The Best of Times (Good Reads Redux)

Fair warning:  What follows is ~3000 words on what a good time it is to find science fascinating.  Avoid if you’re not interested.

Given my day job teaching young writers about covering science, and given that we’re a month shy of the first day of classes for our next cohort of science-writing graduate students, I’ve been doing an informal survey of what’s out there as venues in which those folks will perform over the next few years.  And, as I suggested in this post, I came away with the somewhat unexpected sense that we are living in a genuinely great age for writing and the public engagement with science.

Science writers are fond of weeping in their cups* about the dire state of the traditional science media.  And they/we should.  MSM science writing is often said to have peaked in the so called “golden age” of the 80s.  That was when a whole new crop of science-technology-gee-whiz glossies appeared.  I think I listed a fair number of the new rags last time — Time Inc.’s Discover (my first real employer), Science 8X, Penthouse publication’s Omni** (founded 1978, actually) and others I’m blanking on, joining old stalwarts enjoying new interest — Scientific American, Popular Science, Science News,and others.  The end of the decade saw the birth of one of my all-time favorites, the short-lived, much missed Mondo 2000, and in the early 90s, you got Wired.

The NYT’s Science Times first appeared as a separate section on November 14, 1978.  It still exists, and is reasonably healthy — but diminished from its heydey.  Following the Grey Lady (no longer of) 43rd St., other newspapers built up their own dedicated science, technology and health desks.  There were lots of jobs to be had, a seemingly endless tally of stories to be written.

Juan_Gris_004

Part of the reason you saw such an expansion of science journalism was that the late 70s and onwards have been simply a fabulous time to be covering the beat.

Consider:

ITEM: You had the beginnings of the digital revolution ramping up into full scale insurrection over those years.  I didn’t grasp fully what it meant that I could haul my Kaypro C/PM driven, dual-disk drive machine down to the subway below the Time-Life Bldg., and then muscle it up to my fourth floor walk-up in Little Italy to pound away through the night — but I knew that this was a wholly different experience from the typewriter-and-carbons system I’d used just a year or two before to file from Manila and London.  I got the significance a little more when I first played with  the 300 baud modem I got with my TRS 100 (NEC clone, actually) notebook computer a couple of years later.***  But even if I was a little blase about this sudden appearance of computation in the nooks and crannies of my daily life, still, it was clear something big was in progress.

ITEM: Same for the molecular biology story.  As of 1980, it was still a huge deal to sequence a single gene, which meant that there was a lot of what looks from here to be dicey scientific claims and dicier stories about the “gene for (x)” — where x could be alcoholism or what have you.  But again, even if in those days both researchers and reporters leapt to conclusions actual biology would erode over time,**** it was clear that we were in the midst of transformative shift in the precision and levels of explanation — the understanding of causation — that biology could approach when it tackled life at the molecular level.  If we’ve learned that all the problems that seemed just one more DNA sequence short of solution are considerably more complicated than we might wish, still it’s not often you live through the kind of conceptual earthquake that occurred from the 70s to the 90s.  That it now seems obviously the necessary approach is just a measure of how powerful a wave it was then.

ITEM:  I could go on all day (and some might say I have).  The original Keck telescope saw first light with its complete 10 meter mirror on April 14, 1992 — an event that ended Mt. Palomar’s Hale telescope’s 45 year run as the world’s largest (high performance) optical telescope.*****  In the two decades since the Keck went live  — though I need to check this number — I believe more telescope observing area has been installed around the world than was used in the entire prior history of professional observing dating back to 1609.

Galileos_Moon

Throw in the Hubble, the other NASA “Great Observatories” — and the record of NASA’s other unmanned space-science missions — and you have a revolution in our knowledge of both the earth (remotely sensed from space) and our cosmic surroundings through incomprehensible ranges of space and time.  And then there’s…

…hell, you get the idea.  Oh Brave New World that has such knowledge in’t.

Science is still roaring along, of course, and  fundamental inquiry lands in technology with astonishing, daily-life-reworking speed.  I remember in 1983 taking a trip to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, where a virtuoso microscopist showed me a video image of a segment of a neuron, saying “some think that’s where memory resides.”  This year I spent time at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Science, and talked to someone who was tracing in high resolution images of living brains thinking the development of specialized systems of thinking about other people.  We live in amazing times; flat-out gorgeous, exciting times.

Only, not so much for science writers trained up as I was, in an ecosystem dominated by a robust print advertising model.  The newspaper science sections are gone, mostly, hundreds of them between 2000 and now.  Magazines have folded, or eroded into shadows of their former selves.   There’s a fragmentation of the business; there are these things that every graduate student seems to write — I think they’re called blogs and….

… you know this drill too.

But here’s a funny thing.  I do not believe there has been a better time to be a science reader. Ever.

Again, in that earlier post, I focused on a couple of fine articles turning up in one of the new venues for long-form science writing, London-based Aeon Magazine.******  Aeon is in some ways simply a digital expression of a conventional media type.  It publishes essays and features, nicely illustrated with a bit of flat art, just like a magazine on dead trees. But even with that utterly familiar genre focus, there is still this crucial difference:  that Aeon  is an all-digital production means that it has no constraint either as to the overall length of  the pieces it publishes, or to a need to cram its pieces into set frames, one page in the magazine for a short, say, and five for a full length feature.  The news hole is what it wants to be for each and every article it chooses to put out into the world.    This sounds like a small thing, or maybe just an obvious one — but it sets up a radically different writing framework than the one that I and my friends and colleagues encountered (and still do, sometimes) when working to the constraints of cold type.   Stories get to be what they need to be, and not what the issue-budget that month dictates.

(One corollary:  this puts a premium on the one true constraint in this new golden age:  excellent editing.  Long doesn’t mean good, unless it’s actually good, and the only way to be sure of that is if someone with a brain, an ear and a sharp red pencil is available to go to work on one’s deathless prose.)

Merely digitizing words, thus, opens up venues and forms to writers who could never have hoped to try that sort of thing when only The New Yorker and a handful of other rags would let their chosen few rabbit on until they were done.  We hear more voices, younger voices, more from across the gender line and so on, and that’s a big change.  Thus the importance not just of Aeon,  but of  MatterByliner (not just a science-themed site, but  with a lot in that area), Nautilus, which is trying to enact a concept-album approach to popular science publication, and many more.  I sent out a query to some science writing buddies to survey the venues people in the business are pitching to, and the names came pouring out:  Quanta, Pacific Standard (formerly Miller McCune Magazine, and also not exlusively aimed at science)The Vergeand others that my colleagues are already writing for, despite the fact that they have yet to launch.  Older venues are shifting some resources this direction too — I’ve written once for The New Yorker’s new Elements strand, a daily feed of some commentary and some original science and technology reporting under that august brand.  Old warhorses like Popular Mechanics, Scientific Americanor Popular Science are putting good material out there, and so are places like the Nature New Service…and the list goes on.

The science blog world is enormously valuable as well, the more so (IMHO), as it professionalizes.  There’s the Scientific American blog network; National Geographic’s new Phenomena  salon, Wired.com’s stable and many others.  The New York Times may be dropping blogs — but in the science writing world, there’s no shortage, and increasingly, the old signal-noise problem of that blogosphere is resolving itself through a rather traditional gate-keeping/quality control editorial approach, updated for new media.

And then there is the penetration of science into culture and vice versa as documented at strands like Io9, or parts of the ArsTechnica site, BoingBoing, and dozens more that I know exist but one one-person/one-day-per-day life doesn’t permit me to read.  A torrent of words, of ideas, of engagement with science, its applications in technology and the useful arts, and its intellectual penetration into the realms of story, narrative, expression, art, all the good stuff.  Just digging through this first layer of links to write this essay has made me happy:  so much interesting, unexpected, important stuff out there, daily, for my private, personal edification.

And wait!  There’s more.  I and a lot of the folks I talk to about the future of science communication talk often about Atavist.  The Atavist acts as both a publisher and a platform, and the secret sauce there is their system to produce multimedia reads:  texts augmented by computation to permit the use of a rich range of materials, moving images, sound, interactive graphics and so on.  You can turn on or off such add-ons, (and you can buy Atavist published work as plain e-books  for a bit less than the fully gadgetized texts if you choose).  But theirs is one of the most elegant solutions yet to the challenge and opportunity posed by what the digitization of words permits in the way of marrying text to all the rest of the ways to communicate with each other — both the ones we’ve had for a while and those now being created.  Other publishers are working on similar stuff, “books” that are actually apps.  In such work, you have something inconceivable when I started out in the business:  an account of something about science that can, at the reader’s command, reach through the first layer of words into (conceivably) anything that bears on the matter at hand that exists anywhere on the web.

All of which is to belabor the obvious:  this is a Gutenberg moment, a handful of years — decades at most — when the range of ideas about science and its connections to human experience can reach audiences that have never had such a wealth of information and interpretation so immediately available to them.  As someone for whom this stuff is the Greatest Story Ever Told — as a reader — I couldn’t be happier.

Rembrandt_-_A_Scholar_Seated_at_a_Desk

But as a writer and a teacher of those who would deliver this stuff into the great, gaping maw of the web?

There are problems, no doubt.  All those good staff jobs of a generation ago are gone, and there is no reason to expect them back anytime soon.  Take the current run on resume-writing software in a newsroom in DC as a material reminder of that reality.*******

The reality is that science writing of the sort that I’ve been discussing here — longer pieces, essays, attempts to dive beneath the surface of any single paper or finding — is largely a free-lance game.  Freelancing in the context of a mostly online publishing ecosystem is tricky; the dust is very far from settling in the transition from a centralized on-paper publishing model to the much more variegated evolutionary tree we’re seeing now.  I  get emails regularly from well-intentioned people who want me or my students to write for free “for exposure,” — and who are surprised when they are told that exposure don’t pay the rent.

Some of the new web-publications get this and are paying rates that are at least plausible, even if they don’t approach the five figure paydays one could aspire to with a major feature in a top glossy.  Some places — notably Atavist,  but others as well — are trying some new payment models that can reward writers very well indeed. Some are still stuck in the old couple-of-bucks-for-a-blog-post mindset, even as they seek the much more involved and deeply reported-and-thought pieces you now often see at the best blog venues. The writers I admire are making it (that’s a bit of circular logic, I guess; they wouldn’t be there to admire if they weren’t) but there’s no question that it is an uncertain, unpredictable game for newer writers trying to build a self-sustaining career.

But acknowledging that reality, this wealth of new venues implies an audience responding to these attempts to bring serious, sophisticated, complex, variegated stories of science to the public.  That, to me, is the most hopeful sign for a healthy, economically viable culture of science communication.  The argument made by the simple existence of a venue like Aeon or a platform like The Atavist is in direct contradiction to the daily-evident failure of those media institutions that have tried to chase a presumed ever shorter attention span and/or a hunger for one flavor or another of raw meat.  CNN isn’t imploding for lack of resources; it is, at least as I see it, dying of contempt for its audience.  So it is with many others…and so it isn’t with the best of what’s happening in the science writing-and-reading world.

Here endeth the lesson.

*Fond of their cups full stop, I might add.  Standard wisdom at the relevant conferences:  Don’t drink with the ocean folks.  Hangover city.¹  Trust me on this.)

1: Actually, puke till it leaks past your eyeballs city, but never mind.

**As I was working on this post, news has come that Omni is getting a reboot. Great news.  It really was a gonzo magazine, a great one when it played to the top of its game.  One of its strengths — killer fiction to go along with all the rest, works by folks like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling (who’ll be appearing in the reincarnation, it seems) and many others.  As I say through the rest of this post, this is a fine time to be a reader of smart stuff infused with ideas, science, technological imagination and all the rest.

