Sic transit

SciAm-cover-April-1949.jpg

The tattered magazine shown above was on newsstands 60 years ago. You could have bought a copy for 50 cents—which wasn’t cheap at the time. The article featured on the cover, “Mathematical Machines,” surveys the whole topic of computational technology, from a primer on binary arithmetic to breathless reports on the hottest new machines—the Edvac, the Univac, Project Whirlwind. Other articles in the same issue include “Submarine Canyons,” “Greek Astronomy,” “Titanium: A New Metal” and “The Evolution of Sex.”

The creators of this ambitious magazine were Dennis Flanagan and Gerard Piel, two young writers who had become friends while working at Life magazine. In 1947 they set out on their own, planning to launch a wholly new magazine about science. When they learned that Scientific American was about to fold up after more than a century of publication, they bought it and made it over. By the time of that April 1949 issue, the new magazine had already found the formula and the format that would define it for a generation of readers.

One important part of the formula was a bit of an accident. Flanagan and Piel had expected to hire professional writers to produce the main articles, but they couldn’t find enough of them. So they began inviting scientists to tell their own story, in collaboration with an editor. This shortcut would soon become a key element of the magazine’s identity and its claim to credibility.

I grew up reading Scientific American, though I was not a subscriber. I discovered a disreputable shop on Race Street in Philadelphia that sold out-of-date issues for a dime each. These were copies with their covers torn off; years later I learned why. Newsstands are entitled to return unsold copies of magazines for full credit, but shipping all that paper back to the publisher was expensive and wasteful. So the dealers sent back only the covers and promised to pulp the rest of the magazine. Some of the discarded copies never made it to the recycling yard.

My adolescent reading of all those gray-market magazines was probably my main qualification when I joined the staff of Scientific American in 1973. I spent a decade there. I’ve done lots of other stuff since then, but the years with Flanagan and Piel were the great formative experience of my working life; in my own mind, I’ll always be a former editor of Scientific American. And I still have a deep affection for the magazine, even though I dislike what’s been done to it in recent years—so much so that I find it painful to read.

What went wrong? I think the genre of this story is tragedy: a noble enterprise undone by its own success. By the 1980s the magazine was prosperous enough to attract the attention of predatory investors. Their reasoning went something like this: If those eggheads can sell half a million copies and a hundred pages of ads with a magazine crammed full of physics and mathematics and molecular biology, just imagine how well we can do if we get rid of all that boring science. In 1986, under pressure from stockholders, the company was sold to Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck—by no means the worst of the suitors, but the terms of the purchase left the magazine desperate for new revenue. And the collateral damage was even sadder: Flanagan and Piel parted ways and never spoke again.

Over this past weekend I learned that Scientific American is going through another rough patch and will likely see further changes. (Sources: The New York Times, Folio, Portfolio.) Ad pages are down 18 percent. John Rennie, the editor since 1994, has “taken the opportunity… to find other engaging things to do.” At least 20 staff members will lose their jobs. The magazine will be uprooted from its own offices and will move in with the parent organization, Nature Publishing Group (another Holtzbrinck acquisition). Rumor has it that the new editorial direction will be even more consumer-oriented, focusing on science that’s “useful in everyday life.” The old commitment to articles “written by the scientists who did the work described” is under question.

I’ve been stewing over all this for a few days—or maybe it’s been a few decades. In any case, I’m tired of stewing; it’s time to move on.

At a personal level, I commiserate with those who are going to be hurt most—the staff members (including some old friends) whose jobs are in jeopardy. But in journalism and publishing these days we’re all sailing in leaky tubs and bailing as fast as we can.

When I take a step back and look at the larger cultural significance of these events, I think first of how important Scientific American was in my own upbringing and education. It’s my reflex to ask: How will kids like me get turned on to science without access to those coverless bootleg magazines at a dime a piece? But what a ridiculous question! The world has changed. The resources available today to a curious 14-year-old are far superior to anything I could have imagined back in the sixties. The little shop on Race Street was a treasure chest in its time, but it can’t compare with Wikipedia and the arXiv and PLoS and Weisstein’s World of Mathematics and Sloane’s Sequence Server and all the other bounty that’s now just a click away. Indeed, that’s a big part of the problem that faces Scientific American, and other publications.

We did good work at Scientific American, back in the old days. I’m proud to have been a part of it. But what we were building was not a monument to be preserved for the perpetual admiration of future generations. It was a channel of communication, a way of linking scientists with a broader audience. I believe it’s still important to keep those channels open, but the best way of doing it may be different in 2009 than it was in 1949.

On page 1 of the April 1949 issue of Scientific American is an advertisement from the Radio Corporation of America announcing—with considerable fanfare—the company’s latest innovation for audiophiles: the 45-rpm vinyl record. Today, the replacement of the replacement of the replacement of that recording medium is teetering on the edge of obsolescence. And yet music goes on! I want to believe that science journalism can also make a transition to a new medium, and perhaps come out of it better than ever.

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13 Responses to Sic transit

  1. Alon Amit says:

    Oh, Scientific American. Some thoughts that came to my mind as I (another non-subscribing fan in my youthful past) was reading this:

    For me, the saddest and most noticeable aspect of SA’s unraveling was the transformation of the Mathematical Recreations column (in its various incarnations). For a period of time it was (again, for me) the brightest spot in each issue. I had hundreds of older issues featuring Gardner, Hofstadter and Dewdney, and I was enjoying Ian Stewart’s work on the column on the then newer issues. It then took a sharp turn south and I virtually lost interest in the column and, to some extent, in the magazine as a whole.

