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Plumbing the Archives

A meditation on 90 years of Science News

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As a freshman astronomy major, I was captivated by class discussions of black holes. Working at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium later that year, I asked a staff scientist where I could learn more about wormholes, black holes and event horizons. “You won’t understand the journal articles,” he said. “They’re essentially all math. I’d suggest Science News. That’s where we go to read about them in plain English.”

Until then, I’d never encountered the magazine. But it has been an integral part of my life ever since, including 34 years as a staff writer and editor. So it was both a privilege and a labor of love to thumb through archived issues dating back to 1922 to identify top stories from past decades of Science News.

The following 12 pages offer highlights of my trek through the evolution of Science News — and the history of science as it emerged, week by week. But this compilation doesn’t even hint at the depth and breadth of our reporting. I’ve always argued that what distinguishes Science News is how amazingly catholic its coverage is, by which I mean comprehensive — reporting on physics and chemistry and what’s now known as materials science every bit as intensively as health, zoology, genetics and anthropology.

In perusing more than 70,000 pages, I’ve confirmed this breadth began in week one of Science News-Letter, the publication’s first incarnation. But the topics emphasized have ebbed and flowed over time. In the earliest decades, coverage leaned heavily toward breakthroughs in medicine. At the time, antibiotics were making formerly intractable diseases and epidemics survivable, as dozens of stories through the 1930s and ’40s reported. The following decades saw the magazine dogging new developments from the unraveling of DNA’s structure in the 1950s to the rise of environmental science in the 1970s and discoveries of exoplanets in the last few years.

Sometimes coverage turned on a dime. From the 1930s to 1957, nuclear developments — from weapons to peaceful uses of the atom — filled our pages. Sputnik changed all that (10/19/57, p. 243); overnight, reporting on the space age jetted to prominence. Jonathan Eberhart’s comprehensive reporting for Science News set the gold standard for such coverage, which led the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences to name its journalism award in his honor.

For three decades, Jonathan’s in-depth reporting swelled our pages with detailed accounts of planetary science — not the heroics of astronauts or the politics of funding, but what scientists were turning up from sensors and imaging and chemical sampling. An indomitable reporter, Jonathan would camp out for weeks (sometimes on his own dime) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to make sure he heard everything. Enter his smoke-filled office, and you would almost always find him on the phone fact-checking some claim.

Of course, Jonathan is just one of the countless dedicated reporters who have written for Science News. Roughly 100 interns learned science journalism here. Several dozen staff writers — many staying a decade or more — lent their voices to assessments of which events to cover, and how. Along the way, many won awards from organizations ranging from the National Association of Science Writers and the American Physical Society to the Free Press Association. And the biggest honor — a prestigious George Polk award — went to the magazine in 1987 for excellence in science reporting.

For all its accomplishments, Science News also covered what — with 20/20 hindsight — proved silly, frivolous or simply absurd. One favorite: a 1956 report suggesting that within 20 years, electric ranges and wall ovens “will be replaced by a marble counter top that heats to roast the meat or bake the pie and then, in a moment or two, is cold enough to touch and use as a counter or table.” Afterward, ultrasonic waves would wash the dishes in three minutes (10/13/56, p. 231). A 1961 story forecast that “future vacationers could be taking a round trip to the moon for the bargain price of $600.” That price doesn’t include tips, though, the story noted (5/27/61, p. 328).

Some midcentury stories made me shudder. A 1948 story described fluffy dish towels made from absorbent fabric that was 80 percent cotton and 20 percent asbestos. Readers were invited to purchase a sample for 50 cents from Things of Science, an experiment-of-the-month program run by Science News’ parent organization, called Science Service at that time (9/25/48, p. 204).

A postwar story described tests of nuclear weapons that could be used against ground troops (9/29/51, p. 195). Plans for peaceful analogs included excavating a new Panama Canal and a harbor in Australia using nuclear explosives (9/5/64, p. 149; 2/15/69, p. 159; 11/1/69, p. 408). All this at a time when story after story reiterated concerns over radioactive fallout.

Such stories were the exceptions, though. Discoveries that would withstand the test of time — including many that later won Nobel Prizes — were reliably reported in our pages. A week after physicist Arthur Compton received his Nobel, for example, he penned an exclusive 1,000-word piece describing to our readers his work on X-rays (12/17/27, p. 387).

And we covered not just the breakthroughs, but the unfolding of science blow-by-blow. In medicine, not only cures made our pages, but also the testing of flu and polio vaccines, the risks, setbacks and minor successes. Photo-filled stories depicted cultural artifacts being unearthed around the world. And as evidence for each new subatomic particle materialized, Science News was right there, analyzing the data and piecing together how each find might cement — or alter — humankind’s understanding of the universe.

We still do all that — but no longer only in print. Most stories now appear first online or via an app for your iPad. But trust us: Though the formats may change, our commitment to relating new developments in science and technology hasn’t.

Plumbing the archives

1920s

1930s

1940s

1950s

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

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