Since its founding in August 1845, 171 years ago, Scientific American has been a magazine with an obsession: how the process of scientific research and innovation not only fosters discoveries but also helps human society shape our own destiny. In that first issue, for instance, the editors promised to be the “advocate of industry and enterprise.” They reported on the latest in transportation (an illustration of an aerodynamically improved railway car decorated the cover), communication (the editors praised Samuel Morse's telegraph as a “wonder of the age”) and many patents aimed at easing human labors. And—given that the titles of most publications have an aspirational quality—the weekly broadsheet clearly sought to nurture more “scientific” Americans.
Moreover, for almost as long as Scientific American has been published, the editors have at least annually (and sometimes even more often) decided to devote an entire issue to looking at emerging topics and technologies that demonstrate how science provides solutions to societal challenges. An 1899 special edition touted bicycles and automobiles, which were changing the face of transportation. As the magazine developed alongside the young U.S., it found other ways to highlight and encourage our progress to a better tomorrow. It created trophies to goad the Wright brothers and others to increase the lengths of aircraft flights, for instance. The magazine covered radio and television decades before they arrived. A 1954 article on “Computers in Business” speculated about the benefits—and possible dangers—of thinking machines. I could go on.
Supporting that prescience: Scientific American has always had a mix of award-winning writers, both journalists and scientists (now up to 158 laureates, who have collectively written more than 250 articles about their disciplines).
So about a year ago, when the editors gathered to discuss the focus of our 2016 single-topic issue, the team members, as always, proposed and then talked about lots of great ideas. But among the many compelling themes, one clearly dominated. Humans, in what is now increasingly commonly called the “Anthropocene,” have become the major driving force in shaping our planet's future, as well as our own, toward uncertain ends. In effect, as executive editor Fred Guterl dubbed it, we are running “The Human Experiment.” In this issue, Guterl, senior editor Seth Fletcher, design director Michael Mrak and their colleagues have put together a dynamic look at the tales of our times, exploring nine big related questions in the feature articles and the companion pieces.
Borrowing from Pogo: “We have met the future, and it is us.”