Carl Zimmer ’87 is a lecturer at Yale College and teaches Scientific and Environmental Writing. In addition to having written ten books about science, Zimmer has written hundreds of articles on the frontiers of biology for National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, and Popular Science. Zimmer also writes an award-winning blog, the Loom, and is a frequent guest on the radio program This American Life. He currently lives with his wife and two children in Connecticut.
What’s the most difficult piece you’ve ever had to write?
The hardest recent one was a piece for the New York Times about a theory of consciousness based on information theory — the same mathematical framework used to build computers and telephone networks. You can’t use equations in journalism, and so you’re left with metaphors. And metaphors never quite capture the precision of mathematics.
If you could meet one character from a novel, who would it be?
Martin Arrowsmith, from “Arrowsmith” by Sinclair Lewis. He’s the only really human scientist I’ve ever encountered in fiction.
Writing today needs more …
Can I change “more” to “less”? I’d say less cut-and-paste.
How do you like your coffee?
With milk, in large volume.
If you could ask President Obama one question, what would it be?
Will you do anything to put a brake on global warming?
What is your favorite word and why?
Heterochrony. It means “other time,” and it refers to how species sometimes evolve by a change in their developmental timing — adults arrested as children, children growing up quickly. It’s a beautiful mix of two scales of time: the time that measures our individual lives, and the time that measures evolution.
Do you have a Facebook account? Why or why not?
I do have one, and it’s mostly for my professional life. It’s absurd for writers to boycott Facebook. To be a writer, you need to be read. And Facebook is one of the places where people read, or find out about new articles they want to read. So you need to go where the readers are.
If you could go back to college now, what would you do differently?
I would take lots of science classes. When I was at Yale, all the science classes seemed to be at 8 a.m., and Science Hill seemed a thousand miles away from Saybrook College. That’s what happens when you have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex at age 20.
The most embarrassing moment of your career was …
Every time I make an error in print, the embarrassment is fierce.
What is your favorite memory of Yale?
For some strange reason, it’s when Hurricane Gloria hit Yale. It was so memorable to see the campus turned upside down by the forces of nature. Irene was a profound disappointment as a sequel.
Most importantly, why is Yale better than Harvard?