Carl Zimmer– From Page to Pixel: Science Writing Goes Online
Written by Eleanor Robinson
Conference organizers announced that the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) Wednesday morning’s session would be webcasted – an apt segue for keynote address speaker, Carl Zimmer’s topic about the digitization of science writing, ‘From Page to Pixel: Science Writing Goes Online’
At the onset of Zimmer’s career as a writer for Discover Magazine in 1993, lay readers learned about science discoveries at newsstands. Beyond newspapers and magazines, people sought that information in a library.
“When I had queries about dinosaurs I couldn’t just ask a computer”, reflected Zimmer. For example, “The latest ideas and photos about Pterosaur biology were found in Discover magazine.”
As a budding science writer, Zimmer was escorted behind the scenes at the American Museum of Natural History by paleontologist Alexander Kelnor. Upon viewing the dinosaur bone collections, he was filled with the excitement that “nobody knows about this”.
In the early 90’s, Zimmer would write a story and send it off into a void. Months later it would show up in a magazine. Maybe someone would write a letter to the editor that would show up the following month. Now with his author website, carlzimmer.com, feedback can be immediate.
Blogs can also be powerful tools for a writer to stay current, but the anonymity on the Internet can lead to nasty and vicious feedback. Zimmer stresses the need to teach people to read skeptically and for children to learn that not everything on the Internet is true.
Yet for natural history collectors, he advocates taking advantage of new media. But in the flurry, he suggests to avoid broadcasting on the Internet just because you feel you ought to. Consultants have told Zimmer to blog twice a day.
“Awful”, Zimmer balks. “Think clearly about what your goals are. For example, why do people want to look through your butterfly collection?”
“Internet information can radiate in weird directions and out of control”, adds Zimmer. It can be difficult to steer the direction of the information.
He cited two examples of blogs he wrote, one about tapeworms in the brain and another about a parasitic wasp with its cockroach host. The stories “went viral” and the news radiation ended up influencing a rock and roll band to use the wasp’s Latin name in its song lyrics. In another case, a celebrity action hero plagiarized a Zimmer story about
How do museums fit into this matrix? Zimmer reflects on the limitations of the old model of museums as collections, exhibits and a gift shop. Now the collections are opened up.
“Now I can pull up a skull on a computer screen”. Digimorph, eBooks and YouTube have entered the science information scene. The American Museum of Natural History posted a YouTube video of the earth on the internet called “The Known Universe”, resulting in 10 millions viewers, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco published a free eBook on Leonardo de Vinci about anatomy with a wide circulation.
“The internet is not going away”, stated Zimmer. “It can be used creatively to talk about science.” He reminded the museum professionals gathered, “Take opportunities to steer the information and outbreaks the way you want them to go”.
Carl Zimmer’s full presentation is now viewable ONLINE thanks to Yale University.