Science in Focus: John Wilson

Science Magazines, 2


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Science, based in the United States, and Nature, based in the UK, are the two preeminent science magazines in the English-speaking world. Both combine the functions of a scholarly journal with other purposes. Many of the science news articles we routinely encounter—in newspapers and popular magazines like New Scientist, on television and on the web—are based on research published in Science and Nature, in concise, highly specialized articles. At the same time, both magazines are concerned with the public face of science. Our focus this week is on Science magazine; next week we'll look at Nature.

Science is published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the magazine also has an extensive website. One section of the magazine, "Perspectives," offers less technical but still rigorous accounts of current research, many of which pertain to full-dress papers that appear later in the same issue in the section called "Reports." So, for example, in the issue for November 2 of this year, the first piece in "Perspectives," A. P. Zwane on "Implications of Scarcity," connects with a piece in "Reports" by A. K. Shah et al., "Some Consequences of Having Too Little"; there is also a podcast on the same subject. Depending on level of interest, a reader may zero in on the piece in "Perspectives" or the one in "Reports"—or both, or neither. The titles in "Perspectives" often have the distinctive flavor of science humor: "Quantum Procrastination," for instance, "Chloroplast Delivery by UPS," and "Getting Moore from Solar Cells." Titles of "Reports" are more sober: ""Chloroplast Biogenesis Is Regulated by Direct Action of the Ubiquitin-Proteasome System."

Typically the cover-image of Science is a photograph, and some of these are stunning. At the start of each issue, there are a range of public science pieces, beginning with an editorial. News follows—both tidbits and fuller stories—and then Letters, and a small section on Books et al. The "Policy Forum" section may include a grab-bag of topics or several pieces on a single subject regarding science and public policy. Overall, each issue of the magazine suggests the extraordinary level of detail in the contemporary scientific understanding of the world, the immense sweep of scientific inquiry, and the extent to which it touches on our everyday lives. Fittingly, the cover of the most recent issue I've seen—the issue for November 2—highlights the theme of the AAAS's annual meeting in 2013: "The Beauty and Benefits of Science."

At the same time, there are certain tensions in the project embodied in these pages. One recurring theme that might surprise readers coming fresh to the magazine is a sense that science is perpetually under threat. A typical mailing I received recently from the AAAS has this message on the envelope: "The future of science is at stake." The letter inside warns that the struggle over the federal budget could result in cuts with "a devastating impact on federal funding of science, research, and innovation. And they come at a time when federal R&D funding has already declined by 10 percent in real dollars over the past few years." From the perspective of the magazine industry, that sounds pretty good!

Another tension: Many of the pieces in Science, especially at the front of the book, have a strong moral thrust. There is often the implication—and not infrequently an explicit statement—that the positions taken are consistent with "science," whereas opposing views are not. This characteristic note is sounded in the editorial for the issue of November 2, "The Scientist as World Citizen," written by Mary-Claire King, president of the American Society of Human Genetics and a professor in the Department of Genome Sciences and the Department of Medicine at the University of Washington. "Scientists," King writes, "insist on believable data both in work and in public life":

Bright young scientists do not accept nonsense from those in power, and they will not be eternally patient with it. The response of the scientist to nonsense is both conceptual and practical: to recognize it, expose it, and try to fix it. And because scientists are connected through worldwide networks, we can stimulate each other to do the same. This power was demonstrated by young computer-savvy scientists in Beijing when they informed the world about the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989, and more recently by youthful bloggers of the Arab Spring such as Mona Self.

Really? Are there no bright young scientists in China, say, working wholeheartedly on behalf of the regime? Is there something about being bright, and young, and above all a scientist that gives one a reliable moral compass?

Many scientists know better. They would not themselves make such claims. And one should not allow such risible assertions—"nonsense," some might say—to obscure the wealth of knowledge and insight available even in a single issue of Science. But neither do we hasten to worship at that altar.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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