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Carl Zimmer's Top Book Recommendations

Want to know what books Carl Zimmer recommends on their reading list? We've researched interviews, social media posts, podcasts, and articles to build a comprehensive list of Carl Zimmer's favorite book recommendations of all time.

"Gould himself is a rare and wonderful animal—a member of the endangered species known as the ruby-throated polymath. . . . [He] is a leading theorist on large-scale patterns in evolution . . . [and] one of the sharpest and most humane thinkers in the sciences." --David Quammen, New York Times Book Review less
Recommended by Carl Zimmer, and 1 others.

Carl ZimmerHe will talk, for example, about a male spider that throws himself into the jaws of a female as they mate. She will actually devour him while he is still mating. (Source)

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Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets... more
Recommended by Carl Zimmer, A.J. Jacobs, and 2 others.

Carl ZimmerYes. This is a fascinating book on so many different levels. It is really compelling as the story of the author trying to uncover the history of the woman from whom all these cells came. (Source)

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"Who are the mutants? We are all mutants. But some of us are more mutant than others."

Variety, even deformity, may seem like an unlikely route by which to approach normality, even perfection. Yet much of what we know about the mechanisms of human development, growth, and aging comes from the study of people who are afflicted with congenital diseases, most of which have genetic causes. Congenital abnormalities reveal not only errors within the womb, but also our evolutionary history.

In Mutants, Armand Marie Leroi gives a brilliant narrative account of our...
Recommended by Carl Zimmer, and 1 others.

Carl ZimmerThat’s right. Armand Leroi is a biologist at Imperial College, London. And this is a really wonderful book because Leroi takes what could have just been a freak show and turns it into a really amazing experience. He writes about these people as people. He finds wonderful portraits of individuals – for example, some of them are covered in hair and look like wolves – and he tells the story of their... (Source)

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People commonly view evolution as a process of competition between individuals—known as “survival of the fittest”—with the individual representing the “unit of selection.” Richard Dawkins offers a controversial reinterpretation of that idea in The Extended Phenotype, now being reissued to coincide with the publication of the second edition of his highly-acclaimed The Selfish Gene. He proposes that we look at evolution as a battle between genes instead of between whole organisms. We can then view changes in phenotypes—the end products of genes, like eye color or leaf shape, which are usually... more
Recommended by Carl Zimmer, Peter Atkins, and 2 others.

Carl ZimmerI chose this because I think it expresses a really important idea. Richard Dawkins wrote this book not long after The Selfish Gene came out. That was his landmark book, in which he argued for a gene-centric view of evolution.  Genes build bodies. They build traits, which are known as phenotypes, in order to be replicated in the next generation. (Source)

Peter AtkinsShows a highly imaginative approach to understanding the nature of the biosphere. A very clever book. (Source)

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The Machinery of Life

Imagine that we had some way to look directly at the molecules in a living organism. An x-ray microscope would do the trick, or since we're dreaming, perhaps an Asimov-style nanosubmarine (unfortunately, neither is currently feasible). Think of the wonders we could witness firsthand: antibodies atta- ing a virus, electrical signals racing down nerve fibers, proteins building new strands of DNA. Many of the questions puzzling the current cadre of sci- tists would be answered at a glance. But the nanoscale world of molecules is separated from our everyday world of experience by a daunting... more
Recommended by Carl Zimmer, Stephen Curry, and 2 others.

Carl ZimmerEven when living things are operating normally and humming along, it’s still beyond our ordinary understanding. You really have to stretch your powers of imagination to try to get a sense of what it is like inside of a cell.  Ironically, textbooks can make that imagination more difficult. If they want to show how genes are used to make proteins, they show a very tiny, isolated piece of DNA, and... (Source)

Stephen Curry@cshperspectives @MHendr1cks David Goodsell’s book, The Machinery of Life, is great for showing molecular crowding. (Source)

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