Scientific American

It's smart-'n'-serious day here at Chateau Magazine Rack. My mission, should I choose to accept it: plowing through the December issue of Scientific American while somehow maintaining a far-too-sunny appraisal of my own intellectual aptitude.

Surprisingly, that task isn't as hard as it might appear, owing less to my astonishing capacity for self-delusion than to the inordinately skillful way that Scientific American presents complex information. If nothing else, the December issue affirms that we oughta stop categorizing it as a mere "science magazine" and instead acknowledge its standing as one of the few consistent fodders for big-picture thought to be found on newsstands today. If anybody has a legitimate reason why Scientific American shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath with The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly, I'd love to hear it.

As opposed to the "y'alls be nice to one another this holiday season, y'hear?" thrust of most December-issue notes from the editor, Scientific American takes the Bush administration to task for its "feeble" response to current energy and environmental crises; it reads more like a New York Times editorial than something one would expect from a science-first monthly title. The "Skeptic" column, on the other hand, looses a facts-and-figures-grounded mind on a hippy-dippy California spirituality conference.

Equally provocative are the front-of-book "News Scan" stories, which survey everything from randomized trials of antipoverty programs (and the associated ethical implications) to the possibility of carbon-dating individuals born after 1955, owing to the post-nuke-testing spike in carbon 14 levels in the atmosphere (insert Joan Rivers joke here... on second thought, don't). On the surface, this may sound the stuff of light-reading nightmares. But Scientific American's streamlined presentation and easy-to-parse language render even its most involved narratives readily consumable by anybody willing to invest the time and effort. Seriously--I've had a tougher time following the logic in tabloid romans à clef on Nick and Jessica's breakup (so, wait--Jess' dad didn't want her to start a family while her career was heating up... but Nick, sweet Nick, was willing to put his life on hold to be a daddy... that is, until Jessica's stalwart assistant CaCee, who's "just friends" with that USC quarterback guy, started questioning her allegiance in the wake of reported infidelities on the Dukes of Hazzard set... I don't get it).

Scientific American's features use science as a gateway into larger-minded discussions of global issues. A story on malaria both surveys its economic impact and scolds the world's leaders for not availing themselves of options like bed nets treated with insecticide. Another feature notes the imminent possibility of efficiency and safety upgrades in the nuclear fuel cycle; a third illustrates how the stress of poverty increases the risk of physical maladies. All feel global-policy-oriented, rather than obsessed with scientific minutiae.

The last of the features, however, tweaks that formula to great effect: it introduces us to savant Kim Peek, who is able to memorize hundreds of books yet can't button his own shirt. Through individuals like him, the story posits, we can learn an awful lot about the workings of human cognition (which it then discusses in great detail). But just when you think you've entered Nerd Central, Scientific American reverses course with a first-person test drive of a next-generation bicycle boasting an automatic transmission. Whoever set the running order for the December issue has a keen understanding of what makes a magazine flow.

I'm not sure Scientific American does quite as well from a graphic perspective, even after a relatively recent design upgrade. The overview boxes for each feature offer welcome brevity, but the mag misses an opportunity by only sparsely illustrating the "Scientific American 50" list of tech leaders. Too, the photos that accompany the main features alternately seem too literal and too ham-handed: a shot of a mosquito on a child's arm positively screams "malaria!," while the grainy one accompanying the health-scourge-of-poverty piece presents a homeless women with a facial expression that suggests, "Oh, shoot, I forgot to TiVo 'The Apprentice.'"

But that's a small quibble. I hated science during my schoolboy days; I love Scientific American. For anyone remotely curious about the world around him or her, there are few better places to turn for a data fix.

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