There's so much that's weird in science--here at Aspen, I talked a lot about the viruses that inhabit our genome and which we've domesticated for pregnancy, development as embryos, and even immunity against viruses. I still can't get over that.

fortkn0x65 karma

There are certain points in life where we feel uninterested about what we're doing or studying right now. How do you get over these periods of loss of inspiration ?

Carl_Zimmer7 karma

My job description as a columnist means that I get to move from one study to another. So that helps me escape the loss of inspiration. For books, it's different: I dig deep into something for a couple years. Psychological breaks are crucial--taking a long hike, binge-watching, etc.

scientistkev5 karma

What was your favorite piece or book to write? How did you prepare for it? And what was the process you engaged in to do the deep work possible to make the piece/book?

Carl_Zimmer5 karma

I had a great time working on my new book, on heredity. I just finished it after a couple years of effort, and it will be out next spring. I visited a number of places that are important to the history of heredity, and I also went to labs to talk to scientists who are changing how we think about heredity. I also had to read a ton of papers along with a bunch of books to find the right pieces to fit together into what (I hope) is a compelling story.

grapp5 karma

suppose you froze to death somewhere and were revived in 1.3 million years, humanity have not visited much of the galaxy but we have filled this solar system and some others with small ring worlds to deal with living space. would you be satisfied with that future?

Carl_Zimmer11 karma

If we're not extinct and if we have a decent standard of living as a species, I'll be satisfied. Everything else will be a bonus.

accountno5432104 karma

Can you please share your thoughts on how we can use story-telling to engage the layperson about big science issues like climate change and vaccination? Can an engaging story be created that parallels the inoculation effect of immunization with the protective effects of climate change (if we all do our part?). Thank you for indulging us with your thoughts and words.

Carl_Zimmer9 karma

I think story-telling can be very effective. The trick is to respect your audience, rather than condescending to them, and to make sure that anecdotes don't trump data. It's also crucial to find individuals to make the characters in your stories. Stories are about people, in the end.

tm16scud4 karma

I'm teaching a research methods course to a group of high school AP students this coming fall in which they will design and defend their own original research. Any advice (either for me or the students?)

Carl_Zimmer11 karma

Make sure their methods and research aren't so overwhelming that they can't actually reflect on what they've done and explain it clearly. This is their first step--they don't have to pretend to be full-blown scientists.

zefmiller3 karma

I want to be a science writer, where do I start?

Carl_Zimmer3 karma

It's a big question. Let me point you to the page I mentioned earlier: http://carlzimmer.com/writers.html

RamaLama7873 karma

What steps should I take to put myself in the same career position as you?

Carl_Zimmer8 karma

Err...travel back to the early 1990s, before magazines had web sites? Here's my own story: http://carlzimmer.com/writers.html But you need to find your own way, and the routes in 2017 are different than in 1997!

forava73 karma

what are some future projects you are targeting and would like to work on?

Carl_Zimmer4 karma

Having just finished my next book, on heredity, I'm taking some time to relax and regroup. But podcasting is certainly intriguing me more and more.

TheAetherkings3 karma


Carl_Zimmer1 karma


CajunPotatoMan3 karma

Hey there! Could you tell me what you think about science in movies? What are the most and least accurate ones you can think of?

Carl_Zimmer9 karma

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a great movie about science, but the science is pretty goofy if you take it literally. On the other hand, Contagion is scarily realistic.

KidCopper2 karma

Carl, I am a big fan. I work for a major journal and am in the beginning stages of a science writing career and am looking to hear your opinion on the embargo system. I think I've see yor write elsewhere that we would get better stories without it. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

Carl_Zimmer3 karma

I find the embargo system distasteful. The only reason for it to exist, it seems to me, is as a way for journals to maximize the media's attention on them by timing all their coverage into one big bang. It has nothing to do with the scientific process. We journalists have to agree to play this game to get access to papers and to get scientists to talk to us. I just want to write about science, and don't want waste a lot of my time on such games.

uptweet2 karma

How many first graders do you think you could take in a fight if they came at you in waves of 5 with a fifth grader boss every 10 waves?

Carl_Zimmer7 karma

I'd probably surrender after the second wave.

zenatintin2 karma

Hi Carl! In all honesty, I'm only familiar with your work through Radiolab. How did you come to start working with them?

