"A Magazine or a Living Fossil?"
May 6th, 2013
The New York Times
A new kid has arrived on the science journalism block, a monthly magazine named Nautilus: Science Connected. Its first issue, which appeared online on April 29, focuses on a single theme: what does or does not make the human race special.
It uses as an epigraph a 1995 statement from Stephen Hawking, the English physicist and man about the universe: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”
Besides a couple of dozen articles on that theme, on topics from astronomy to robotics to neuroscience, there is a lineup of blogs, interviews and even a piece of fiction, about a future in which nobody reads.
Among the extras is an entertaining interview with Robert A.F. Thurman, the Buddhist scholar and father of Uma, who says he loves Dr. Hawking’s comment. “That’s a key the Buddhist found long ago,” he said.
John Steele, the founder, publisher and editorial director of the magazine — which was started with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation — described his vision of it as “a New Yorker version of Scientific American.”
Future issues will each be devoted to a single topic — “uncertainty,” “secrets” — in all its cosmic ramifications. It is the only science magazine I know that lists a pair of “contract philosophers” on its masthead. The editor in chief, Michael Segal, has a doctorate in electrical engineering and was an editor at Nature Nanotechnology.
The magazine will not come out all at once, but in online “chapters” each Thursday. Physically, it is to appear quarterly; subscriptions are $49 a year; Mr. Steele hopes for an initial base of 5,000 subscribers. A few copies of an abridged version of the first issue have been produced: Its 44 thick, color pages have the luxurious production values of a corporate report.
It will not come as news that Mr. Steele faces odds at least as daunting as any prospective gene mapper or planet explorer. Magazines and newspapers, after all, are supposed to be going the way of buggy-whip factories. Science journalism, in particular, is a field littered with corpses.
Many science writers at The New York Times, including me, hatched their careers working at a wave of glossy monthly science magazines that were started in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, fueled by the belief that curiosity about the universe was not only part of the good life but a necessity in a democratic society facing decisions about nuclear energy, medicine, the space program and the arms race.
The Times started its science section in 1978. A year later the same folks who publish Penthouse brought forth Omni, a mix of science and speculation. In rapid succession the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of the journal Science, started Science79; Time Inc. started Discover; and Science Digest expanded to a full-size glossy magazine. The New York Academy of Sciences published The Sciences.
This profusion led to a hiring frenzy for science journalists, who, for a golden while anyway, had a blast producing magazines on scales of time and money that seem unworldly today.
A decade later most were gone or struggling for lack of advertising, despite circulations in the range of half a million and despite the growing importance of science in an age of climate change, energy crises and AIDS. The lone survivor of that golden era, Discover, has been sold four times. A more recent arrival, Seed, noted for its edginess, exists only online.
The audience has fragmented among stalwarts like National Geographic and Scientific American; blogs; and new-media adventures like the TED talks, the World Science Festival and Edge.org, the online salon, and Simons Science News, a new effort by the mathematician and philanthropist James H. Simons.
Mr. Steele, 60, who studied philosophy before an eclectic career that included being a gofer for Walter Cronkite and the Rome bureau chief for NBC, hatched the idea for Nautilus a year ago, after the death of a colleague reminded him, as he says, that life is not a dress rehearsal.
The online magazine is free, but even if it weren’t, it would be worth the price of admission to read a “preview issue” that describes various aspects of the term “nautilus”: mollusk, name of Captain Nemo’s submarine in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and paragon of mathematical beauty. Peter Ward, a paleontologist, describes his adventures and misadventures chasing the mollusk through the Pacific.
“The nautilus is so steeped in math and myth and story, from Verne to the Golden Mean to the spectacular sea creature itself,” Mr. Steele said, “that it seemed a fitting namesake for the idea of connecting and illuminating science.”
He shopped his idea to the Templeton Foundation, perhaps best known for its annual $1.7 million prize for the advancement of spirituality (this year’s winner was Desmond M. Tutu) but also an enthusiastic supporter of what it calls Big Ideas.
It is viewed with suspicion in some scientific circles as having a religious agenda. Mr. Steele said that other than approving the concept, it had no editorial input.
The grant gives the staff time to build an audience, to gather data to present to potential advertisers, and to figure out how to make money, Mr. Steele said.
“We’ve got to look under every stone for ways to monetize this stuff,” he added. “We’re not making buggy whips or biplanes. There is an audience for good stories.”
Nautilus: Science Connected