This essays is adapted from Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means To Be Alive (Dutton 2021) [Order / Author site] It appeared originally in the New York Times Sunday Review on February 28, 2021.

Tobacco mosaic virus crystals. Source: https://virologyj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-422X-9-279

Last spring, coyotes strolled down the streets of San Francisco in broad daylight. Pods of rarely seen pink dolphins cavorted in the waters around Hong Kong. In Tel Aviv, jackals wandered a city park, a herd of mountain goats took over a town in Wales, and porcupines ambled through Rome’s ancient ruins. …


Here is a list of some of the stories and books I have assigned to students over the years in my class, “Writing about Science, Medicine, and the Environment.” I picked them for examples of story-telling, explanation, and bringing humanity to complex subjects.

ARTICLES:

Ross Anderson, “Pleistocene Park”

Burkhart Bilger, “Nature’s Spoils”

Eric Boodman, “In the Dark of Night, a Hunt for a Deadly Bug in the Name of Science”

Rebecca Boyle, “Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Snowflakes”

Peter Brannen, “The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth’s Ancient Rock Record”

Jimmy Breslin, “A Death in Emergency Room One.”

John…


These are notes for a class called “Writing about Science, Medicine, and the Environment,” which I have taught for several years at Yale. I update them here from time to time. They are published under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-ND)

Structure

In this class, we are writing stories. Without structure, stories are random sentences and fragments of scenes. Here are some thoughts about how to give a story an effective overall structure:

The All-Important Introduction

Within a few paragraphs, a reader will decide whether to finish reading your story or to move on to something else. In this brief preliminary…


She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity is available in paperback. This article, adapted from the book, originally appeared as the cover story in the May/June 2019 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

If someone says, “I guess it’s in my DNA,” you never hear people say, “DN — what?” We all know what DNA is, or at least think we do.

It’s been seven decades since scientists demonstrated that DNA is the molecule of heredity. Since then, a steady stream of books, news programs, and episodes of CSI have made us comfortable with the notion that…


A handful of criminal prosecutions have stalled because DNA tests cannot distinguish between suspects who are twins. Then scientists decided to create one.

Illustration: Scott Menchin

One night in November 1999, a 26-year-old woman was raped in a parking lot in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Police officers managed to get the perpetrator’s DNA from a semen sample, but it matched no one in their databases.

Detectives found no fingerprints at the scene and located no witnesses. The woman, who had been attacked from behind, could not offer a description. It looked as if the rapist would never be found.

Five years later, there was a break in the case. A man serving time for another sexual offense submitted a DNA sample with his parole application. …


“What Is Life?” is an eight-episode podcast series recorded in front of a live audience. (Subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, via RSS, etc.)

In this episode, I spoke to Kate Adamala, a chemist at the University of Minnesota. In her Protobiology Lab, she is trying to build a synthetic cell from scratch. We talk about whether it is possible to make life, and what that could tell us about life itself.

Update: If you’d like to learn more about scientists exploring the borderlands between the living and nonliving worlds, check out my new book Life’s Edge: The Search…


“What Is Life?” is an eight-episode podcast series recorded in front of a live audience. (Subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, via RSS, etc.)

In this episode, I talked withDonato Giovannelli, an assistant professor at the University of Naples “Federico II.” Giovannelli travels to acid lakes and other extreme environments that are the closest thing today to what Earth was like when life began.

Update: If you’d like to learn more about scientists exploring the borderlands between the living and nonliving worlds, check out my new book Life’s Edge: The Search For What It Means To Be Alive.

Links:
Giovannelli’s…


“What Is Life?” is an eight-episode podcast series recorded in front of a live audience. (Subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, via RSS, etc.)

In this episode, I talked with Steven Benner, a scientist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, about how strange life can get. All the life we know is the same: carbon-based, with DNA for genes. (Okay, except for RNA viruses.) But Benner says we should remain open to the possibility that life elsewhere is very, very weird.

Update: If you’d like to learn more about scientists exploring the borderlands between the living and nonliving…


“What Is Life?” is an eight-episode podcast series recorded in front of a live audience. (Subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, via RSS, etc.)

In this episode, I spoke to Jeremy England, a physicist at MIT, about why life exists. He has developed an influential theory of life as a way for matter to dissipate energy.

Links:
England’s MIT lab site
An article about England in Quanta

If you enjoyed this episode, listen to Episode 6 or check out all eight episodes on the main podcast page. …


“What Is Life?” is an eight-episode podcast series recorded in front of a live audience. (Subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, via RSS, etc.)

In this episode, I spoke to astrobiologist Caleb Scharf, the director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center at Columbia University, about how life began. We don’t know how life got its start, but Scharf argues that emerging evidence leaves only a few theories as leading contenders.

If you enjoyed this episode, listen to Episode 5 or check out all eight episodes on the main podcast page. …

carlzimmer

New York Times columnist. New book: She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity http://bit.ly/SheHasHerMothersLaugh

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