These are hard times for science in America. Evolution has been demoted to "theory" thanks to fossil-hating Intelligent Design thugs, NASA budget cuts and stem-cell restrictions are forcing research scientists overseas, American students now rank lower in science proficiency than several species of marine life, and the last three "Star Wars" movies sucked. Arthur C. Clarke didn't die of natural causes, folks. He simply couldn't bear to look anymore.
Which is why, now more than ever, we need Scientific American. This gorgeous glossy has been making science entertaining -- or at least, trying to -- since 1845. That means SciAm has been around longer than the Civil War and John McCain. In fact, according to its Web site, SciAm is the oldest continuously published magazine in the U.S. A quick Google search seems to confirm that claim. So right away SciAm scores points for truthiness, which is good for a magazine about science.
As with anything that's been around that long, there are people who will tell you it just ain't what it used to be. Sure enough, the Web is filled with laments about the lowered standards of SciAm. But I have no doubt that 100 years ago one could easily find a pair of etymologist buddies draining a bottle of grog or absinthe or whatever the hell people drank in those days and moaning to the bartender, "It used to be about the science, man!" So let's maintain perspective.
There is no denying the sheer mind-blowing awesomeness of the topics covered in the March issue of SciAm. The cover story, "The End of Cosmology," explores the theory that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate, pulling solar systems farther and farther apart from one another, erasing all evidence of the Big Bang, leaving our descendents nothing to gaze upon but "a small puddle of stars in an endless, changeless void." How silly does Good Housekeeping sound right now?
Other topics include the limits of quantum computers, over-fishing of the bluefin tuna, the military arms race in space, and the results of the largest workplace health study every conducted. In other words, SciAm gives the scientific treatment to a wide range of topics, many of which have no place in a high school chemistry class. And that's a good thing, because good science, like good journalism, can throw a light on anything when done properly.
Both are in top form here, though I admit to being a little surprised at just how much hardcore science -- at least to my layman's eyes -- makes its way into SciAm. Even simple front-of-book items get a bit more technical than I would have expected, occasionally forcing me to skim along at maybe a 70 percent comprehension rate. I still couldn't really explain to you why Internet financial markets predict election outcomes better than political polls, but damn if I don't understand it as well as I'm ever going to. And I for one don't mind an article that asks more of my brain than it can give, considering how many ask nothing more challenging than which actress looks better in a red gown.
Besides, SciAm is ready for dolts like me. Every article comes with a series of bullet points highlighting the big ideas. It's the kind of thing that makes me sad when I see it on CNN.com -- does a 500-word piece about a teacher seducing her student really warrant Cliff's Notes? But here I think it enhances the experience, if only because it makes it more likely people will read the article, not skip it.
Still, SciAm is not beach reading. Anyone who didn't excel at high school physics might even have a hard time making it through. But it does succeed in making science as entertaining as it can be in print, at a time when print is a little too obsessed with entertainment.
Published by: Scientific American, Inc.