Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Interview with Carl Zimmer

by Jamie Hale

The following interview was conducted with Carl Zimmer science writer, Yale University Lecturer and author of The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. E.O Wilson says " The Tangled Bank is the best written and best illustrated introduction to evolution of the Darwin centennial decade, and also the most conversant with ongoing research. It is excellent for students, the general public, and even other biologists.”

I have completed about 1/2 of your book Soul Made Flesh and I must compliment you on your writing style. Great job. What influenced you to write the book?

CZ: I like to write books about subjects I want to get more familiar with. In this case, I thought I wanted to learn more about the brain. But I didn't want to write yet another book about new developments in neuroscience. It's not that there aren't some great books on that particular subject, but there are so many that I didn't want to get lost in the crowd. It occurred to me that there hasn't been much written about the history of neuroscience. While there is a growing body of scholarship, few authors have written about that research for the public. So I started to nose around and discovered a period of history, in the mid-1600s, that was just incredible in its revolutionary discoveries and also in its political and religious turbulence. This was when the science of neurology was launched, when people came to recognize the brain as we see it today, as the center of our existence. Once I realized this, I knew I had to write the book.

How many books have you written? Do you have a favorite? Which one was the hardest to write?

CZ: I've written seven books now. I suppose my favorite is my first, At the Water's Edge, simply because it gave me the first experience of seeing my name on a book. That's a marvelous feeling.

Commenting on your soon to be released book (The Tangled Bank: An Introduction To Evolution) E.O Wilson says " The Tangled Bank is the best written and best illustrated introduction to evolution of the Darwin centennial decade, and also the most conversant with ongoing research. It is excellent for students, the general public, and even other biologists.” What do you think makes the book so great?

CZ: You'd have to ask Wilson or the other scientists who gave such wonderful endorsements why they like it so much. All I'd say is that it was a huge amount of fun to write, because there are so many fantastic lines of research in evolution these days to choose from. Making the experience even better was the opportunity to work with illustrators and photo editors to make the book as handsome as possible, and to use pictures to explain the science in ways words can't.

Do you think there will come a time in America where the majority of the population will believe in evolution?

CZ: I'm fairly optimistic, in the long term. For now I don't expect tremendous changes, though.

If Darwin were alive today and he were to modify his theory of evolution what would he change?

CZ: I think Darwin would be fascinated by the genome. Genomes are shaped by evolution in all sorts of complex ways. There are even virus-like stretches of DNA that make copies of themselves over time and gradually swamp their host genome. Most of our DNA comes from these genomic parasites. There's also plenty of evidence now that genes have moved many times from one species to another. So genomes are not just sculpted by mutations, drift, and selection from one generation to the next. They're also mosaics, made up of bits of genetic material from many different sources.

What does a typical day in the life of Carl Zimmer look like?

CZ: Breakfast with the family, then trundling off to my home office, where I interview, research, and write till dinner. I punctuate that sedentary work with the occasional trip to visit a scientist in his or her medium--a lab, a bog, a hospital, or wherever they may do their work.

Do you have a favorite writer? Favorite book?

CZ: I do love Melville--both the novels and the stories. The Loom's name is from one of my favorite passages from Moby Dick, where Melville describes how Pip, a cabin boy, was altered by a plunge into the sea:

"...among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters, heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad."

About the Author

Carl Zimmer bio http://carlzimmer.com/bio.html

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