Category: Teaching

Steven Pinker’s Style Guide

By Carl Zimmer | November 16, 2012 1:33 pm

Each year I run a workshop for science graduate students at Yale, encouraging them to write clearly, compellingly, and effectively. I’m tempted next year to just cue up this video of Steven Pinker discussing his next book–a psychology-based guide to good writing–and kick back.

[via]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Meta, Teaching

Herman Melville, Science Writer

By Carl Zimmer | November 11, 2012 11:00 am

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been dipping into a project called “Moby Dick Big Read.” Plymouth University in England is posting a reading of Moby Dick, one chapter a day. The readers are a mix of writers, artists, and actors, including Tilda Swinton.  They are also posting the chapters on SoundCloud, which makes them very easy to embed. Here is one of my personal favorites, Chapter 32, “Cetology.”

When I was an English major in college, I read Moby Dick under the guidance of English professors and literary critics. They only paid attention to a fraction of the book–the fraction that followed Ishmael on his adventures with Captain Ahab. This was the part of the book that they could easily compare to other great novels, the part they could use for their vague critiques of imperialism, the part–in other words–that you could read without having to bother much with learning about the particulars of the world beyond people: about ships, about oceans, and, most of all, about whales. How many teachers, assigning Moby Dick to their students, have told them on the sly that they could skip over great slabs of the book? How many students have missed the fine passages of “Cetology”?

I’ve read Moby Dick several times since graduating college and becoming a science writer. I look back now at the way I was taught the book, and I can see it was a disaster, foisted upon me by people who either didn’t understand science or were hostile to it, or both. Of course the historical particulars of the book matter. It’s a book, in part, about globalization–the first worldwide energy network. But the biology of the book is essential to its whole point. Just as Ahab becomes obsessed with Moby Dick, the scientific mind of the nineteenth century became mad with whales.

“Cetology” reminds the reader that Melville came before Darwin. Ishmael tries to make sense of the diversity of whales, and he can only rely on the work of naturalists who lacked a theory of evolution to make sense of the mammalian features on what looked like fish. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a writer looking for some absurd feature of the natural world that could serve as a wall against which Western science could bang its head.

The people I know who don’t like the “whale stuff” in Moby Dick probably hate this chapter. It seems to do nothing but grind the Ahab-centered story line to a halt. (No movie version of Moby Dick has put “Cetology” on film.) But do you really think that a writer like Melville would just randomly wedge a chapter like “Cetology” into a novel for no reason–not to mention the dozens of other chapters just like it? Or perhaps it would be worth trying to find out what Melville had in mind, even if you might have to do a bit of outside reading about Carl Linnaeus or Richard Owen? It would be quite something if students could be co-taught Moby Dick by English professors and biologists.

“Cetology” is organized, explicitly, as a catalog, but don’t let the systematic divisions of its catalog put you off. This is science writing of the highest order, before there was science writing. Listen to the words he uses to describe each species. If you go whale watching some day and are lucky enough to spot a fin whale raising its sundial-like dorsal fin above the water, chances are you will utter to yourself, “gnomon.” 

Writing about Science and the Environment: My Fall 2012 Class

By Carl Zimmer | August 1, 2012 9:33 am

If you or someone you know is a student at Yale, check out the class I’m teaching this fall. It’s called Writing about Science and the Environment (cross-listed as EVST 215 and ENGL 459). You can find out about it on the Yale Online Course Information site, where I’ve just posted the syllabus.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Teaching

Science Literacy: A Worldwide Look

By Carl Zimmer | June 11, 2012 11:40 am

I was skimming through the new Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 from the National Science Foundation when I came across this very interesting table. Whenever I see reports about science literacy in the United States, the reports are very parochial, with no comparison to other counties. Here is a table of scores on similar tests given around the world. We Americans do relatively well on a lot of the questions (although that sometimes means we’re about as bad as most other countries). The one big exception is when Americans are asked about the origin of the universe and of our species.

[pdf]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: General, Teaching

Science writing workshop for graduate students: Registration is open

By Carl Zimmer | November 30, 2011 11:41 am

In January, I’ll be conducting the 2012 edition of my science writing workshop for graduate students. The workshop is hosted by the Yale Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. It’s a short introduction to the craft of bringing science to the world, tailored for science graduate students. People who attend are typically  interested in making science writing part of their work as scientists, or are even thinking about making it their career. Students from other institutions can contact the EEB department to get permission to register.

The syllabus and information about registering are on the workshop web site.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Teaching

Writing about Science and the Environment: My seminar coming up this fall at Yale

By Carl Zimmer | July 28, 2011 8:44 pm

If you or someone you know is a student at Yale, check out the class I’m teaching this fall. It’s called Writing about Science and the Environment (cross-listed as EVST 215 and ENGL 459). You can find out about it on the Yale Online Course Information site, where I’ve just posted the syllabus.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Teaching

Reverse Engineering John McPhee

By Carl Zimmer | July 7, 2011 2:59 pm

I’ve never met John McPhee, but he’s always been lurking around my office. I’ve got a number of his books, and I always keep an eye out for his latest piece in the New Yorker. I can’t count the number of times reading a few lines of his stuff helped get me revved up again for writing.

Recently, Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic invited me to participate in a Neiman Storyboard series called “Why’s This So Good?” Writers pick out a good piece of long-form journalism and try to figure out what makes it so. Having just revisited out McPhee’s sprawling 1987 epic on engineering the Mississippi, “Atchafalaya,” I chose it for my object of study. Here’s my take. And, if you have a free moment to quaff 28,000 words, here’s McPhee’s piece.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Teaching, Writing Elsewhere

Great science books for high school students: The hive-mind speaks

By Carl Zimmer | March 28, 2011 5:31 pm

Over the weekend, I was contacted by Melissa Townsend, an Arizona high school teacher, with this question:

Getting ready to assign spring reading to my students. What are your favorite non-fiction science books a HS kid can handle?

It’s an excellent question–there are some books that can open up the mind of a teenager, and leave an impression that lasts a lifetime. But when I got Townsend’s request, I was traveling to Washington to talk on a panel about blogging, so I was a bit scatter-brained. I therefore tossed the question out to the hive mind. When I read the responses, many of them made me think, “Yeah, what she said!”

Here is a selection of the answers. Add your own in the comment thread; I can update the list here accordingly.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. (This one was mentioned so often Townsend decided to go with it.)

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould

The Diversity of Life, by Edward O. Wilson

Under a Lucky Star, by Roy Chapman Andrews

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James Watson

E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, by Robert Sapolsky

Microbe Hunters, by Paul deKruif

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson

The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, by Richard Preston

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition, by Oliver Sacks

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, by Oliver Sacks

The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way>, by Joy Hakim (follow the link to the other two books in the series, too)

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, Richard Feynman

Why Evolution Is True, by Jerry Coyne

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Book Preview, Link Love, Teaching

Math: The Black Diamond Trail of Science Writing (#scio11)

By Carl Zimmer | January 18, 2011 2:07 pm

The comment thread for my post about good writing has turned into a fascinatingly well-focused discussion on writing about math. A mathematician arrived, rending his garments in despair, and now others–both writers and readers–are responding. I’ve always considered math the toughest subject a science writer can tackle, so I find the conversation especially interesting. Check it out.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Meta, Teaching

My 2011 science writing workshop: Now open for registration

By Carl Zimmer | December 13, 2010 4:52 pm

At the end of January, I’ll be running my fifth annual science writing workshop. It’s open to all science graduate students at Yale. Grad students from other universities are welcome to get in touch about participating.

You can find all the details on the updated workshop web page.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Teaching
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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.
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