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Carl Zimmer

New York Times columnist and award-winning science journalist

  • About Carl Zimmer

    Carl Zimmer is, in the words of The New York Times Book Review, “as fine a science essayist as we have.” He won the National Academies Communication Award and is a three-time winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award. In addition, he was awarded the Stephen Jay Gould Prize, and the National Association of Biology Teachers gave him their Distinguished Service Award. Zimmer is a columnist for The New York Times and writes regularly for magazines such as National Geographic and Wired. He is also the author of thirteen widely praised books.

    Zimmer has spoken at Aspen Ideas Festival and other major venues. He has given lectures at many of the country’s leading universities, medical schools, and museums, and regularly gives keynote lectures at scientific conferences. Zimmer has enthralled audiences with insightful, engrossing talks on topics ranging from the cutting edge of medicine, to the history of the scientific revolution, to the wonderful creepiness of parasites. In addition to his public speaking, Zimmer is a frequent guest on NPR’s Radiolab and other radio programs and podcasts.

    His books include Evolution: The Triumph of an IdeaSoul Made Flesh (named one of the top 100 books of the year by The New York Times Book Review), At the Water’s Edge, and Parasite Rex. His 2008 book, Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Zimmer is also the author of a groundbreaking textbook about evolution, The Tangled Bank.

    From 1994 to 1998 Carl Zimmer was a senior editor at Discover before turning to writing full-time. His work has appeared in The Best American Science series as well as The Best American Science and Nature Writing series. Along with the National Academies of Science prize, he has won fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He is a professor adjunct in the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University, where he teaches science writing.

  • Speaking Topics

    Finding Lost Ancestors and Your Inner Neanderthal

    Companies like 23andMe and are introducing millions of people to the history inscribed in their DNA. Over hundreds of generations, our ancestors accumulated mutations that can reveal astonishing secrets, from unknown cousins to ancestral homeland to interbreeding with Neanderthals and other extinct kinds of humans. The science of molecular ancestry is now showing scientists how our ancestors evolved the features that made us uniquely human. But as we encounter these astonishing insights, we must also be aware of the limits of this research, and not try to use it to justify long-refuted myths about ethnicity and ancestry.

    Can Your Genome Save Your Life?

    In 2001, scientists finished sequencing the first human genome. It took them ten years and three billion dollars. Now you can get your genome sequenced for a few thousand dollars in a matter of days. In the next few years, doctors will be able to scan the genomes of their patients as easily as they take a blood pressure reading. The potential to change medicine is vast—from personalized drug cocktails for cancer to discovering the causes of previously mysterious diseases. But as we enter the age of personalized medicine, it’s essential that everyone understand what the genome can and cannot reveal to us about our health.

    A Journey to the Center of the Brain

    Our brains are the foundation for who were are—they store our memories, give rise to our emotions, and enable us to look to the future. But our brains remain terra incognita, an inner continent that remains barely explored. Only now are scientists beginning to map the brain in its full complexity, mapping some of its 80 billion neurons and their trillions of connections with each other. The results, while early, are mind-blowing to contemplate. Already, brain-mapping has improved people’s lives, enabling scientists to implant electrodes in the brain to help people with Parkinson’s regain their ability to walk, and also to give paralyzed people the power to control computers. In the future, mapping the brain may point to better ways to treat disorders such as autism, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. And, ultimately, we will gain an inner map of human nature itself.

    You Are Thousands of Species

    We think of ourselves as individual human beings, but our identity is actually intermingled with a menagerie of microbes that live in us and on us. Our microbiome contains about five times more cells than our own body, and a thousand times more genes. While we have known for centuries that microbes live in our bodies, only in the past few years have scientists been able to survey their diversity and to begin to figure out what these microbes are doing. It turns out they are essential for our health, and they influence everything from our weight to our minds.

    How to Make A Human Being

    One of the oldest questions human beings have asked is, “Where did we come from?” Newly discovered fossils are helping to answer that question, showing how we started out as small-brained tree-climbing apes some six million years ago. And today, scientists are fishing out ancient DNA from some of those fossils, allowing them to explore the entire genome of human ancestors such as Neanderthals. The new research is enabling scientists to better understand the key steps to the origin of our species, from how our ancestors stood up on two legs to how our brains got so big. Their insights are not just helping us understand where we come from—they’re also shedding light on our own genes and how they influence our health.

    Ebola and Company: How Can We Survive on a Planet of Viruses?

