Science Talk

Not Your Grandfather's Scientific American

Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina talks about the new look and new outlook of Scientific American magazine and of Plus, we discuss the results of a poll of the readers of Scientific American and Nature

Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina talks about the new look and new outlook of Scientific American magazine and of Plus, we discuss the results of a poll of the readers of Scientific American and Nature.

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on October 20th, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. If you've taken a look at the October issue of Scientific American magazine or at our Web site, you may have noticed some big changes in appearance, not to mention content. Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and I talked about the new look and direction of the magazine and Web site as well as about some fascinating results of a poll of the readers.

Steve:          Scientific American looks very different. What's going on?

DiChristina: I thought you [were] never going to ask Steve, I couldn't wait to come in and talk to you about how Scientific American looks different this month. You know it's not your great-great-grandfather's Scientific American. I was thinking about that the other day because we talked not that long ago about celebrating our 165th anniversary, and Scientific American over that 165 years has had many, many faces, and this you could see as an evolutionary change of Scientific American. It is very much still your Scientific American, for you readers, and it may remind you of, in fact some, past issues in certain ways. And in other ways we've livened it up because just like animals evolve over time to survive, Scientific American has over its 165 years evolved over time. When it started it was a newspaper.

Steve:          It was a broadsheet.

DiChristina: A big broadsheet and it was all hand-engraved images and hand-set type and these days our articles are beautifully rendered color informational graphics and then when you go to the Web site, there are interactive pieces and video and podcasts like this.

Steve:          What's the purpose of changing the look other than well, what you might do in your home where you say, "You know what I'm just sick of looking at the kitchen; let's put in a new kitchen."

DiChristina: Well, every so often, you know, it's not just that you're sick of looking of looking at the kitchen, but you outgrow the kitchen, let's say, or your needs change. And in the same fashion for magazines or for any publication, you try to keep an eye on the reader's needs, right, those people who live in your magazine kitchen, let's call it, and what they are expecting or needing from the magazine. And I think it would be shocking to anybody if Scientific American was still printed and only printed on a broadsheet, in hand-set type with hand carved engravings. So, these days, if the magazine looks a little different, that is just part of a continuous evolution of change to better serve the reader's needs.

Steve:          But it also is a little different besides just looking a little different.

DiChristina: Yeah. Let me back up for a minute. Now naturally being a science magazine, we're evidence based. So we started about a year ago asking questions of readers, and we asked them in a variety of ways. We asked them in things called focus groups, where people sit around a table and talk about the magazine; we asked them in surveys; we even did something for the cover of this issue, working with a company named Affinnova, called an evolutionary algorithm to test the cover. I can tell you more about that. So we went through a series of processes to try to find out what our readers need from the magazine today and how can it, while still being true to Scientific American—an authoritative voice in science coverage for, lo, these 165 years—and at the same time move to the next level in service of those reader needs. So you're right, there are some changes visually. I think mainly type face and layout design, but you'll still find the kinds of highly detailed, terrific explanatory informational graphics, for instance, in the magazine. I think they look a little nicer than they had before. But people use these for, teachers use them in classrooms; I know our scientist authors like to use them in their Power Points [later]; we often see them turn up in other meetings, which is delightful. So those are still the same. So there are things that are quite the same and that you may recognize, and there are things that are little different. And the things that are a little different, are some, a little bit in the feature [well], a little bit in the departments, those monthly sections that we run. Let me start with the feature well. One of the things we learned from research is that the readers love our in-depth articles, but they also wanted some variety. They wanted some things that were longer and shorter so that if they maybe had a little less time one day they could dive into one article, and if they had more time another day they could dive into another. So, while you'll still find those long, in-depth pieces from the scientists, you also will find some shorter, some different styles of articles that [you've] maybe not seen as frequently in the past.

Steve:          Well, in the old Scientific American, when you got to the feature section, there were a series of articles, each of which was 3,000 words.

DiChristina: Or eight pages for readers who don't count up the words.

Steve:          So now it's going to be more of a mix in there.

DiChristina: Right and the feature article well is a little—we call it a "well"—the featurearticle area, is a little bit longer than it used to be and it has a greater varieties of lengths of articles. So some are two pages, some are eight, some may be 10. We're trying to [fit] the topic to the article size, rather than just maybe making everything the same length.

Steve:          Then one of the hallmarks of this magazine has been its authorities in our pages, the scientist authors.

DiChristina: And that continues obviously to be true. Well, both these authors that write for us and those scientists who advice us, who're on our advisory panel.

Steve:          Now we're mixing in some more journalists, too.

