The Smithsonian is an American institution, but its genesis was thanks to James Smithson, an early 19th-century British scientist. His will stipulated that if his nephew died without heirs, his sizeable estate would go to the U.S. to found "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Let's give it up for both!

Today, the Smithsonian, comprised of more than 14 museums, is a remarkable establishment. And one of the benefits of membership, aside from its vast collection, is Smithsonian. Conversely, if you subscribe to the magazine, you get free museum membership. This is what is known as a win-win.

For the eclectic among us, Smithsonian is a rare find. The pub began in 1970 and is only on its third editor! Founding editor Edward K. Thompson created a magazine for modern, well-rounded individuals -- and 39 years later, it's still going strong. Thoughtful, in-depth publications are becoming scarce in a world gone Twitter. It's hard to convey cracking the DNA code in 140 characters or less. Paris Hilton is another story. I can sum up the reality-show queen's value in one word: bupkis. Paris, get yourself a real makeover: an education and self-respect. And if your reading skills aren't up to it, hire someone to read Smithsonian to you.

I know you'll enjoy the "Muscle Man" feature about early fitness guru Charles Atlas. Atlas was fond of showcasing his body beautiful in leopard-skin briefs or posing nude for artists, including socialite sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who dubbed him "a knockout!" But he hit the big time teaming with Charles Roman, who wrote zippy ad copy that convinced 97-pound weaklings Atlas' at-home exercise course "Dynamic-Tension" would turn them into macho men. (The publicity stunts -- pulling a car, playing tug of war with the Rockettes -- didn't hurt, either.)

Some 400 years earlier, another Italian was changing our concept of the universe, but this time, it was a cosmic sensation. "Galileo's Vision" details the astronomer's improved telescopes, his discoveries - the Earth revolves around the sun - and his battles with Pope Urban and the Inquisition. Both Galileo and Atlas had a genius for self-promotion; alas, only one lived in a country comfortable with both discovery and dissent. Such story diversity speaks to Smithsonian's strength. A tribute to art and science, it is a colorful reminder that in a super-charged technological age, there is virtue in stillness. That is, for a reader to sit quietly and delve into a subject.

This issue also boasts a profile on Alex Katz, an American painter who, at 82, retains his appeal, and a piece on "Conchylomania," a passion for shells that began in the 17th century. (Imagine the frenzy for the latest iPhone.) The artistry is unchallenged; but biochemists are now captivated by the animals inside - and the promise they may hold for science.

Indeed, Smithsonian is a neat mixture of serious and sublime subjects, a cocktail that its editors are careful to serve shaken, not stirred. For example, the cover story explores Herod's tomb, but the August anniversaries section salutes the premiere of "The Wizard of Oz." Similarly, the winners of the annual photo contest are showcased. (The finalists can be found online.) More than 5,000 photographers from 50 states and 99 countries competed. Whether capturing the ecstasy of an amusement park ride or Chinese fishermen at sunset, the photos prove, to quote Keats, "a thing of beauty is a joy forever."

Thanks to Smithsonian, I am now smarter than I was two hours ago, but I was also taken with the readers entries. David Montague of Vermont weighed in on home funerals, noting that his coffin, already constructed, is standing upright in his library holding books. Genius! For New York apartments, which are rarely spacious, this is a canny attempt at recycling. As Stephen Colbert would say, Mr. Montague earns the "tip of the hat." And so does Smithsonian.


Published by: Smithsonian Institution

Frequency: Monthly


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