Working more science fiction into his diet

Working more science fiction into his diet
26 Jul

Carl Zimmer is an award-winning science writer, a columnist for The New York Times, a fellow at Yale University, and the author of 13 books. He also has a species of tapeworm named for him, Acanthobothrium zimmeri. In his most recent book, “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity,” Zimmer examines his own genome and explores the newest ideas about where all our genes actually come from. 

BOOKS: What are you reading?

ZIMMER: I started “Parable of the Sower ” by Octavia E. Butler. People have been talking about how this book is particularly resonant for 2018, so I thought it was high time to check it out. I’m trying to work more science fiction into my diet. The nice thing about finishing my own book is that suddenly I have crazy amounts of free time. I feel this incredible freedom to grab a whole bunch of books. 


BOOKS: What have you grabbed?

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ZIMMER: I started “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith, which I’ve been enjoying. There’s a book about science but in a cool way, “The Book of Why” by Judea Pearl. He’s a computer scientist and a philosopher who studies cause and effect. On one hand it’s a very abstract, philosophical book, but on the other hand it’s very practical. Another is “Killers of the Flower Moon
.” I’m a big David Grann fan. Not only is it an incredible page turner, but in terms of craft it’s amazing. 

BOOKS: When you were starting out as a science writer did you turn to any books or authors for inspiration?

ZIMMER: I think what was pivotal for me was reading books about science that were beautiful pieces of writing, books by John McPhee, Jonathan Weiner, and David Quammen. Quammen’s latest is called “The Tangled Tree,” which is about how studies on genes are changing how we think life evolved. I really enjoyed that.

BOOKS: What did you read for this book that you would recommend?


ZIMMER: The Logic of Life” by the French biologist François Jacob. He was a Nobel Prize winner who was instrumental in figuring out what genes are and how they worked. He’s trying to think through what an understanding of genes tells us about hereditary. Even though he had a lot less information than we do today, I found his book incredibly insightful. Another is “The Lagoon” by the biologist Armand Marie Leroi. It’s basically a biography of Aristotle, who is considered the founder of Western biology. He tries to get inside of Aristotle’s head by traveling through Greece and through Aristotle’s writing. The other book that stood out is “Stamped From the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s a really good overview of what we know about how the concept of race emerged, even in the Middle Ages, and how early scientific thinking gave it a scientific gloss.

BOOKS: Do you read about any topics other than science?

ZIMMER: I sometimes read history and politics, but science, medicine, and environmental issues take up an awful lot of my reading time. I remember when I was still a young journalist and Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” came out in 1988. Everyone was surprised that there could be so much interest in something that was pure science. Since then it’s been great to see this whole field of books mature. 

BOOKS: Is there a science book you wish more people read?

ZIMMER:Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA” by Brenda Maddox. The story of the discovery of the structure of DNA has been told over and over again from James Watson’s perspective. Rosalind Franklin’s story is also important, and Maddox tells it wonderfully well. 


BOOKS: Is there a book you feel guilty about not reading?

‘It’s been great to see this . . . field of [science]books mature.’

ZIMMER: I’m at that stage of life where I know I’m not going to be reading all the books I probably should. My wife is a much better reader than I am, and she grinds though all sorts of great novels. Right now she’s working her way through Proust. I can’t compete. 

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