DiChristina: Yeah, I think journalists can tell stories that are not easy for scientists to tell. For example, we would typically go to the top authorities, let's say the Nobel Prize winner or the head of an important lab, to write about his or her discipline in a particular category. That's great if the story is just about that discipline. But let's say, you need to talk with a variety of experts to get the true picture and do an analysis. That requires a lot of reporting legwork or lot of calls and travel and so on. We found that that's not an easy thing for scientists to do for a couple of reasons. First, they're not trained as reporters, and you can't expect them to be. Goodness knows, they're trained in so many other things, they can't be reporters, too. And secondly, it's hard for scientists to try to call other scientists in the way a reporter can and then weave those pieces together. Because other scientists are thinking "Why are you calling me, you know what we do." So it's just a little tricky for them to tell that kind of story and for those we have turned to journalists for, well for more than 15 years now or 20 maybe, and we're doing that again in our pages as well.

Steve:          There's a definite attempt to make the information in Scientific American more accessible to more people.

DiChristina: That's absolutely true. I mean, for many years Scientific American had the reputation of being very authoritative and serious and credible and trustworthy but very, very tedious to read. And we learned from the readers that they wanted a little bit more lively pros[e] in there. Now we work with the scientists, certainly, very closely to make that happen, and they're wonderful that they're trying to cooperate. Because it's really hard, I think, to take your discipline's terms, which are the most accurate thing to use, and try to [dial] it down a bit for the lay person. But we believe that you can do that in a way that is quite respectful to the science and also quite respectful to your audience, who shouldn't have to have eight years of training just to read an article in Scientific American.

Steve:          A few years ago, I was walking down the street in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, at the Marine Biological Laboratory. And we had, you know, this is a process with Scientific American that has been going on for little over a decade actually, where we're becoming, the way I think of it is we're becoming more accessible. And I ran in to very senior scientists. I don't mean they were super-old, I mean, they were really accomplished. One of them was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and I had met them both before. And one of them said, "Hey, what's going on at the magazine, it's very different." And I said "Yeah, well, you know, we're changing the magazine in keeping with the demands of the readers and the demands of, as you said, evolution; you know, we need to make some changes to stay alive and one of them said, "Boy, am I glad you're changing it." And I said, "Really that's interesting, because some readers complained." And he said, "I could not read the articles that were not in my field." And this is a world-class scientist telling me this. So that indicated to me that the old Scientific American—which I know a lot of people loved—but it indicated it had gone a little too far in a certain direction, where some of the article were just impenetrable.

DiChristina: Well let's talk about the old Scientific American just for a minute. I mean, I flashback to the newspaper era of Scientific American, but let me flash forward because I think when a lot of people are thinking of the old Scientific American, they're thinking of the magazine with Dennis Flanagan and Gerard Piel. And I have to tell you as somebody who has read many of those issues that people often speak fondly of—they were extremely accessible; they were very comprehensible, they were actually delightful to read.

Steve:          And visitors to the Scientific Web site, it's very different looking there too.

DiChristina: It is. One of the nice things about this redesign is it applied both to the printed edition of the magazine, and also to the Web site, so that whenever you come to any Scientific American experience, you have a similar one. And the Web site also offers a couple of new bells and whistles that I enjoy. First of all, to make it easier for readers to know what's the top stuff for the day, we have this feature at the top left called today's science agenda, which when we tested with readers, they just loved the idea. It tells you what are the three-to-five, let's say, top things of the day, you know, top science stories. We also have our usual news feed right next to it. We have a new multimedia player, so that if you want to watch a video you don't have to go over to some other area of the site to play [it]; it'll play right in front.

Steve:          For the podcast[s].

DiChristina: And Steve your podcast.

Steve:          I know. [I know it] is a much better player. You can just click on it. You can navigate within the podcast much more easily than you used to, even if you're just streaming it without downloading it. It's a big improvement on the format there.

DiChristina: I have actually lots of other plans to continue to improve the Web site as months go on, so stay tuned on that.

Steve:          One of the things in this first issue of the new look is some polling data, which readers might find interesting, and they can find it on the Web, they can find it in the pages of the magazine, but let's talk about it for a minute.

