Review: an appreciation of the New Scientist magazine

“Entertain, or else….” headlines the Comment and analysis column in the 20/27 December 2008 issue of the New Scientist magazine. Here, Michael Brooks, a consultant for New Scientist and author of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense asserts forcefully that scientists need to make their work more appealing and less boring if they don’t want funding to dry up.

In his hard-hitting article he quotes the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger addressing the scientific community: “Never lose sight of the role your particular subject has within the great performance of the tragi-comedy of human life. If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing is worthless.”

This challenging comment piece inspired me to write an appreciation of the New Scientist.

Last spring, whilst preparing mentally to transform from techno-dinosaur into cyber-babe via computer lessons to enable me to set up this website, I responded to a magazine insert promoting the New Scientist, taking out a year’s subscription. Normally immune to the blandishments of promotional leaflets, this uncharacteristic impulse has proved to be highly beneficial; my lifelong interest in science – purely as a lay person with no formal scientific education – has been very well stimulated during 2008 as a result.

In sum, I think that the New Scientist does an excellent job in telling us all what the scientific community has been up to, simultaneously weaving global, political, cultural and social issues into its information-giving, never losing sight of “ the great performance of the tragi-comedy of human life ”, as Schrodinger so eloquently put it.

I cannot pretend for a moment to read the magazine from cover to cover every week, sometimes only finding time to read the lead article in the Cover Story. But when, for example, that story is From big bang to big bounce (writer Anil Ananthaswamy, 13 December 2008 issue) and is summarised thus:

“What if our universe didn’t appear from nothing, but was recycled from one that went before?” …., going on fully to inform me about loop quantum cosmology, which predicts that the universe didn’t arise from nothing in a big bang, but “grew from the collapse of a pre-existing universe that bounced back from oblivion….” – this provides me with enough mind-boggling reflection to make the one-hour journey to my dentist, across the city on the number 40 bus, fly by in what feels like a nano-second.

Read the New Scientist !
Read the New Scientist !

The latest issue of this brilliant magazine now travels around with me in my backpack, thereby ensuring that any waiting becomes an educative opportunity. I’ve also taken to reading it over breakfast (nobody speaks much in our house before 11am), at times being unable to resist offering gems:
This is amazing! Did you know that a corroded lump of bronze, salvaged from an ancient shipwreck, has turned out to be nothing less than a computer used to plot the motion of heavenly bodies – possibly invented by Archimedes around 200 BC?” (Decoding the Antikythera by Jo Marchant, p36 New Scientist, 13th December )

The New Scientist is most accessibly and clearly laid out, with lots of arresting photography, clear illustrative diagrams and a healthy sprinkling of cartoons. Content is summarised on the very first print page, under these headings: (examples from 3 Jan 2009 Issue)
News – ‘Obama’s dream team prepares for business’
Technology –  ‘polymer bubbles target tumours’
Features – ‘Cover Story “Three Degrees of Contagion” Detox your life by harnessing the power of other people – even some you’ve never met’
Opinion –  ‘Comment and Analysis If more kids are to become scientists, fun and learning must be one and the same, says TV presenter Richard Hammond
RegularsLetters, Enigma (a baffling question set as a challenge to readers), Feedback, The Last Word, and Jobs.

This layout means that even if you don’t read everything, you find out in summary what the hot issues of the week are, thereby gaining an archive which can be looked up eg when a subject comes up in conversation and you think “I’m sure there was something about that in a recent New Scientist….”

The writing is lively, clear, often witty, generally first class. And there is always  – ALWAYS – in every issue something so totally mind-boggling that you go around all week telling everyone about it.
My recent personal favourite(can’t quite find which issue it was in, but I will!) concerned an American woman sitting quietly in an armchair at home when a small meteorite came crashing through the roof, scarring her thigh and narrowly missing killing her. It just so happened that her house was situated across the street from a club – whose promotional neon lighting featured a lightning bolt and a hurtling meteorite….

So – can you survive without a regular subscription to the New Scientist? If you subscribe to the ethos of this website, I think not !!

(this review is now referenced on the New Scientist’s wikipedia page)

800 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page