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AuthorI am Carl Zimmer, science writer. AMA!

Jun 27th 2017 by Carl_Zimmer • 16 Questions • 4885 Points

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!

Q:

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

A:

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.


Q:

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

A:

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.


Q:

What's your favorite way to combat writer's block?

A:

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!


Q:

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

A:

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.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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?

A:

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


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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?)

A:

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.


Q:

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

A:

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.


Q:

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

A:

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


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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

A:

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!


Q:

What does Jad Abumrad smell like?

A:

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


Q:

What came first, the chicken or the egg ?

A:

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