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Science in Focus: John Wilson

Science Magazines

New Scientist

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We live in a golden age of science writing, with an embarrassment of riches to choose from. This month in Science in Focus, we're looking at magazines, starting with New Scientist, the British-based weekly.

The most recent issue I received, for the week of November 3-9, gives a good sample of what the magazine routinely offers. New Scientist is a popular mag—in contrast to Science and Nature, which we will be taking up in following weeks. The cover-copy isn't subtle: "When the World Melted: How the Ice Age Really Came to an End." In what we call the top banner (above the magazine's logo), there's a come-on aimed especially, perhaps, at American readers: "Left Brain, Right Brain: How your biology rocks your vote." (A prominent brain scientist I met recently says there's currently no solid basis for such claims.) Also highlighted on the cover (among other tasty bits): an interview with Oliver Sacks, based on his newly published book, Hallucinations; a piece on the U.S. military's ambitious commitment to renewable energy; and an occasional feature called "Instant Expert," an insert in which a leading figure in this or that field provides a VERY short introduction, in bite-sized pieces with imaginative graphics. In this instance, we get Google's Peter Norvig on Artificial Intelligence.

And those are just the highlights. There's a menu of mini-pieces at the outset (following the predictably preachy editorials—which are not much read, I expect), a weekly roundup of science news, more tidbits focusing on technology, an opinion piece ("Americans who care about science should back Barack Obama for a second term, says geneticist and Democrat campaign adviser Andy Feinberg"), and a mini-interview ("One minute with … Hojun Song," described as a "technology-obsessed artist") before the features begin with the fuller Sacks interview.

After the features in the "well" (as we call it) there's a reviewish section, CultureLab (in this issue, with four short book reviews), followed by Feedback and The Last Word (questions answered); the weekly Letters appear earlier, tucked in the opinion section. The Letters are lively, contentious, often witty, and I am repeatedly reminded of my own ignorance when I read them.

I love the way that every issue of New Scientist brings together an unpredictable mix of subjects, large and small. Some bits catch my attention (for instance, three-quarters of a page on "How your brain keeps time"); others don't. Reading an issue has an effect on me that's a bit like downing a triple espresso. Much of what I am taking in, I know, won't be deeply absorbed, but I don't brood about that. Sometimes, when I am hoping to retain more of a piece, I'll take out a relic of old technology (my pen) and underline. Speaking of technology: of course, New Scientist has a very well-maintained website, and I follow the mag on Twitter, but mostly I look forward to hunkering down with the print edition.

"Science" is notoriously imperialistic. For the week of September 29-October 5, there was a special issue: "What Is Reality? A User's Guide to the Ultimate Questions of Existence." Unsurprisingly, this was anchored by a philosopher, Jan Westerhoff. Often the prestige of science is intended to obscure the smuggling in of philosophical and political notions that can't in fact claim scientific authority. But such vexations, endemic to the contemporary discourse of science, should not deter you from investigating New Scientist for yourself.

Next week: Science magazine. Thanks for reading. We'd love to hear from you.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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