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Write Now with Scrivener, Episode no. 33: Carl Zimmer, Science Writer

Carl Zimmer is a science writer, author of 14 books, is a professor adjunct at Yale University, and writes the Origins column for The New York Times.

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What is life? That was the question that Carl Zimmer set out to answer in his most recent book, Life’s Edge: The Search For What It Means To Be Alive. Most dictionary definitions of the word "alive" define it as in opposition to being dead. For example, "(of a person, animal, or plant) living, not dead." This doesn't answer the question about the edge cases, such as viruses, which "have long been a real puzzle for biologists about whether they're alive or not. They have incredible screaming matches about whether these things are alive or not. And they have been doing so for a century, since they discovered viruses."

Scientists have attempted to define life, though they don't all agree. "There are definitions of life, that actually have been published by scientists and scientific journals. I say definitions, there are several hundred definitions. And the number doesn't seem to be going down."

It seems obvious to most people what is alive or dead, but Carl looked into this from a scientific perspective. "How do you know whether something's alive or not? Are you relying on actual scientific observation? Or is it more of an intuition? I would argue that we mostly are just relying on intuition, whether things are alive or not, whether people are alive or not. And sometimes, there are things that can completely overturn our intuitions, things that are in a borderland between life and death, between life and nonlife. The more that you explore that gray zone, you start to realize that we really don't understand life at all."

The question of defining life isn't that old; scientists and philosophers only started exploring it in the 18th century. "What was happening was that you had a scientific revolution that had changed how we think about inanimate objects. Because we have physics, we can think about matter in motion. This raised important questions about our own bodies. What about ourselves? What about animals and plants? It seemed like there was something that was fundamentally different between a rock and a flower, and that something was life. But again, that doesn't really tell you what life is. So in the 1700s, there were a lot of ideas put forward about how life was all about some sort of vital force. There were forces in the universe of gravity and so on, but there was some other force, a vital force, and that vital force was inside living things. And that allowed living things to do things that other objects could not, to grow, to become complex, to reproduce, to make new copies of themselves that are almost identical. All these things were made possible by this vital force. And again, nobody could actually say what the vital force was. But this whole view became known as vitalism."

Carl Zimmer is not a scientist, and got into science writing by the back door. After an English major in college, he went to work at a science magazine. "I just happened to get an entry-level job as an assistant copy editor at a magazine that happened to be about science. I started working on the stories, and I thought, this is really interesting, I'm really enjoying this. Then I had the opportunity to grow in a position to start fact-checking, writing, editing, and so on. Discover magazine was a really great education, and I was there for 10 years in total. But you certainly just don't wake up one day and become a science writer."

As we were chatting over Zoom, I noticed a table with several dozen books piled up. Carl told me these were the remnants of the books he researched for his current project. He enters all his research into his Scrivener project. "Scrivener has been essential for me. I started working seriously with Scrivener in 2016. I had written a number of books already by that point, and there were a lot of things that were painful about writing books. For example, you know, just organizing all the reference material that you need for a book, and then organizing the book itself. So I would make do largely with Microsoft Word. Word is fine for shorter things, but it was a real hassle for working on big projects like books. Once I figured out how Scrivener works, and how it would work for me; I think I'm a visual person. So it really helps me to be able to see the pieces of the book and scan up and down very quickly. When I've been working with editors, often their best guidance has been very structural, like saying this part doesn't belong here, these chapters are out of order, these chapters should be split, or these chapters should be fused, and so on. What I like with Scrivener is that you can do that just by dragging around the different parts of the book. And then you can look at it in terms of the sections and then just read it in that new order. Just having that ability to move the pieces around in Scrivener makes it incredibly valuable to me."

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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