DiChristina: Right so readers can actually see this whole story up right now on Scientific, and what happened is this. Some months ago, Scientific American became part of the Nature Publishing Group, which is Nature and the other Nature journals and we thought it would be really an interesting experiment to do a poll together to see how would our readers respond to questions. What would be of interest to them, of less interest, and Scientific American also has 14 foreign language editions, so—local-language editions—we call them, located, a lot of them in Europe and all around the world; and we thought it would be even more fun, not only to partner with Nature on this but also with those 14 foreign language editions. We thought, I remember, back in May, I was at one of our twice a year international meetings, what would be a fun topic to do for our readers? What would they find interesting? And the topic we came up with was attitudes about science, public attitudes about science, and what are things that we feel good about with science, what are things we trust less. So we came up with a slew of questions, brainstormed them with the editors of other editions around the world, worked with Nature, and we had scientists evaluate our questions and then we posted them online not just at Scientific American and Nature but also through those other editions, and we translated this into 14 different languages. We had some 20,000, 21,000 people participate in the survey, which was only open for a couple of weeks, and we had them participate from 18 countries around the world. And so it's an interesting, it's a poll; it's not "scientific". We did not randomize it, we did not go to specific people, these are self-selected participants, which is clear in our article. But in terms of attitudes of people who are visitors to those Web sites and those publications, it was very interesting and instructive. And so the title of the article is "In Science We Trust", and we asked people things like, how much do you trust what scientists say about various topics. For instance, in our crowd at least, evolution is an area where most of our reading public trust what scientists have to say about it.

Steve:          (laughs)It actually is the top one, which kind of cracks me up considering what we deal with all the time.

DiChristina: And that, you know, on the other end of things, our respondents trusted scientists much less on flu pandemics; which, you can understand why—because our audience understands that some of the flu predictions made last year about H1N1 didn't quite come to pass and they remember that and apparently holding, you know, maybe not a grudge about it (laughs), but they're remembering it and thinking well may be I can trust them less about this particular topic.

Steve:          There is a certain "cry [wolf]" feel that people may get, although every virologist I've ever spoken to says that that pandemic is coming, eventually just like a big California earthquake is coming. Will it be next year? Probably not.

DiChristina: Right.

Steve:          Will it be in the next 100 years? Probably.

DiChristina: And honestly as a member of the media, I can't really blame the scientists, because it's not their fault how their message is broadcast—I mean, by mainstream media.

Steve:           Right, we saw in my column last month these poor seismologists in Italy have been threatened with legal action because they did not specifically predict an earthquake in which a couple of hundred people died. So there is a misunderstanding of what scientists are able to precisely predict.

DiChristina: Right, in a way it's a kind of backhanded compliment. We assume that they know so much, they should know it to perfection. But frankly scientists don't work in a perfect world just like none of does. And couple of other just really quick things about this poll, which I think readers should go and check out. Respondents agreed that investment in science may not have immediate payoffs to the economy but lays the foundation for future growth. More than 89 percent of our respondents felt that way. They also felt, more than 70 percent of them felt, that science even in tough economic times, science budgets should be retained and they thought that defense spending, for one, should be cut. And I can see this [view], now that one-fifth of our national budget or thereabouts is defense spending.

Steve:          What else in the polling, if anything, [came] as a surprise?

DiChristina: Well, to me it was the big shocker that people had only trusted scientists about evolution, but there was another question we asked: "Do you believe or do you agree with scientists more now than a year ago or less now than a year ago about the following topics?" And despite all the hullabaloo of our climate change and the failure of policy leaders to grapple with this issue, believe it or not, our respondents were more convinced today than a year ago that climate change is a reality. That was a surprise.

Steve:          Yeah, that was really interesting. I think it was by three to one, if your mind had changed about climate change, it is three to one that you were more likely to accept climate change as [a] reality and again this is a very select group of respondents but even there, that's kind of an unexpected finding.

DiChristina: Yeah, to me it was. But it also shows to me that kind of readers that we have and that Nature has in our other editions, and others who aren't maybe steady readers but [come] to Scientific American now and again, are the kinds of people who are following the evidence. And as the evidence continues to unspool about climate change, there is more and more evidence in favor of it, so I am not, in that way, I guess I am not surprised.

Steve:          And maybe some people who had not really given it much thought before were attracted to the issue because of the so-called climategate- e-mail business.

DiChristina: Debacle.

Steve:          Yeah, debacle; and after doing [the requisite] research related to that realized that the science actually did support the idea of not only climate change but man-made climate change.

