Never forget that humility is the mark of greatness
Welcome to The Short Read, our weekly peek behind the curtain at the people who make this amazing community tick. Make sure to check back every Tuesday for the latest installment.

Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer

Writer Carl Zimmer has a gift for getting to the heart of the big issues of science, and for communicating with both scientists and non-scientists alike. 

Over the course of his career, he has written hundreds of articles for the New York Times and magazines including National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He is also frequent on radio programs such as Radiolab and This American Life. And, like no other, he has had a tapeworm named after him!

What are you working on right now?

I’m reading through the proofread galleys of my next book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh. It’s about the past and future of heredity. I looked back at both the scientific and cultural history of the concept from the ancient Greeks to today. While genes are a big part of the story, there’s a lot more to heredity, I found. That’s one reason why we end up ascribing more to our genes than they are responsible for. I also look forward, trying to gauge what our growing understanding of biology will allow us to do to heredity–and why we may or may not want to tamper with it. It comes out in May.

What would you say are most contentious issues in genomics today?

One major point of contention is what genomes are good for. Obviously, they allow scientists to discover remarkable new insights about biology. But it’s not yet clear how much doctors can glean from them–or how much healthy people can learn about themselves by getting their genomes sequenced.

How do you think they will progress over the next 18 months?

I expect there will be a lot of new companies popping up, promising to tell us all sorts of profound things based on our DNA. Unfortunately, in the next 18 months, I don’t expect that our collective understanding about DNA–or, rather, crucial facts about genetic risks of diseases, about pleiotropy, about meiosis–will improve much.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Filling up a shelf with books I’ve written. There’s something about paper and hard covers that conveys a sense of permanence.

Which scientists, living, dead, or fictional, would you invite to dinner, and why?

Charles Darwin, naturally. But perhaps also Hermann Muller, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on mutation. I learned a lot about him while writing She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, and his life was quite astonishing. He battled American eugenicists before decamping to Germany, only to see Nazis rise to power. He fled the Nazis, ending up in the Soviet Union, where he fought Trofim Lysenko over the reality of genes, and had to escape again to avoid ending up in Stalin’s jails. And as if that wasn’t enough, he then went on after World War II to campaign for underground warehouses full of human eggs and sperm to save our species from a mutational meltdown. I bet Darwin would be scandalized by his intellectual grandchild’s stories.

What advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?

Don’t try to make ships in a bottle. Once you’ve learned about someone’s life, or some dramatic event, you want to share everything you known about it. But that just leaves you with a torrent of data. If you try to fit it all into the confines of an article you may ended up miniaturizing every part–like the pieces of a ship assembled in a bottle. It’s better to step back and choose bits of what you’ve learned to tell a good story.

 

Opinions and views expressed in The Short Read are the interviewee’s and not those of the home institution


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Who would you like to see interviewed for The Short Read? Let us know via contact@frontlinegenomics.com