I'm a fairly curious guy, especially when I see a chance to parlay whatever knowledge I can glean into personal gain. And so the December Discover caught my eye with two of its cover queries: "Why are people nice?" (why, they're practically begging me to take advantage of that kindness), and "Can science predict when the housing bubble will burst?" (if so, remind me to kidnap Columbia's zoology chair for my next open-house jamboree). Throw in a teaser about gamma-ray bursts and a pinkish image that's either an agitated galaxy or an upturned raspberry yogurt, and I was duly prepped for a dullard-defrauding, dorktastic magazine experience.

When I turned the page, however, Discover damn near fell apart in my hands. I rarely dwell on production-related flotsam like paper stock, but as well as Discover reads--and it remains among the smartest titles out there not named Scientific American--its lowly look and feel relegate the magazine to third-tier status. It feels like somebody threw the publication together on the cheap, diverting the savings into a slush fund for, like, disadvantaged youth to attend Sci-Fi-Comic-Con 2006.

Compounding the disappointment is that the topics in the December issue are so readily illustratable that even an elementary-school art teacher could've had a field day with them, with or without the use of popsicle sticks and cotton balls. Take Discover's look back at 50 years of robots: Rather than finding a way to graphically depict each of the 25 featured gizmos (maybe a light-minded tale-of-the-tape comparing Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot with C-3PO?), the magazine crams 23 of the 25 onto a two-page spread, rendering the feature both unattractive and unreadable.

The "Field Guide to the Entire Universe" actually delivers the editorial pomp inherent in its moniker, yet smudgy photos and illustrations dilute the impact of its words. Similarly, the octet of fossil photos in "Dead Dinosaurs Walking" might as well be invisible, given the absence of detail within their stamp-size reproductions.

Even when Discover attempts to get a little frisky with its design, the mag provokes more questions than it answers. A random full-page, knee-down shot of a pair of prosthetic legs to illustrate the potential pitfalls of untreated type 2 Diabetes? In an issue where you've passed on the chance to depict dinosaurs and robots and double-super-cool space nebula dealie-trons? Whoever's issuing these design decrees doesn't deserve to keep his or her job.

For those who don't base their to-read-or-not-to-read decisions on comeliness of presentation, there's a lot in the December issue to like. The story on the unraveling of the "Mystery of the Black Pharaohs" analyzes geomorphological symbols to determine how Nubians seized the Egyptian throne back in the first century B.C. The piece that seeks to discern why people behave nicely, on the other hand, looks at everything from reality TV contestants to Milgram's test subjects before arriving at its conclusion ("basically, we don't know. Let's go grab a beer"). Also slyly diverting is the Q&A with a geophysics professor who taps complexity theory to elucidate the causes and effects of catastrophic events, though his wonky theories leave unexplained the orange-tinted calamity that is the New York Mets.

Finally, I'd be doing you, sweet reader, a grand disservice if I didn't acknowledge the one column that no amount of graphic frippery could save--ER doc Pamela Grim's "Vital Signs." In it, Dr. Grim--there's a surname I'd love to hear before my next splenectomy--notes that similar symptoms (coughing, shortness of breath) in different individuals (young baby/middle-aged man) might mean different things. You think? As if her tale isn't simplistic enough, she ends it by describing the aforementioned baby as "angelically sleeping like a baby." Nurse, thesaurus, stat!

I'm generally a fan of any publication that doesn't pander to its readers, and there's little in Discover I don't find engaging on an intellectual level. But until the publication does something about its design deficiency, I'd hesitate to recommend it even to a Trekkie. My advice: lock the magazine's art staff in a room with copies of Lucky, Cargo, and a few other mindless but artfully designed titles, and don't let them out until they've produced a new graphic prototype.

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