I’ve been a fan of Atlas Obscura ever since it started out as a web site cataloging the world’s weirder places. Since then, it has grown into a far bigger operation, offering books, trips, and other features. Recently they’ve put together a series of online courses. I’m delighted to announce that next month I’ll be teaching a course called “The Meaning of ‘Life.'”
Here’s the course description:
What does it mean to be alive? Join journalist, author, and New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer to discover why the answer is not so simple. Over the course of three sessions—with independent fieldwork excursions and optional assignments in between—we’ll journey through strange experiments that have attempted to recreate life, surprising examples of life around the world, and the slippery and ever-shifting qualifications for being alive. We’ll search for life in unexpected places, venturing into the inhospitable homes of extremophiles and peering into the worlds of other mind-boggling life forms. Along the way, we’ll begin to understand how the question “what is life?” is not merely a philosophical one, but one that shapes real-world decisions, our behavior, and the course of human history. By the end of the course, you’ll be developing your own ideas about where to draw the line between the living and the non-living, and learning to see a world teeming with life—even in the most unexpected places.
We’ll be meeting for three 90-minute class. I’ll lead us through some exercises in challenging our own notions of life, and coming up with better ones. We’ll share some life-related homework, and have a visit from a scientist who examines life in some of the weirdest corners of the planet. And there will be lots of time for conversation. My goal is to create a great experience both for people who have read Life’s Edge (bring your questions from reading it!) and for those who have yet to do so. You can find more information and register here.
The pandemic has continued to dominate my working life this past month, even as vaccines help drive down cases in the United States at a remarkable clip. The slow rollout of vaccines to the rest of the world–combined with the swift spread of variants–means that the global toll of Covid-19 remains brutal, and that the pandemic remains the world’s top science story.
Here’s a deep dive I co-authored with Apoorva Mandalvilli about how the variants bubbled up in America–but didn’t wreak the havoc that many feared they would. I also wrote about the resurgence of attention to the mysterious origins of SARS-CoV-2 here, here, and here. You can also listen to an interview I did with New York public radio host Brian Lehrer about the mystery here.
But I also found time to write about a cool non-covid study, in which scientists used a technology called optogenetics to implant light-sensitive proteins in a blind man’s eye. One day, he could suddenly see the stripes in a crosswalk near his house. I very much look forward to spicing up the journalistic buffet with other stories beyond the coronavirus this summer!
That’s all for now. Stay safe!
My new book is Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to Be Alive. You can find information and ordering links for my thirteen other books here. You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and LinkedIn. If someone forwarded this email to you, you can subscribe to it here.
Best wishes, Carl
Originally published June 4, 2021. Copyright 2021 Carl Zimmer.