Carl_Zimmer5 karma

Robert Krulwich introduced himself to me long before Radiolab when he read a story I wrote about why leaves change colors in the fall. He wanted to do a piece about it for ABC-TV news, and so he drove up to where I live and we went out into the woods with a camera. His curiosity was irresistible. A couple years later he got in touch about some other stuff I had written, for a radio show he was involved in. And we were off to the races!

samuel_leumas2 karma

This might sound stupid but: What do you legitly think human's next evolution in a hundred years will be? And why?

Carl_Zimmer9 karma

If you meant genetic evolution--a change in the frequencies of genetic variants--I think there will be some subtle changes in people's height, blood pressure, weight, etc. It's happening now, and will continue to do so. Here's one example of the research documenting ongoing evolution: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868361/ I know that this isn't as fun as our evolving wings or giant brains, but evolution doesn't run like a movie.

gunterglobs2 karma

What does Jad Abumrad smell like?

Carl_Zimmer5 karma

A mix of petunias and iguanas. At least that what I've been told.

Bored_Aviator2 karma

What came first, the chicken or the egg ?

Carl_Zimmer6 karma

I'm team egg. Dinosaur eggs, to be specific.

drchopsalot2 karma

Do you like pineapple on pizza or no?

Carl_Zimmer4 karma

That's just wrong.

pikalaxalt1 karma

What are the challenges of explaining science to the scientifically-illiterate population?

Carl_Zimmer5 karma

You have to intuit what people do and don't know before reading your article. That intuition will determine the scope of your audience. For the articles I write for the New York Times, I don't have to define the sun. But do have to explain the fusion that takes place inside the sun.

madammalkins1 karma

Hi Carl, I'm sure this is a question you get asked a lot. I love reading your articles and admire how effectively you're able to communicate science to the general public. What is one tip that you could give on writing popular science articles? Cheers!

yaykabooom1 karma

Have you ever been to a point where you have to resort in writing clickbait, pseudoscience articles?

Carl_Zimmer9 karma

I've never written pseudoscience articles. That's a bad choice, even in desperate moments, because it's a blot on your reputation that the Internet will never forget. (Clickbait is more complicated--I certainly like to craft articles that are going to draw readers like moths to a flame.)

FanOfGoodMovies1 karma

Is there an average number of sources you must read or an amount of time you must take to understand a topic well enough to explain it?

Carl_Zimmer3 karma

That's hard to say, because research on one story can build on the research I've done on earlier stories in the same area.

jimmyforhero1 karma

Where do babies come from?

Carl_Zimmer5 karma

Storks. Or gametes.

ThePursuit71 karma

What is your view on using CRISPR to edit the human germ line? Do you have any reservations on CRISPR research that involves human embryos?

Carl_Zimmer6 karma

It depends on precisely what you're talking about. There is already a lot of research on early human embryos, which only get to develop for a few days. CRISPR is a vital tool for understanding more about how this stage of development unfolds. And we'll learn a lot about fertility and other important medical issues in the process. CRISPR is a powerful tool in this regard, because scientists can precisely shut down or ramp up genes and observe the differences that come about.

Editing the germ line might include embryos that were implanted and grew up into people who carried modifications to their genes in all their cells. That's very different, and it's a big step that we can't make without a lot of discussion and research.

luigiguarino1 karma

What do you think is the better way to make the case for biodiversity conservation: describe the bad things that will happen if it isn't done, or the good things that will happen if it is?

Carl_Zimmer3 karma

As a reporter, I don't make cases. When I'm reporting on biodiversity, I sometimes write about the bad outcomes of species extinctions, and sometimes I discuss the positive side--such as the estimated value of ecosystem services. (i.e., https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/05/science/earth/putting-a-price-tag-on-natures-defenses.html ) On the other hand, there is a lot of psychology research that explores how framing influences how people take in science news and form opinions about the issues involved. Negativity can be very appealing as a frame, but positivity turns out to be very powerful.

Mr-Zero-Fucks-1 karma

You have the best name ever, it reminds me of Carl Sagan and Hans Zimmer. Does that helps in getting attention to your work?

Carl_Zimmer2 karma

I hadn't thought of it that way--until this AMA, when suddenly a lot of people are wondering if I'm related to Hans Zimmer. I just associated my name with "Zimmer frames" before...