Science Writer Carl Zimmer on Blogs, Books, and Tattoos main content.

Science Writer Carl Zimmer on Blogs, Books, and Tattoos

by AMNH on


The cover of Carl Zimmer's book Science Ink, about "tattoos of the science obsessed"
Carl Zimmer's new book evolved from a question he posed on his blog.

When science writer Carl Zimmer noticed some scientists sporting serious tattoos, he wondered how many others enjoyed highbrow body art. After posing the question on his blog, Zimmer received a flood of responses and photos, many of which he recently compiled in his book Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed. On Thursday, February 16, Zimmer will be one of four panelists at the Museum’s Beyond a Trend: Enhancing Science Communication Through Social Media, part of Social Media Week NYC. Zimmer recently answered a few questions about how new media are shaping his writing.

What could you do with a blog about science tattoos that you couldn’t do in a book, and vice versa?

Blogs and books are different media, with different strengths and weaknesses. With a blog, you can spontaneously add things and make corrections. And people can make comments. Sometimes, people would point out that the equation in someone’s tattoo had a plus sign instead of a minus, which was probably pretty embarrassing. But since the blog was happening in real time, it was more disorganized. For the book, I was able to create miniature essays for various tattoos and arrange the tattoos in a logical progression from math to physics to chemistry and so on.

How are new media shaping how we tell stories about science?

Each time there’s a new medium, there’s a new opportunity, a new way of expressing things. It’s similar to what happened when people invented movies—you could still tell stories and tell some that you were telling in books, but you could also do new things that you couldn’t have done before. As soon as I saw blogs 10 years ago, I could tell that it was something different from what I was doing. The social element was intriguing because you could immediately hear back from readers or other people online, or you could react with blog posts of your own. New media have their own limits—you may not be able to express a deep thought in 140 characters on Twitter—but you can make an interesting observation and then link to a 10,000-word essay.

How have social media helped you reach a new audience?

I was working on a book eight years ago called Soul Made Flesh and wondering how I could promote it beyond what my publisher was doing and the reviews I might get. The only thing you could do at that time was print postcards and send them to a mailing list for a scientific society. Now, if you spend some time in social media, you can end up with as many followers as a small city. Being able to interact with these people changes the whole equation of how you reach readers.