Science in Focus: John Wilson

Science Magazines, 3


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Nature is the more venerable British-based counterpart of the American-based magazine Science. The November 16 issue of Science was #6109 in the magazine's history; the November 15 issue of Nature (the most recent I have seen) was #7424. Together the two magazines serve as the journals of record for science in the English-speaking world. Both are international in scope, and both attend to public science as well as presenting the latest research.

In Nature, as in Science, the significance of climate change is a recurring theme. The issue for November 15 features an editorial arguing that "US politicians must give a carbon tax serious consideration," while an op-ed piece by Jeremy Grantham ("co-founder and chief investment strategist at GMO, and co-chair of the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, in Boston, Massachusetts") urges scientists to speak out more forcefully about climate change: "Be persuasive. Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary.)" Grantham writes:

Scientists are understandably protective of the dignity of science and are horrified by publicity and overstatement. These fears, unfortunately, are not shared by their opponents, which makes for a rather painful one-sided battle. Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers), but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical.

A very interesting point of view, no doubt shared by some contributors to Nature, but one that would rejected by many others. The dissenters would overwhelmingly agree that climate change is a significant challenge, but they would not accept the claim that, "uniquely," overstatement about global warming is warranted. Indeed, the same issue includes two pieces—one a full-dress article, the other a more accessible overview—concluding that a "new assessment of drought trends over the past 60 years finds little evidence of an expansion of the area affected by droughts, contradicting several previous estimates." Might this finding be seized on and distorted by climate-change "deniers"? Certainly. But the right response is not to "overstate."

At the end of each issue of Nature for some time now—on the last page of the magazine—there has been a science-fiction feature called "Futures." These pieces are short-short (or "mini-mini") stories, typically playful in tone. I haven't cared for most of those I've read, but I am glad the editors of Nature don't brood about sci-fi lowering the tone of the journal. On the contrary: a few weeks ago, they published a splendid piece by Joshua Glenn on what he calls "Radium Age" sci-fi, and the Books section in the issue for November 15 includes a piece by Leigh Phillips entitled "Curtains for space opera?" Phillips talks with the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, who takes the heretical view that sci-fi writers should "get over the idea of interstellar travel altogether."

Often a given issue of Nature (like Science) will include a special section on this or that theme. In the issue at hand, the subject is "Metabolism and Disease." The articles in this section require advanced training for anything approaching full comprehension (I'll look for a piece soon in New Scientist), but even the concise summaries at the beginning of the issue are fascinating. Particularly striking is the article on the "Circadian topology of metabolism," summarized thus:

Biological clocks are genetically encoded to allow organisms to anticipate the changes between light and dark as a result of the rotation of Earth. In multicellular organisms, internal clocks are expressed throughout the central nervous system and peripheral tissues, in which they influence sleep, arousal, feeding and metabolism. Researchers now have the tools to determine the function of these clocks in health and disease at the cellular and molecular level.

Read that over a couple of times, and I think you will marvel, as I did.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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