What Has Happened to Scientific American Over the Years?

I started reading Scientific American in college.  Our biology textbook referenced articles from this magazine, which for decades has had well illustrated articles about current research in a variety of scientific disciplines. It was never a scholarly journal, but its articles were far less fluffy than those of a newspaper or a typical magazine. Yet gradually, over a period of two to three decades, despite its glossy pages, added color, web links and other bells and whistles, the magazine has become a shadow of itself. It is a story that is not too different from what has happened to the content of most high school science courses and textbooks.

The contrasting styles of the December 1982 and 2014 covers. They once used just one advertising director. Now the magazine makes use of a small army of marketing and sales people.

Here’s the evidence. We’ll start with its cover. Anything of quality that has a history dating back to the 1800s does not have to promote itself. The December 1982 cover’s simplicity attests to that, while 32 years later, the cover uses hyperbole, bits of content and graphics in an attempt to lure the reader to look inside.

For a price of $2.50 in 1982 ($6.13 in today’s dollars) there were 178 pages, as opposed to the 100 that are now published for a cover price of $6.99.  Over the years Nobel Prize winners contributed 245 articles to Scientific American. In 1982, seven of the 8 articles were written by researchers, the other by a scholar. The December 2014 issue only offered 6 main articles, two of which were written by freelance writers. There was once an entire page dedicated to biographies of the issue’s authors. Now each contributor’s background is reduced to a tiny blurb. Most importantly, three decades ago, the main articles were more thorough with more graphics, diagrams and captions, revealing more experimental detail.

To illustrate this point, let’s examine the December 1982 issue’s best article, Samples of the Milky Way. The editors and authors clearly saw themselves as educators.  Before getting to the actual discovery, the article took its time to explain the background knowledge needed to understand it: the basics of isotopes; the workings of the mass spectrometer instrument that separates them and identifies their abundance;  how isotopes are monitored in space and how their ratios depend on the evolution of stars. A few hypotheses were proposed for a cosmic anomaly , a high proportion of the 22Ne isotope relative to what is found in the solar system.  Interestingly the idea that was considered to be the most radical proposal at the time was actually the one that’s currently accepted today. The oddities in that isotopic ratio and others were the result of our solar system being atypical, due to injection of nearby supernova material. What had led to that idea is that meteors had recently revealed unusual ratios of  27Al  and 26Mg, a signature of the short-lived 26Al. Due to its instability, the latter could not have been incorporated into meteorites unless it had been recently introduced by what has been cleverly dubbed as “supernova confetti“.

Twenty eight editors and seven people from the art department are now needed to put out an issue with less concern for education than for marketing. About half the number of editors and artists were involved in 1982. Similarly, in nearly half a century, no small army of the North American textbook industry’s dubiously-selected authors, graphic artists, photographers, and marketing specialists has been able to come anywhere close to the quality of a high school chemistry textbook such as Cotton and Lynch’s 1968 Chemistry: an Investigative Approach. In just one example, instead of just throwing the Thomson model at the students with a very colorful diagram of the experimental setup, the authors took the time to explain how analysis of the curvature of the cathode rays in a magnetic field led to a calculation of charge to mass ratio of the electron. Later with Millikan’s oil drop experiment and the charge to electron ratio, a simple ratio of the latter to that of Thomson’s result revealed the mass of the electron.

The one-time excellent book review section of Scientific American, written by long-time contributors Philip Morrison and his wife, makes sporadic and less dedicated appearances.  An  insightful Amateur Scientist section written by physics professor and author Jearl Walker has been replaced by editor Steven Mirsky’s  more-silly-than-humorous anti-gravity column. The 50 and 100 Years Ago section has been understandably replaced by 50, 100 and 150 Years Ago , which ironically has become shorter in length, as if the editors assume that readers are not interested in the past and in how science changes over the years. Perhaps if the editors included too much from past issues, more new readers might realize how they are getting less quantity and less quality for a greater cost, especially in light of predatory pricing aimed at libraries.


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