Carl Zimmer's Planet of Viruses and the Politics of Popular Science WritingHistorians in the News
tags: history of science, medical history, Viruses, Carl Zimmer
Danielle Carr is a writer finishing a dissertation at Columbia University on the history and politics of neural engineering.
All societies have a genre of narrative known as the “just-so story,” which exists to furnish a question about the world—“What makes the seasons change?”; “Why is the US military budget so large?”—with a tidy answer: “The seasons change because the god of the underworld kidnapped the harvest goddess’s daughter”; “Our military budget keeps democracy safe around the world.” The point of a just-so story is to explain not only why things are the way they are but also why they couldn’t be any other way. Floating somewhere outside of history, with all of its contingencies and struggles for power, the just-so story sparkles with the structure of myth.
A variety of mythic creatures populate Carl Zimmer’s slim volume A Planet of Viruses. Written to accompany the University of Nebraska’s 1998 exhibit “World of Viruses,” funded by the National Institutes of Health, the book is a collection of stand-alone essays, each featuring a different virus, with the new edition expanded to include a chapter on Covid-19. Over its 144 pages, we encounter crystal caves hidden miles below the earth, where unfathomable numbers of viruses roil; rabbits with mysterious head tumors that make them look like the mythical jackalope, caused by the same virus that causes cervical cancer; viruses that elegantly hijack cells like master burglars coaxing a lock open without a key. We learn that the word “virus” comes from a Latin word that means both “a snake’s venom” and “human semen,” which Zimmer uses to illuminate the central feature of a virus: that it both creates and destroys.
Zimmer writes simply and with painstaking clarity, as if explaining something to someone who is easily distracted, and frequently employs his gift for metaphor. In this world, viruses appear as magical creatures, shimmering between life and nonlife. Like most of Zimmer’s work, the book has been read widely and seriously, hailed as performing the crucial task of educating the public about science. Eighteen months into a pandemic that has turned epidemiology into a theater of the culture wars, who could deny the need for greater public engagement with science? Both your local vaccine conspiracist and your neighborhood liberal technocrat will say that we need more accessible facts about science, especially when it comes to matters relating to our health, but their agreement ends there. The conspiracist’s goal might be to see more widespread skepticism about the vaccines and the profiteering of Big Pharma, while the technocrat might want to foster public understanding of viral transmission. At its core, the disagreement is about the very notion of what science is. Is science a single, universal process that stands apart from struggles for power and resources—aka politics? Or is science the name for multiple processes, undertaken by different groups of people for different goals, all conducted in the very trenches of political struggle?
How we answer this question is serious business. It has everything to do with what we think we are talking about when we talk about pandemics and, as a result, what we think we can do to prevent them. More to the point, how we answer this question has everything to do with the kinds of facts we think are relevant to the task of educating the public about science. If you think you can write about viruses divorced from social and political conditions, then you also assume that the politics of viruses can remain separate from other questions of power and distribution. Zimmer’s work has been almost universally praised as the pinnacle of popular science writing. But in its framing of what counts as relevant, does Planet of Viruses pull back the veil on the causes of pandemics, or does it mystify them even further?
With his cascade of prestigious accolades, Carl Zimmer is arguably the country’s premier popular science writer. The son of former Republican congressman Dick Zimmer, he began his career in 1989 after receiving a BA in English at Yale University, when he was hired by Discover magazine. Discover was created in 1980 by a former editor at Time who had spent the previous decade watching every issue of the magazine that featured a science story achieve blockbuster sales and decided to cash in on the public’s hunger for accessible science writing. As one of the first publications “selling science to people who graduated to be managers,” Discover was where Zimmer honed his style, eventually rising to senior editor by the late 1990s.
Now the nation’s most lauded explainer of science, Zimmer has expansively described his journalistic beat as “what it means to be alive,” appearing frequently on NPR and on national speaking circuits, and he is also in his eighth year writing the New York Times science column “Matter.” His multitude of best-selling books are widely praised as the “best of contemporary science writing”; in 2016, Yale named him an adjunct professor, saying that “his ability to make science, particularly biology, accessible to the general public is without peer.”
At a moment in which public trust in experts is at an all-time low, scientists and educators alike have hailed Zimmer for serving as a crucial translator between the white-coated technician at the lab bench and the everyday reader. Far from being just another hobby genre, popular science writing is often held up as the key to a problem that haunts the relationship between science and democracy. Ever since the United States emerged triumphant from World War II, anointed as a superpower by its marriage of military and economic supremacy with scientific advances, the problem of science in a democracy has figured in roughly the following terms: If science is necessary for national security and economic advancement, how can it be governed democratically by citizens who are not equipped to understand what happens in the lab?
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