Carl Zimmer is a science writer, lecturer, and frequent guest on such radio programs as Fresh Air and This American Life. His books include "Soul Made Flesh," "Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea," and "Parasite Rex." In addition to writing books, Zimmer contributes articles to The New York Times, as well as magazines including National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He also writes an award-winning blog, The Loom. From 1994 to 1998 Zimmer was a senior editor at Discover, where he remains a contributing editor and writes a monthly column about the brain.
Zimmer is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about science and the environment. He is also the first Visiting Scholar at the Science, Health, and Environment Reporting Program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Zimmer is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: As a non-scientist, were you honored to have a species named after you?
Carl Zimmer: About a year ago I got this really interesting message from someone, an email from a graduate student and she told me about reading a book of mine, Parasite Rex and my book is all about how fascinating parasites are, how important they are and just how intriguing they are and at the time she was trying to figure out what she was going to do and in a sense she said I had given her permission to be fascinated by parasites. She had always been intrigued by them, but now it seemed okay and so actually she is now a parasitologist and to express her gratitude she said she wanted to name a parasite after me, which I thought was fantastic. The parasite is called Canthorbian [ph] zimmeri. I’m sorry, Ancanthobothirum zimmeri. It’s a lot of Latin there. In any case it’s a tapeworm and it’s not just any tapeworm. It’s a tapeworm that only lives in one species of stingray that lives off the coast of Australia. It’s a tiny little thing, maybe about that big. You know some tapeworms like the ones that get inside of us they get to be forty feet long, horrendously long. These are very tiny ones, but to me it’s still special because it’s mine. What was funny though was that after I had sort of gotten over the initial rush of having a species named after me I started to think about it and I realized, well, maybe it’s not that special.
I was at this meeting of parasitologists including Carrie Fyler, who named the species after me, and I was talking to her and another parasitologist who studies tapeworms, and she was talking about how she was going to name this species after me, and the parasitologist looked at me and said, “Yeah, I could see how you’d name an Ancanthobothirum species after him.” “He is kind of tall and pretty slim.” And I said, “What do you mean?” Well he said, “There is another genus that is very round and kind of fat and, you know, so I named…” I think he said that he named it after her aunt or something like that because it’s just matched her body shape, and I thought huh, that’s interesting. And then they started like talking about all the different people that they’ve named a species after and you realize they’re naming them after relatives and friends, people who live down the block. The problem is that there are just so many species, so these scientists who study these tapeworms have thousands and thousands of species left to name. They need thousands of names. Obviously this is just a microcosm of the whole problem that scientists have in naming species. We actually only really know a tiny fraction of all the species on earth. We probably know just about all the mammal species, but beyond that we’re still pretty sketchy and actually some scientists have estimated that maybe we only know perhaps between ten and twenty percent of all the species on earth. Actually that estimate is a really ridiculous lowball I think because they’re not taking into account bacteria and other microbes. It’s becoming very clear that there is a colossal diversity of microbes out there that we haven’t even started to catalog. I saw one estimate, one microbiologist told me that he thinks that there are a 150 million species of bacteria and there have just been a few thousand of those species named. So you know it’s still great to have a species named after me, but you know I think that … I think a lot of people on earth could have species named after them once… when scientists are done with the full catalog if they ever get there.
Recorded on January 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen