In the 1960’s, when I began reporting on “deep” science for the New Yorker, William Shawn, its legendary editor, used to chide me for writing things that he thought readers might not understand. After several of these reprimands I pointed out to him that the New Yorker, which was then a hugely profitable operation, had a circulation of a mere 400,000, while Scientific American, which published really incomprehensible articles, and which was also hugely profitable, had (in all its multi-language editions) a circulation of well over a million.
Gerard Piel, then at Life magazine, had taken over Scientific American just after World War II, realizing that there was a core group of readers who really wanted to learn and that you could give them science “neat,” without mixing it with sensationalism or with what would later be called political correctness. Advertisers also came to realize that these science “groupies”—often scientists themselves—bought things. At its peak, Scientific American had about 1,000 pages of advertisements a year—a very large number—and boasted that it ran more automobile ads than any other monthly magazine.
But in the mid-1980’s the magazine was sold to the Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, a giant German publishing enterprise. At about the same time, the New Yorker was sold to S. I. Newhouse, the owner of a giant American publishing enterprise. Both magazines had previously enjoyed a tradition of a “Chinese Wall” between the business and editorial departments, and staffs at both magazines were assured that this tradition would be maintained. Both were deceived; in the pursuit of ever larger numbers, both magazines have been radically transformed, and both are in the process of being destroyed. Ironically, although neither magazine makes its financial figures public, it is also clear that they must be doing badly: the New Yorker is rumored to be losing over $10 million a year. So even from the point of view of financial self-interest, whatever these publishing gurus had in mind appears to have been a mistake.
To see what has happened to Scientific American—the New Yorker‘s fate would require a separate article, or a book—I will perform a mini-“autopsy” on a recent issue, that of February 1997. Of course some issues are better and some are worse, but they all share the characteristics I am about to describe, and this one is wholly representative.
On the cover of the February issue you will find a frightened-looking white mouse. It appears to be escaping from the cover story, which is entitled “Animal Experimentation: The Debate Continues.” I will discuss later whether what the magazine actually gives us resembles a “debate,” but first let me offer an alternative explanation for the apparently catatonic state of the mouse: it has just glanced at the magazine’s cover price. $4.95! It is not just that no comparable mass-circulation magazine has a cover price this high (a magazine of ideas like COMMENTARY is in another category altogether), or even that the price of Discover, now the closest homologue to Scientific American, is a full dollar lower. (The New Yorker, incidentally, is $2.95 on the newsstand.) Rather, Scientific American is charging not much less than the cost of some paperback books—and what do you get for your money?
The first 40 pages of the February issue, over a third of the whole, are a sort of catalogue of science-in-brief: bits and pieces, each only a few hundred words long, about this and that—people, business, politics—related more or less to science. This is now a common feature in the magazine, and there is nothing terribly wrong with it except that the same thing is done as well or better in many other places, including the Tuesday edition of the New York Times, which now has a quite good “Science” section. The Times, by the way, costs 60 cents.
In recent years, Scientific American has also been running a monthly profile of a scientist. I do not know how these scientists are chosen, but it cannot be because of the earth-shattering significance of their work. The February issue gives us one Patricia D. Moehlman, who has spent some 25 years studying the jackal in Africa. (The March issue has a profile of Ronald Graham, an admittedly well-known mathematician at the AT&T Labs who juggles. He was juggling fifteen years ago when I did a very similar profile of him in connection with a series on the decline and fall of the Bell Labs after the break up of AT&T—another institutional tragedy.)
With all due respect, the fact that jackals “pair-bond” and that both partners participate in raising their pups is not something that is going to change our scientific world view. If I may mutilate a definition formulated by Niels Bohr, an uninteresting truth is one whose opposite is also an uninteresting truth.1 I wish Patricia Moehlman and her jackals well, but I for one would prefer something more substantial, not to mention less patently driven by a feminist agenda. The old Scientific American was not without its left-leaning politics, particularly when it came to the issues of nuclear weapons and the U.S.-Soviet balance of power,2 but for the most part it was a magazine you bought in order to read about science, and for the most part science is what you got to read about.
