Looking back on science can refocus our attention

Back in late 2019, the staff at Science News began planning how to celebrate our 100th birthday. We could tell the story of our founding, invite longtime readers to share their memories and, of course, look back at all that has changed in science. At the time, we had no idea that pandemics would bookend the magazine’s first century.

Science News launched its first news bulletins in April 1921, not long after the 1918 pandemic ended. That historical context wasn’t on our radar until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Suddenly, reviewing a century of advances in infectious diseases became essential to our centennial coverage. As biomedical writer Aimee Cunningham dove into the story — the many, many stories of lives upended by epidemics past and present — she realized that what hasn’t changed is perhaps more poignant than what has.

In the latest story from our Century of Science project, Cunningham recounts how new vaccines have saved lives and freed people from fears of devastating infections. The research accomplishments since 1918 are clear. But other aspects of the story echo across the ages — the suffering, the isolation and the social inequities, notably the disproportionate effects on Black, Latino and Native American communities in the United States. Cunningham’s powerful reporting draws our attention to problems — scientific and societal — that still need solving.

There’s an unexpected parallel in a lighter story in this issue, about jumping spiders. These charismatic beasts have a pair of principal eyes that sharply focus on the world, plus smaller scanning eyes that alert those bigger eyes to what’s worth noticing. The spiders’ visual world is not entirely unlike our own. “Like the spider,” Betsy Mason writes, “we focus our attention on a relatively small area and largely ignore the rest until something catches our attention.” COVID-19 has been a red alert that infectious foes are still out there, and that health disparities persist. What else are we ignoring?

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.