On Monday, Sep. 26, science writer and Morse College fellow Professor Carl Zimmer ’87 gave a Masters’ Tea on “Contagion” — the movie, but also the real thing (turns what happens in the movie is fairly plausible!?) Zimmer, an English major, is the author of ten well-acclaimed books and writes regularly for the New York Times and other publications. He also currently teaches ENGL 459, Scientific and Environmental Writing.
Zimmer devoted most of his talk to describing the spread of real contagions from the last few hundred years, from smallpox to HIV. The talk on toxoplasma and tapeworms had to be continued over dinner at Mory’s, though, where a group of Morsels gathered to share a table with Zimmer. But between Mory’s and Master Keil’s garage, WEEKEND got to ask Zimmer a few questions on science, teaching and even his stance on a cappella.
WEEKEND: What was your favorite class at Yale?
Carl Zimmer: I took a couple writing classes, one from Peter Matthiessen and one from a writer named Vicky Hearne. Those two classes involved great writers and were wonderful experiences. Particularly just meeting someone who made a living as a writer.
WKND: Were you interested in science at all when you were an undergraduate?
CZ: I was definitely interested in science — I love science…
WKND: …I find this particularly interesting because I’ve always been kind of torn between the two sides of my own academic interests.
CZ: Well, I never thought about majoring in science, but I was always very interested in it. I wish I had taken more science classes. They were too early in the morning, they were too far away, too cold in the winter, too rainy. I made bad decisions and I definitely regret that.
WKND: Did you know as an undergraduate that you wanted to be a science writer?
WKND: When did you know?
CZ: Only after I was already working as a science writer. I was a couple years out of college and wanted to have some sort of job in journalism. I applied for a job as a copy-editor at Discover. They let me start writing some short things, and I really enjoyed it, and I sort of dug in my heels. Then I just went from there.
WKND: What’s been the most surprising thing about teaching undergraduates at Yale?
CZ: Sometimes they’re not used to having to find a story, report a story in person and write a story in a set period of time. It’s different from writing an academic paper and it can come as a shock. But a lot of my students learn quickly — that is, they make mistakes and learn quickly, which I think is the most important thing.
WKND: One last question. Did you like the Whiffenpoofs?
CZ: Uh, singing groups have never been my thing.