    It is true that today you can find information about Chaitin’s Omega, Lisp and self-reference very easily using various resources on the web. I’m less convinced that the sheer availability of information is as useful as the selective and creative story-telling achieved by Scientific American’s editors and contributors.

    The wisdom of the crowds is supposed to allow us, as consumers of information (or goods), to separate wheat from chaff in the new world. I certainly believe this is true in some domains, but I’m not convinced this is always the case. Time will tell if the younger generation will indeed find effective replacements for the good judgment and creativity of people like Gardner and Hofstadter.

  2. brian says:

    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest there’s no further need for “selective and creative storytellers.” Quite the contrary. But I think the storytelling is going to have to be done in a somewhat different context. For starters, most of it’s going to be done online, not on a printing press. And that requires a change more fundamental than just posting PDFs instead of mailing magazines. Somehow we have to exploit the possibilities of the medium. We have to recognize that there’s a whole universe of knowledge already out there and indexed for quick retrieval. We have to entice readers to participate in the whole show. My sense is that we’re just figuring out how to make all that work. In the forties, Scientific American was a new kind of thing, but once it was created, it seemed obvious. What’s the new obvious?

    And of course I too am an undying fan of Martin Gardner and the Mathematical Games slot in the magazine.

  3. Dave Short says:

    My memories of the old versus the new Scientific American was there was always something of personal interest in the old but not in the new. Even if it was Mathematical Games or Amateur Scientist, I always felt I got full value. At some point they lost it and they lost me as a regular reader of some 30+ years. I have not read Scientific American in several years but look forward to American Scientist because I feel that is where I get full value. Even if the articles aren’t about subjects of interest, there is always the regular columns or the book reviews.

    I am not wedded to print. Much more important are timely and intellectually stimulating articles that appeal to a wide range of interests. These articles are a combination of features and columns. Even if the editors want a special issue, devoted to a single topic, there should be appeal to all readers. For example, at our departmental seminars, we often have speakers talking about cancer research. Most are utterly abominable since the speaker is so caught up in the jargon and acronyms of the business. But the other day, I heard a talk that was delightful because the speaker took the time to make his talk understandable to the physical scientists and engineers without dumbing it down. The biologists also thought is was a great talk. The same applies to what ever is the form for disseminating the information. How you describe the content, not what whiz-bangy methods you might use is what matters.

  4. Derek R says:

    I remember the visceral disappointment I felt when they morphed into an replica of Discover magazine. I unsubscribed immediately and subbed to American Scientist. (May I ask, was there an uptick in subs at AS when SA changed format?)

    One thing the internet doesn’t give you is an editor. There’s a seeming infinity of good stuff out there, but sometimes you need someone to filter through all the crap and reveal the true gems.

  5. Jakob says:

    Many times, when reading your American Scientist columns, I have
    asked myself: didn’t Scientific American once feature great articles
    like these ?

  6. brian says:

    @Derek R:

    May I ask, was there an uptick in subs at AS when SA changed format?

    I don’t think the change in Scientific American was sudden enough for such an event to be detectable. It wasn’t an overnight transformation but a result of many large and small changes implemented over a period of years.

  7. Paul DeLong says:

    Many of my fondest memories of SA are of issues in the early-to-mid 80′s. I can attribute much of my interest in particle physics and high-energy physics to articles written in those issues (I still have them in a shoebox somewhere). It wasn’t until many years later, and more schooling, that I was able to begin to understand the math behind it all (still working on it – the math, that is – there’s a lot of it).

    But these days, the quality seems to have seriously slipped, and they seem more interested in printing flashy low-quality graphics to catch peoples’ attention. And every other issue seems to have a rendition of Einstein’s face on the cover. What’s the deal? I won’t deny he was a very smart guy who made some great contributions, but lately the coverage of him seems to border on fetishism. But perhaps I’m conflating SA with other magazines (Discover) doing the same thing.

    There is still occasionally a good article, but it’s rarely enough to get me to buy an issue (I’ll instead read it in the coffee bar and put it back on the rack). I spend my money on American Scientist instead.

    Anyhow, sorry if that became a bit of a rant. I couldn’t pass-up the opportunity to put in my two cents. :-)

  8. Jim Ward says:

    I just subscribed to SA – sorry for killing it. :( There’s a ton of stuff on the web, but you need a DJ to point out the good stuff. That’s why radio is so awful nowadays – no DJs.

    I remember learning about atoms in school and being told by the nuns that electrons only circled protons, and I brought in a SA picture of an electron circling a muon to prove them wrong. (I was quite the prig). I also sent Martin Gardner a fan letter on Steiner Trees, and he wrote back.

  9. Robert Baillie says:

    Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that this generation has no Martin Gardner to inspire kids to be interested in math. I’ll bet that many young people of my generation were inspired to either major in math, or learn more about it, thanks to Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” section.

    It is a pity that the new dumbed-down Scientific American doesn’t print a math column.

  10. Raoul Duke says:

    Sorry, but printing is dead anyway! Or something.

    I mean, really, can’t we all just put our computers together to get some sort of online free wikified version in a PLoS vein?

  11. Chris says:

    Yeah I remember the great Scientific American of the early days, what I would give to have the real SA back

  12. Doug Huffman says:

    I read every word of every issue for many years, even without understanding, confident that someday it would all make sense. Now, retired, some has come to make great sense but not the passing of SA. I still subscribe but the pallid ghost of SA winds up in the round-tuit stack. Their e-edition is as bad.

  13. noah says:

    Sorry, but printing is dead anyway! Or something.

    I mean, really, can’t we all just put our computers together to get some sort of online free wikified version in a PLoS vein?