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Tech Q&A

Carl Zimmer

Describe your latest project.
I've been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be alive. Does life have to follow certain rules to exist? It's a ridiculously vast sort of question, of course, and so to make it more manageable, I decided I should zero in just one living thing. I didn't pick humans, because we're way too mysterious. Scientists have only the roughest idea of how all of our genes — and the other parts of our genome — work together.

Instead, I chose E. coli. Most people know it just as nasty bug that contaminates hamburger and spinach. But it actually lives by the billions in our guts. And about 70 years ago scientists began to run experiments on E. coli to answer some of life's deepest questions, such as what genes are made of. In the process, they established a new science that came to called molecular biology and won a string of Nobel prizes. Scientists use E. coli today to ask even deeper questions about life, like how genes work together to keep organisms alive. And the whole biotechnology industry was built on engineered E. coli. It is being transformed into entirely new kinds of life today. It's also incredibly cool. It can sense heat, oxygen, sugar, and use propellor-like tails to navigate towards food and away from danger. It's got a tiny microbial brain.

So it's the perfect creature to serve as my muse. I got a Petri dish of E. coli from some microbiologists and set it next to my computer as I worked on my book, Microcosm: E.Coli and the New Science of Life.


What inspires you to sit down and write?
I write a lot of articles about new scientific advances for the New York Times and various magazines. To write a book, I have to find a subject that can sustain me far beyond what I could write in a short story. I know I've hit a good subject when I start trying to dig down to the bottom, and discover that the bottom has fallen out. That feeling inspires me to sit down and write each day. The problem then becomes knowing when to stop.

What's your favorite Blog right now?
I've been wondering a lot about where newspapers and magazines and books are going over the next ten or twenty years. It's partly a simple matter of professional survival, and partly a matter of curiosity. I can't tell yet if the way we read will be radically different in 2020, or pretty much the same. Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine has been throwing a lot of Molotov cocktails around, and I've been enjoying watching them burn.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
I had a very intense Sherlock Holmes phase — I'd rummage through old book shops with a friend trying to find first editions of The Hound of the Baskervilles and the rest.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I think synthetic biology — the radical rewiring of cells — could have major effects for the good. It might lead to ecologically sound sources of fuel. Or malaria medicine that you can brew in a flask of sugar water. E. coli is at the heart of current synthetic biology research, so I learned a lot about it while working on Microcosm. It's profoundly exciting, especially when you see how high school kids can now engineer E. coli to do new things.

But I'm also worried that we'll try to use synthetic biology to solve problems that they could never fix. Synthetic biology is the intellectual child of genetic engineering — simply inserting a gene or two in a microbe to produce a valuable protein. In the 1970s, when people were scared and wary about genetic engineering, its boosters liked to point out how it would lead to a new source of insulin for diabetics, because E. coli could be given the human insulin gene. That's exactly what happened, and by 1980 the bacteria were churning out insulin on an industrial scale. Today millions of diabetics inject themselves with human insulin made by bacteria. But today diabetes is a far bigger epidemic than it was thirty years ago. Genetic engineering treats the symptoms, but doesn't get at the cause of the disease.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
I suppose I'd like to live a day in the life of James Joyce while he was writing Finnegan's Wake. Maybe when I came back to my own life, I'd be able to get through the book.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
That's easy: perfect speech recognition on voices it has not been trained on. It would be the completion of the reporter's dream. First we were able to throw out our mini-cassettes and use digital recording. Now I want my computer to do all my transcribing. But the march of progress needs to stop there. I don't want my computer to start writing my books, or I'll be out of a job.

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
There are many museums I love, but the one that really sticks with me is the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. It was founded in 1858 as a place where doctors could study anatomy and medical anomalies. For a few decades it swelled with all sorts of shocking material, from conjoined twins to the cadaver of a woman whose body was naturally transformed into soap. Doctors don't need the Mutter Museum anymore, but it's still open, and it's an amazing experience. So many feelings go through me when I visit. There's a faint horror at the regular practice of grave-robbing in the 1800s. There's a queasy sense of voyeurism when you're looking at the skeleton of a man who died because his bones wouldn't stop growing. But the Mutter Museum also conveys the strange mystery of the human body, and life in general — how it can take so many forms, how it follows a certain kind of order even when it is drastically mutated or damaged. We all share a lot with the people on display, like it or not.

÷ ÷ ÷

Carl Zimmer writes about science for The New York Times, and his work also appears in National Geographic, Scientific American, and Discover, where he is a contributing editor. He won a 2007 National Academies Communication Award, the highest honor for science writing. He is the author of five previous books, including Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea and Parasite Rex, for which he has earned fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Zimmer also writes an award-winning blog, The Loom. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children.

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