Aha Moment: Carl Zimmer on Giant Sandworms

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Sandworms of Dune
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The science writer Carl Zimmer was 10 years old when his family moved to rural New Jersey. He quickly made a new friend whose father was the prolific science fiction illustrator John Schoenherr.  

Zimmer hadn’t read Dune, or seen Schoenherr’s unforgettable illustrations of sandworms. He was stunned by the realism of the artist’s imagination. “He was trying to make real landscape art,” Zimmer explains, informed by his studies of geology and the natural world. “He would try to paint some alien sandworm or Chewbacca-like monster as carefully as Dürer might have drawn a rabbit.”

That attention to detail made Zimmer look at life on Earth differently. “I started to realize that actually living things on Earth are aliens in a way,” an idea that’s the backbone of Zimmer’s own work. “I love writing about bizarre biology here on Earth because there’s no end of it. I started to appreciate that sitting in his studio and looking at these things he was painting.”

(Originally aired: January 24, 2014)

→ Is there a painting, song, movie, or another work of art that has changed your life? Tell us in a comment below, or by email.


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Man into Space

Special cover painting for the April 1962 issue of Analog Science Fact / Science Fiction. According to Schoenherr’s son Ian, the piece was originally titled Anything You Can Do and complemented an editorial that advocated sending man into space.

( John Schoenherr (Courtesy of the Estate of John Schoenherr) )

Cover art for John Rackham’s 1965 novel We, the Venusians.

( John Schoenherr/Ace Books (Courtesy of the Estate of John Schoenherr) )

Cover art for A. E. Van Vogt’s 1970 novel Quest for the Future.

( John Schoenherr/Ace Books (Courtesy of the Estate of John Schoenherr) )

These illustrations for George R. R. Martin’s 1975 novelette And Seven Times Never Kill Man anticipated — and arguably inspired — the wookies of Star Wars.

( John Schoenherr/<em>Analog Science Fact/Science Fiction</em> (Courtesy of the Estate of John Schoenherr) )

Desert Nightmare

Illustration from Frank Herbert’s 1978 Dune calendar.

( John Schoenherr (Courtesy of the Estate of John Schoenherr) )