Question: How did you get started as a science writer, and who were your role models?
Carl Zimmer: I didn’t really have a conscious idea that I wanted to be a science writer when I was young. I loved to write. That’s just what I did, but I would write stories or articles for the local newspaper, things like that. I also loved science, but it was just something I just did and I didn’t actually think about that fact that I might be able to write about science until I ended up with a job at Discover Magazine, a science magazine and I started working there and suddenly realized that I really enjoyed this and I have loved it ever since. I mean very quickly I discovered that I could get on the phone and talk with world experts on all sorts of different subjects and they were amazingly generous with their time and would work with me so that I would understand their ideas and their work and how it tied in with what other people did and so ever since it’s been just a fantastic way for me to learn about the world. In terms of the people who I try to model myself after there are a number of science writers who I really respect and certainly in terms of just writing really good nonfiction. You know there are people who came in the generations before me who you just kind of look to and say yeah, that’s good. For example, like John McPhee. You know there are certain books of McPhee’s where you just pull it off the shelf and open it up and read a paragraph and you remember what good writing is supposed to look like because every now and then I totally forget the whole concept of writing well, but someone like McPhee will remind you of doing it well and McPhee although he writes about a lot of things he is in some ways a science writer. He has written a number of books on geology and other things having to do with science, so people like him really help to keep me going.
Question: You often spotlight readers’ science-related tattoos. What would your own ideal tattoo be?
Carl Zimmer: Let me think about this for a second. I was very surprised to discover that a fair number of scientists have some very interesting tattoos and the way I discovered this was that a friend of mine who is a geneticist was at a pool party with his kids and he was in the pool and I noticed on his shoulder there was this DNA tattoo and I said that’s cool and he said, “Yeah, well you know what is really cool is that I’ve spelled my wife’s initials in the genetic code.” And I thought well yes, that is true geek love, but it got me thinking you know I’ve seen a couple of other scientists with tattoos and I just I wonder like you know do other scientists have it, so the nice thing about having a blog is that you can just ask questions out loud, even kind of silly questions like do people have tattoos and I was particularly interested in scientists who love what they study so much that they actually engrave themselves with it and I have lost count of how many tattoos I have been sent, maybe like 300 or something like that and a lot of times they really tell amazing stories. So for example, there is a neurologist who sent me a tattoo she has of a special kind of neuron. It’s a neuron that is vulnerable in Lou Gehrig’s disease, which her father suffered from and actually her father suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease was what made her a neurologist and so this is not just some random tattoo. This is actually speaking to this deep passion that drives her science. And I like showing these on my blog because I want people to understand that scientists are very passionate people. I mean after all if you think about it I mean they dedicate their lives to studying things like neurons or tapeworms or chemicals and they are very often not getting very much money for it at all, so it’s interesting to get into their minds and one of the ways to get into their mind is to look at their tattoos. Now I myself have never had a tattoo nor do I ever plan on getting one. If I was going to get one I might imitate one of the tattoos that someone sent in. So Charles Darwin when he was first coming up with his theory of evolution had these notebooks where he would sketch out ideas of his and one day he sketched out a tree and basically this was a way of him saying you know I think that life branches like a tree, I think that species are related to each other by common descent the same way that branches sprout off of a tree and on this notebook page he wrote this tree and above it he wrote, “I think.” He was still working it out and actually there is an evolutionary biologist who has this tattooed on her side and it’s pretty cool. Still I have not yet reached the threshold where I would ink myself.
Recorded on January 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen