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September 24, 2007

The Virtues of American Scientist

Posted by John Baez

A lot of us old-timers feel sad about the decline of serious popular science magazines like Scientific American and New Scientist. Perhaps with the rise of science blogging we don’t really need such magazines anymore. But I’m not so sure…

Lately I’ve been browsing through this magazine at my local bookstore:

It makes me feel the way I used to feel when reading Scientific American. They’ve got articles on all sorts of topics, and tons of book reviews in each issue. They’re well-written, clear, and — best of all, when compared to some of the competition — moderately demanding, not dumbed-down or drawn like a moth to the candle flame of lowest-common-denominator sensationalism.

Why are they so good? Maybe it’s because they’re run by a scientific society, Sigma Xi. The way multimedia conglomerates demand their newspapers, magazines and journals keep boosting their profits may eventually kill certain writerly crafts… but magazines put out by professional organizations may do better. Let’s hope so! A lot of the best things in life are created just for the love of it.

Anyway, I finally broke down and got a three-year subscription to American Scientist. Sure, you can get a lot of their stuff free online (though not all). But, it’ll be fun having a good science magazine to read at breakfast. My wife wisely forbids the use of computers at the breakfast table… but newspapers and magazines are allowed.

Posted at September 24, 2007 7:43 PM UTC

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17 Comments & 1 Trackback

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Out of curiosity, have you formed an opinion on Seed?

Posted by: Blake Stacey on September 25, 2007 5:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Not really, yet. I’ve only looked at it a couple of times. At first I was impressed, then I began to get a bit scared that they were going for flash — a “hip, edgy” look, rather than substance.

I guess you saw Greg Egan’s blistering comments over on Cosmic Variance — not about Seed, but perhaps apropos:

What’s lame is when intellectuals (or anyone else) aspire to be “hip” and “edgy” — notions that are, rightly, wholly owned subsidiaries of the Coca Cola corporation. If algebraic geometers want to skydive nude into South American war zones on the weekends, that’s fine with me, but let’s not make it compulsory. Ninety-nine percent of worthwhile intellectual achievements are made by people who had the courage to swim against the tide of adolescent conformity that gave us fans of Hunter S. Thompson. Instead of trying to make academics fashionably interesting, it would be infinitely preferable to encourage and celebrate the independence of mind of those who don’t give a shit what anyone thinks is cool.

Trivia question: which Egan novel mentions phosphoric acid, and why?

Posted by: John Baez on September 26, 2007 6:18 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Diaspora.

Inoshiro cut ver off impatiently. ‘We’re not talking nucleotide viruses here. The molecules themselves were just a random assortment of junk – mostly phosphoric acid; it was the memes they came wrapped up in that made them virulent.’ Ve bent down lower, and cupped vis hands over the container. ‘And who knows how small a fragment it can bootstrap from? I’m not taking any chances.’ [pp. 66-7]

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on September 26, 2007 8:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Right! It’s a deliberately cryptic passage. It helps to know that our heroes are walking in robot bodies in a jungle on far-future Earth. And, to see that Egan is talking about a can of cola — which is mainly water, sugars and phosphoric acid — it helps to read this earlier passage:

Yatima heard something skid across the ground in front of her; ve’d inadvertently kicked a small piece of corroded metal out from under a shrub. Ve kept walking, but Inoshiro paused to examine it, then cried out in alarm.

‘What?’

‘Replicator!’

Yatima turned back and angled for a better view; the interface made vis body crouch. ‘It’s just an empty canister.’ It was almost crushed flat, but there was still paint clinging to the metal in places, the colours faded to barely distinguishable greys. Yatima could make out a portion of a narrow roughly longitudinal band of varying width, slightly paler than its background; it looked to ver like a two-dimensional representation of a twisted ribbon. There was also part of a circle – thought if it was a biohazard warning, it didn’t look much like the ones ve recalled from vis limited browsing on the subject.

Inoshiro spoke in a hushed, sickened tone. ‘Pre-Introdus, this was pandemic. Distorted whole nations’ economies. It had hooks into everything: sexuality, tribalism, half a dozen art forms and subcultures… it parasitised the fleshers so thoroughly you had to be some kind of desert monk to escape it.’

Posted by: John Baez on September 26, 2007 9:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

American Scientist has been around for a long time, of course, and IMO has always been good. What has changed is that now nothing else is good (or pretty nearly).

BTW, John, regarding Kleinian geometry, did you see the article by Brian Hayes, “Sorting the Genome”? Somewhere over at Physics Forums I posted on how the pancake sorting problem illustrates a wreath product.

Posted by: Chris Hillman on September 26, 2007 10:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

No, I haven’t seen Brian Hayes’ article ‘Sorting the Genome”. Like Christine Dantas, I enjoyed the American Scientist article on the dog genome. I like dogs and think it’s an interesting question to determine how many times wolves (or other canids) have been domesticated. Of course it’s hard to tell exactly what this question means, which is one reason it’s interesting.

Posted by: John Baez on September 28, 2007 10:07 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

I must be a masochist, because I recently renewed my subscription to New Scientist. Maybe it’s futile, but I feel an obligation to continue tracking what’s happening to them and sending them letters of complaint, when they publish absurdities like these:

  • an article on Boltzmann brains (full article for subscribers only) which insists that the correct way to estimate cosmological parameters is to take into account the fact that if there were a large number of such conscious beings in the far future, it would “violate the Copernican principle” by making non-Boltzmann brains like us atypical;
  • a letter from a reader which suggests that maybe quantum entanglement is just like two twins leaving home with different-coloured wallets: if you see one twin’s wallet, you know the colour of the other wallet. The reader asks “Am I missing something?” … and the magazine’s editor responds “No, it’s exactly right”. So much for QM violating Bell’s Theorem.

But I’ve started reading American Scientist online, it looks great.

Posted by: Greg Egan on September 27, 2007 12:11 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

To say something nice about New Scientist for a change, I should add that they recently published this piece (albeit, somewhat ironically, available in full only to subscribers) by Jim Giles on Eric Dezenhall and PRISM, matters much discussed on The n-Category Café. They’re also running a blog thread on this topic, though to date there have been few comments on it, none of them of much interest.

Posted by: Greg Egan on September 27, 2007 4:47 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Graham Lawton, the features editor of New Scientist, is daring me to write a 2400-word science story.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on September 28, 2007 2:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Do it! But first find out how much leeway they demand when it comes to editing it. It may show up looking different from what you wrote.

Write about EUREKA — you’re the expert, and it needs the publicity.

Posted by: John Baez on September 28, 2007 6:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Correction: the challenge was for Blake to post a sample of science journalism at his one blog, which NS writers could then rip to shreds, presumably again at his own blog.

Blake, I suggest you counter with a quotation from Samuel Johnson: “No Man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”. If he protests that you write for free in your blog, you should say “No Man but a blockhead ever did anything involving being peppered with buckshot, except for money”

Posted by: Chris Hillman on September 28, 2007 8:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Oh — sorry, Blake, I didn’t follow the link so I didn’t quite understand. So Lawton wants you to write a 2400-word story just so he can critique it?

Hmm, that’s sort of like tossing clay pigeons in the air so he can shoot them down. But, the mere sight of the features editor of New Scientist critiquing you should be somewhat entertaining. The only people who have anything to lose are you and him.

Posted by: John Baez on September 28, 2007 9:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Hi, Greg!

Bet the NS editors are chortling if they noticed your renewal!

Have you seen the latest issue of New Scientist? Is there by any chance some kind of article claiming that Anderson and Nieto conclude in their recent review that the alleged Pioneer effect “most likely represents new [fundamental] physics”? Reason I ask: I happened to spot a news release from NS (hmm… so “news mags” can put out “news releases”? apparently they can and do)
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-08/ns-tkt081606.php
which purports to be an interview of Anderson and Nieto (the press release attempts to cite http://www.arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0608087, but Anderson and Nieto have written several more recent eprints which seem more relevant to the subject of reviewing the alleged effect.)

The news release reads in part “The researchers say that while it is possible that an overlooked effect from ordinary physics might account for the anomalies, something more exotic could also be involved. For example, the spacecraft trajectories could be influenced by the presence of dark matter in the solar system, says Nieto. Or maybe the laws of gravity need reworking.” After further discussion of the views of Anderson and Nieto, the press release continues “Not everyone is convinced the Earth fly-by anomaly points to new physics” which is followed by a quotation from Myles Standish. Well, you sort of have to read the whole thing to see why I think the press release suggests that Anderson and Nieto believe that the so-called “Pioneer effect” most likely “points to new physics”, while some of their colleagues demur.

If so, my problem is that the most recent review by Anderson and Nieto http://www.arxiv.org/abs/0709.3866 actually states the OPPOSITE view! The last paragraph reads in part: “We therefore have to conclude that it is unlikely that the Pioneer anomaly is caused by new physics”, adding “Stay tuned”. The abstract mentions radiant heating as a likely cause. Anderson and Nieto do stress that “new physics” has nonetheless not yet been decisively ruled out, which seems fair enough to me.

So is this yet another example of a misleading sensationalist slant in an NS article? Or did Anderson and Nieto really say one thing to NS and quite the opposite to their professional colleagues (and other arXiv readers)? Or have they “flipped” within the past few months? (If so, THAT might be mildly newsworthy.)

By the way, right now I don’t much care if we actually INCREASE New Scientist publication by calling out that NS has become a sort of National Enquirer of science “reporting”. The important thing is to ensure that NS is not quoted by major newspapers/media as an authoritative source which provides accurate reporting on current science.

Posted by: Chris Hillman on September 27, 2007 9:53 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Chris, the press release you mentioned is dated August 2006, so it’s not surprising that it makes no reference to anything more recent.

Posted by: Greg Egan on September 27, 2007 11:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Greg Egan wrote:

an article on Boltzmann brains … which insists that the correct way to estimate cosmological parameters is to take into account the fact that if there were a large number of such conscious beings in the far future, it would “violate the Copernican principle” by making non-Boltzmann brains like us atypical

The funniest thing about this Boltzmann brain baloney is that after convincing themselves that randomly self-forming assemblages of particles having experiences just like ours are not only possible but predominant in an infinite universe, people still seem perfectly sure that they aren’t examples of this phenomenon — and then go ahead to draw conclusions based on both these ‘facts’. For example, the conclusion that the universe can’t really be infinite.

Let us not discuss this further here.

Posted by: John Baez on September 28, 2007 11:57 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

Thank you for this post.

By reading an interesting (and very well written) article on the dog’s genome, I found out about a wonderful piece of software, Circos.

Best wishes,
Christine

Posted by: Christine Dantas on September 27, 2007 3:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post More on New Scientist
Weblog: Science After Sunclipse
Excerpt: I felt sort of bad saying all that stuff about Wired when the guy who wrote the piece I did like showed up to say “Thanks for the link.” But hey, I’m not going to stop criticizing bad science reporting, nor can I imagine shutting mys...
Tracked: September 27, 2007 6:42 PM

Re: The Virtues of American Scientist

I completely agree!

And thank you for reminding me to renew my three-year subscription.

Posted by: Stefan Scherer on September 27, 2007 10:22 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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