    The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa has inspired fear and confusion across the planet. But scientists are uncovering the astonishing secrets of viruses that let them hold sway over humanity—as well as other species. Viruses do more than just kill, however. They’re evolution’s engine, helping to shape life itself over billions of years. By understanding viruses, we can do more than just rein in diseases like Ebola. We can also harness viruses to build nanomaterials, bring harmony to our micorbiomes, and rewrite our own DNA.

    Science Reporting In the Age of Fake News

    Are humans causing the planet to get hotter? Do vaccines cause autism? Did our species evolve 300,000 years ago? Scientists have answered these questions (yes, no, yes), yet these subjects and many others are now fiercely contested, in some cases by government officials. This talk will explore the current state of science reporting, including some hopeful innovations that will allow for stronger communication about urgent scientific concepts to the public and lawmakers alike.

  • Video

  • Praise for Carl Zimmer


    Carl’s talk was current, relevant, spiced with humor and everyone attending left with a better understanding about the history of brain research and the possibilities for the future. Definitely one of the best presentations the Forum Committee has experienced in many years.

    Appalachian State University

    Everything went great with Carl’s visit. The lecture was just right for a broad audience that included both scientists and non-scientists. One specific comment that I heard from an attendee was that they appreciated the opportunity to view Darwinism in an unconventional way (incorporating evolution with the current topic of viruses), and that this deepened their knowledge of a subject that they were once closed to. We had a great turn out – about 250 people showed up (the room was just about at full capacity). Overall, it was a huge success!

    University of Alabama at Birmingham

    Carl delivered an excellent lecture. In my opinion, it was one of the best lectures we have hosted in the five years I have been at Auburn University. Those that I spoke to thoroughly enjoyed the lecture. His lecture was entertaining and thought provoking. It also had elements that would appeal to different facets of the diverse audience in attendance. He spoke about the science journalism process, integrity in journalism, the scientific process and integrity in science. As such, it touched on many diverse interests, while also providing depth and stimulating thought. Those that interacted with Carl personally found him to be engaging, charming, and pleasant.

    Auburn University

    Carl Zimmer spoke about ‘Human Origins in a Controversial Age’ at Westport Library as part of the Library’s ongoing Community Conversations Series.  He was well-prepared, and his accessibility and knowledge kept a demanding audience engaged in a most controversial topic.

    Westport Library, Westport, Connecticut

    Carl Zimmer was a distinguished speaker in the Cornell University Lecturer series in the Fall of 2006. He was a tremendous hit here. His lecture was attended by more than 500 members of the Cornell University community. His skills in writing have made biology accessible and exciting to scientists and non-scientists alike.

    Cornell University

    Carl Zimmer was invited to Princeton last winter where his talk ‘Evolution in the News’ was well-attended and warmly received. His lecture artfully wove classic and new examples of evolution from the perspective of a scientific writer into a very coherent and beautifully illustrated one-hour presentation that captivated the attention of both our undergraduate students in addition to some of the best evolutionary biologists of our time. Zimmer is well regarded as one of the best public agents for the science of evolution and it was amazing to see him in action – not only does he write beautifully and meaningfully about our field, but he brings it to life in front of an audience.  I highly recommend this lecture to a variety of audiences where both the scholar and novice will, without a doubt, leave even more intrigued and excited about evolutionary biology.

    Princeton University

    Carl Zimmer’s talk on Soul Made Flesh to a standing-room only audience at Stanford was the buzz of our community for weeks. He took us from the past to present, with a deep passion, intrigue and fascination for innovation in neuroscience that captured us all.

    Stanford University Medical School

    Carl’s a superb speaker who combines a detailed knowledge of his subject matter with the wide-eyed fascination of a scientific outsider. He is a genuine intellectual who employs a plain-spoken and unassuming manner to address some of the most complex and most fascinating questions in science and scientific history.  His talk was enthusiastically received by my colleagues and students, and I would recommend him to any organization or institution.

    Brown University

    Carl Zimmer delivers lucid vignettes on the power of evolutionary thought in explaining organism design and biological history and diversity. During my introduction, I noted that one of the greatest disappointments for readers of Zimmer is coming to the end of one of his essays or books. The same applies to his talks. He presents complex material with clever visuals and thoughtful honest commentary, making the research he popularizes accessible and exciting to a broad audience. One also feels for the researchers Zimmer profiles; he is a master at elucidating the motivations and hardships (and unexpected blessings) in doing science.

    Carleton University, Ottawa
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