DiChristina: And elsewhere in the issue we also tuned up a few of the departments, which I want to mention really quickly. One thing people have often told us is that Scientific American provides a lot of great information about the science, but it is also helpful to know what are important policy areas that science or scientists can inform. So, we created a section called "Agenda," which is in the front of the magazine where the Board of Editors provides some commentary and analysis on policy issues that intersect with science, [where] science can inform what policy leaders may choose to do. And as a counterpoint to that—or even not a, counterpoint is not the right [word] but a complement to it, is a new essay area called "Forum" where we invite experts, scientists, and others to come in and comment about areas of their interest and expertise. So, there are two places in the magazine now, if we are looking for a snapshot of what the science says related to particular policy area, these are, you know, easy-to-digest places to go find that. We also learned in our reader research that readers are, kind of, fascinated more than ever about the science behind health. And [there's] plenty of health news out there, and a lot of it is of the everyday headline variety: "and today drink [resveratrol in] wines so that you can; tomorrow we are less sure about that;" where those articles seem to fall down for the average reader is they don't really give you the science or the more complete knowledge behind them. And so we created a column called the "Science of Health," which is being headed up by Christine Gorman, from The New York Times, and we also created a column for the people who would like to know how technology is affecting our modern life—and it affects us so much in how we relate to the world—called "Technofiles," which is by David Pogue also of The New York Times. Last we revamped the front of the magazine in a section called "Advances,"which provides, if you don't have a lot of time, and you want to know the best, most interesting science and technology in the month turn to Advances and it will capture all that for you in a very easy-to-digest format.

Steve:          And Shermer and I have survived.

DiChristina: Shermer and you have survived; apparently the readers still want you.

Steve:          So you can still find Michael Shermer's "Skeptics" column and my "Antigravity" towards the back of the magazine. The entertaining, "50, 100, and 150 Years Ago" column. It's now in the back of the magazine. And this may or may not resonate with people, but in October of 1860, Scientific American wrote: "A child who has been boxed up six hours in school might spend the next four hours in study, but it is impossible to develop the child's intellect in this way. The laws of nature are inexorable. By dint of great and painful labor, the child may succeed in repeating a lot of words like a parrot, [but] with the power of its brain all exhausted, it is out of the question for it to really master and comprehend its lessons. The effect of the system is to enfeeble the intellect even more than the body. We never see a little girl staggering home [under a load] of books or knitting her brow over them at eight o'clock in the evening without wondering what our citizens do not arm themselves at once with carving knives, pokers, clubs, paving stones or any weapons at hand and chase out the managers of our common schools as they [would] wild beasts that were devouring their children." I think that a lot of parents still feel that way about the managers of their schools.

DiChristina: Yeah, I got to say, you know one of the things the Obama administration is particularly concerned about these days is education in schools. And I don't know if we need pitch works to solve that and weapons, but it's something that on everybody's mind.

Steve:          And it maybe that people would like a, maybe a modicum of return to the 10 hours a day that the article talks about, of laborious study for school children.

DiChristina: Well, I do have something to add about that actually. I mean, first of all one thing about learning is, it is good to have spaces in between your learning. So those kids should get a break, send them outside to play for a little while before they have to do their work. But the second thing is another way to enrich learning, especially about science and technology, or things that we find maybe, kids may find a little abstract or potentially a little challenging to them, is to experience it outside the classroom. And yesterday I was in Washington, D.C., for a press conference for the U.S. Science and Engineering Festival and here's a way to take that interest in science and encourage it in a different format, a more interactive one that can definitely help inspire and delight and help these kids learn more about science, maths, engineering.

Steve:          And if you read E. O. Wilson's autobiography—E. O. Wilson, the great entomologist (yeah, right not etymologist, entomologist; I always have to think about it) and coincidentally wordsmith—and he talks his unstructured childhood in the South and the hours he spent outside just exploring nature by himself and observing and thinking about things and figuring things out, and that's a completely different kind of education than the rote learning, memorization education that this 1860 article of ours does bemoan.

DiChristina: Right, and it's amazing to me to how locked in we are to the 1860 concepts of rote memorization, learning to, teaching to the tests, [so-called,] and I just want to add one other thing for the listeners: Mind, Scientific American Mind had an article in [its] September-October issue called "To Touch is to Learn." It's about the physical qualities, how touching and manipulating things can help you learn. So again, if you get not just sitting and, you know, the poor girl with the [furrowed] brow trying to [absorb] all those facts. But if you engage in learning in different ways, going out to things like the U.S. Science and Engineering festival, [which is going] to be on the [Mall],  or manipulating things in the classroom, you can learn a lot more, and the kids will be a lot more inspired.


Steve:          Well that's it for this episode. We will back very soon with a totally bogus quiz and another full new episode. Meanwhile, get your science news at where you can find the Scientific American/Nature poll results Mariette and I talked; about just search for "In Science We Trust". Speaking of Nature, here's Kerri Smith with a look at the next Nature podcast.

Kerri Smith: This week we discover that fat dads can give their daughters health problems, peer at the most distant galaxy ever seen, and find out which cities are best for science. All that and more on the Nature podcast.

Steve:          Find it on iTunes or at and follow Scientific American on Twitter where you will get a tweet every time a new article hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @SciAm. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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