Carl Zimmer: Life's Edge—The Search for What It Means to Be Alive

Life's Edge

Life's Edge


Carl Zimmer
Dutton, March 9, 2021, $28.00
ISBN-10: 0593182715; ISBN-13: 9780593182710

Zimmer reports:

I have written about life for thirty years as a journalist, covering everything from the Human Genome Project, to the search for alien organisms on other planets, to the sinister marvels of parasitic wasps. Along the way, I've always been fascinated by the fact that scientists who study life in its many forms don't agree on what life is.

Carl Zimmer.                     Photo: Mistina Hanscom

Carl Zimmer. Photo: Mistina Hanscom

I grew interested in how scientists define life and how they draw the lines that divide the living world from the non-living. Our own lives are surrounded by that borderland, with birth on one side and death on the other. Chemists are creating combinations of compounds that behave in life-like ways. Astrobiologists are trying to come up with a method to recognize life elsewhere in the universe and distinguish it from lifeless chemistry.

My agent Eric Simonoff brought my proposal to Stephen Morrow at Dutton. He had edited my previous book, She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perils, and Potential of Heredity.

Once Morrow decided to take the book, I visited NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build chemical gardens, traipsed into an abandoned graphite mine with scientists studying hibernating bats, fed rats to pythons as I learned about their extreme metabolism, and visited a lab where slime molds solve mathematical puzzles. I also talked with philosophers and historians to place this new research in the context of centuries of science and debate about what it means to be alive.

My biggest challenge was the pandemic. The lockdown prevented me from taking the last few trips I had planned for research for the book. I decided to turn lemons into lemonade, reorganizing my book to leave out the topics I couldn't research and distilling the book into a tighter, shorter work.

I think this experience contains a lesson I would offer to beginning authors: don't think of your book as having an infinite length. Once you come up with an idea for a book-scale narrative, keep looking for things you can cut out to keep it short. A taut book is far better than a sprawling one.

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Mar. 10, 2021

Advance Copy

For this column, NASW book editor Lynne Lamberg asks NASW authors to tell how they came up with the idea for their book, developed a proposal, found an agent and publisher, funded and conducted research, and put the book together. She also asks what they wish they had known before they began working on their book, what they might do differently the next time, and what tips they can offer aspiring authors. She then edits the A part of that Q&A to produce the author reports you see here.

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