***That Radio Shack box was truly revolutionary — the first really functional traveling computer, one that in some ways was never really replaced.  It weighed three pounds, ran on AA batteries (I repeat: it ran on double A’s!) and could do just a couple of things with its 8 lines by 40 character screen. But what it could do was great:  you could write, and using its on-board modem (an add on for my NEC) you could file over any phone line in the country.  Netbooks and earlier versions of ultralight computers could serve the same function, but what the Trash 100 (as it was affectionately known) had going for it was (a) extreme simplicity, (b) a go-anywhere capability made possible by the use of standard batteries, and (c) after a while, a pretty reasonable price.  I don’t know if this is just my impression, having been in a world — journalism — that really glommed onto the little beasts, but that one bit of kit seems in retrospect to be a true cultural harbinger.  YMMV.

****(not that we’ve altogether shed that particular error)

*****A Soviet era telescope with a mirror 6 meters in diameter went into operation in the north Caucasus mountains in 1977.  In the context of the Cold War, the instrument took direct aim at the 5 meter Hale for the title of the largest optical telescope in the world.  A series of issues with the mirror and the siting and design of the observatory itself significantly limited its effectiveness, and it never out-resolved the Hale.  Hence, most western histories of optical astronomy ignore it, perhaps, unfairly.

******As of this writing (August 7, 2013) the top-of-the-feed post is another good one, an essay on privacy in the context of Snowden and Facebook.  I take some issue with its dependence on that most studied of all human groups, 18-22 year old, at least relatively well-to-do American college students, but I found provocative the notion that while we retain a desire and/or need for privacy, the fact that, as writer Ian Leslie puts it, “we don’t really believe in the internet,” puts us in a position where there is a mismatch between the technology of communication and our expectations of it.  There’s a bit of a “get off of my lawn, kids” feel to that argument, but I don’t think it’s all wrong.  And here I’m making my point:  the piece is making me argue with it and myself, which is a marker of useful writing.

*******Not intended to be a factual statement.

Images:  Juan Gris, Still Life with a Guitar, a Book, and a Newspaper, c.1919.

Galileo’s sketch of the moon from Sidereus Nuncius, 1610, with a photograph of the same view.

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Scholar Seated at a Desk1634.

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8 Comments on “The Best of Times (Good Reads Redux)”


  1. Great article articulating many of the reasons for changes in our science journalist/communication world. Sharing it with all I know :)


  2. Reblogged this on Popsciguy and commented:
    An article by Thomas Levenson that nicely articulates the changes that have happened over the last decades in out science journalism/communication world. Good read!

  3. Marc Says:

    You had a Kaypro too? (Actually, it sounds like you had a Kaypro II.) My first computer was a Kaypro 10, so every time I see a reference my heart grows a size.

  4. chris y Says:

    My uncle was the theatre critic on the Financial Times (London). Before 1984, this was how his job was:

    As soon as, or before the final curtain fell, he had to climb over his fellow first nighters and run into the foyer to commandeer one of the few pay phones there. If he didn’t get one he had to wait till one came free. Then he would call the paper and ask to be put through to the duty sub editor. When they came on the line he would improvise his article for the next morning from his notes. Then the subbie would read it back to him and he would make corrections. Lather, rinse, repeat till they were both happy. Eventually he could go home, often not getting to bed before 1:00 in the morning.

    In 1984 they gave him a Tandy 200. This was how his job was then:

    When the curtain fell, he joined in the applause, and left the theatre in his own time, pausing to chat with friends and colleagues. Then he went home and poured himself a drink. He wrote his article, uploaded it, and went to bed, leaving the rest to the sub editor. He said it made more difference to his quality of life than anything in his career.

  5. Solomon Kleinsmith Says:

    This touches on many of the reasons why I’m launching a site that is geared toward popularizing science and technology news more. Hopefully I’ll be able to drive even more traffic in the direction of many of the sites you mentioned (all but a couple I already follow by RSS), and eventually make some worthy contributions of my own.


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