Zimmer describes his journalistic beat as "life" or "what it means to be alive". He is the only science writer to have a species of tapeworm named after him (Acanthobothrium zimmeri). Zimmer's father is Dick Zimmer, a Republican politician from New Jersey, who was a member of U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 1997.
Zimmer received a B.A. in English from Yale University in 1987. In 1989, he started his career at Discover magazine, first as a copy editor and fact checker, eventually serving as a senior editor from 1994 to 1998. Zimmer left Discover after ten years to focus on books and other projects. In 2004, he started a blog called "The Loom", in which he wrote about topics related to his books, but later expanded it into what he terms "a place where I could write about things I might not be turning into an article for a magazine, but were really interesting'. The Loom has been hosted by Discover and National Geographic for many years, and has been invited to be part of Scienceblogs. It was transferred to Zimmer's personal website in 2018. Zimmer writes a weekly column called "Matter" in The New York Times. Zimmer and the STAT team have put out "Game of Genomes", a 13-part series that enlisted two dozen scientists, with the goal of exploring Zimmer's own genome.
Zimmer has received a number of awards, including the 2007 National Academies Communication Award, a prize for science communication from the United States National Academy of Sciences, for his wide-ranging coverage of biology and evolution in newspapers, magazines, and his blog. In 2016 Yale University appointed Zimmer Adjunct Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, stating that he is "a world-renowned science journalist and teacher, and his ability to make science, particularly biology, accessible to the general public is without peer". Zimmer has taught a science communication course at Yale since 2017 and participates in other molecular biophysics and biochemistry courses.
Opinions on science and skepticism
Zimmer has publicly expressed his concerns about science denial, noting that attacks on science "are in a number of cases well-funded campaigns, and some politicians are backing some of them for their own political ends", where "climate change, evolution, and vaccines seem to top the list". He says that each case of science denial is concerning, and that some, e.g. spreading misinformation about vaccines to worried parents, lead to needless outbreaks of disease that even puts children at risk of death. Similarly, Zimmer considers global warming as one of the biggest societal issues of our time, as our children and their children will inherit not only our genes, but this planet too, and states that "We should think about tinkering with the future of genetic heredity, but I think we should also be doing that with our environmental heredity and our cultural heredity." According to Zimmer there is a broader threat of these particular attacks on science, potentially eroding people's understanding of how science works in general: "If people come to see science as just someone else's opinion, rather than a powerful way of knowing based on evidence, then all sorts of trouble may arise."
In his keynote talk at Rockefeller University on September 6, 2017, he noted that democracy, science and journalism are "three valuable institutions that have made life...far better than it would have been without them." He stated however that we should not take it for granted that they are free from corruption, and urged to keep them that way. Specifically, he stated that "We can look back through history and see how in different places and in different times, each of these pillars cracked and sometimes fell. We should not be smug, when we look back at these episodes. We should not be so arrogant, as to believe that we are so much smarter or nobler that we're somehow immune from this disasters." Zimmer is critical of politicians' negative influence on science. He has been critical of Trump's anti-science stance, specifically his denial of human-caused climate change. Similarly, he is critical of Trump's appointment of science-deniers to lead crucial U.S. environmental agencies, such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Energy. Zimmer is also critical of Putin's influence on Russian science, specifically his "friendly take-over" of a Russian science magazine, Putin being the "hands-off chairman" of the Russian Geographical Society.
After publishing She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, Zimmer was asked for his opinion about genome editing and CRISPR. While Zimmer thought that some gene-editing procedures, especially for conditions caused by single gene mutations, might provide simple ways to battle serious diseases, he urged for caution about intervention at the embryonic stage. However, he further pointed out the complexity of the issue and the need to address other countries' practices.
2015: National Association of Biology Teachers's (NABT) Distinguished Service Award, awarded to "recognize teachers for their expertise in specific subject areas, for contributions to the profession made by new teachers, and to recognize service to NABT, life science teaching, or leadership in learning communities."
2016: Society for the Study of Evolution's The Stephen Jay Gould Prize, awarded "to recognize individuals whose sustained and exemplary efforts have advanced public understanding of evolutionary science and its importance in biology, education, and everyday life in the spirit of Stephen Jay Gould."
2017: Online News Association's Online Journalism Award, awarded in the explanatory reporting category.