I will not attempt to analyze the longer articles in the February issue in great detail, but here are a few observations. An essay entitled “The Ghostliest Galaxies”—about recently discovered low-surface-brightness galaxies—begins:
Throughout human history, people have peered into the night sky in search of clues that might help them understand the universe—its size, structure, and evolution.
This cliché of a sentence—I have picked it at random, but I could just as readily have picked dozens of others like it—illustrates one of the major problems with the present magazine: it lacks good writing. There are scientists who write well, but they do not seem to write for Scientific American. Perhaps they are put off by the Procrustean editing or by the fact that, despite its being a blatantly commercial enterprise, Scientific American is notorious for paying less for its articles even than some literary journals.
A bit further on we find an article entitled “The Challenge of Large Numbers.” It deals with a fascinating subject but, as written, illustrates a second and more serious defect of the present magazine. The principal concern of the article, written by the computer scientist Richard C. Crandall, is how these monstrously large numbers are factored into prime numbers—1, 2, 3, 5, and so forth. He informs us that there are three powerful algorithms now used by computer scientists for this purpose. He even tells us what the acronyms of these algorithms are. What he fails to tell us is what the algorithms themselves are, or how they work! For one of them, the so-called Fast Fourier Transform—FFT—we are referred to a box. In the box we are told that “A full discussion of the FFT algorithm is beyond the scope of this article.” If so, why bother? For science at this level, we do not need Scientific American. The New York Times will do just fine.
Finally, I turn to the “debate” over using animals in medical research. It is no debate. The two opponents of such use—Neal D. Barnard and Stephen Kaufman—note that “Animal experimenters often defend their work with brief historical accounts of the supposedly pivotal role of animal data in past advances”; such accounts, these authors warn us, are “easily skewed.” Whereupon the proponents of animal experimentation—Jack H. Botting and Adrian R. Morrison—proceed to make their case by using almost nothing but historical accounts.
In a real debate, the two sides, after making their respective cases, would confront each other and we might learn something. In this sham debate, nothing further is heard from either side. Instead, a staff writer named Madhusree Mukerjee follows with a long article, “Trends in Animal Research,” which totally ignores the preceding “debate” and concludes by asserting that “All of us who use modern medicine and modern consumer products need to acknowledge the debt we owe our fellow creatures and support science in its quest to do better by animals.” How very nice. One wonders what happened to the white mouse on the cover.
The “back of the book” features book reviews, a section which I must say has been usefully expanded over the magazine’s previous format, plus two signed opinion columns which in the February issue seem to me to be a total loss. One—by W. Brian Arthur, under the rubric Wonders—alerts us to how much the world has changed technologically since the birth of his grandfather. Really? The other—Connections, by James Burke—ends with the sentence, “Inspiration is flagging, so I’ll stop.” That should have been its first sentence.
In the 1950’s, when I was starting my scientific career, our elders instructed us that if we ever discovered anything important we should first announce it in a rapid-publication journal like Physical Review Letters in order to claim priority. Then we should publish it in a more stately venue like the Physical Review. Then, if it was really important, we might be asked by Scientific American to write an article about it—a real article. Being tapped by Gerard Piel, the publisher, or by the editor, Dennis Flanagan, was like being admitted to an honor society.
But that was then. Now we have a magazine that disguises itself as Scientific American, just as the New Yorker disguises itself as the New Yorker. They wear some of the same clothes and hats, featuring the old typefaces and even a few of the old contributors. But in an almost desperate attempt to “sell,” they have been dumbed down to the point where more and more they are becoming less and less. And to compound the folly, the strategy seems to be failing even on its own terms.
The old Scientific American was a magazine that one resubscribed to every year. If one was a scientist, it was part of one’s professional dues. After 40 years, I see no reason to renew.
1 What Bohr actually said was that a “deep truth is one whose opposite is also a deep truth.” An example of such a truth, attributed I believe to J. B. Haldane, has to do with the proposition that extraterrestrial life exists. Compare that to the mating habits of jackals.
2 See Jeffrey Marsh, “Politicizing Science,” COMMENTARY, May 1984.