The Reading Room
New Scientist has always had the latest scientific news, primarily written by journalists with a science or education background, rather than scientists themselves, in order to be well informed and up-to-the-minute rather than dry, overly academic and impenetrable to a lay audience. Scientists may be great with test tubes, but not so good as coming up with headlines such as “Space fuel crisis: NASA confronts the plutonium pinch”, “Higgs boson faces the perils of predictability” and “Digital doppelgangers: Building an army of you”. Kelvin MacKenzie, eat your heart out!
But all this has led in recent years to unfair accusations of sensationalism and a dwindling in knowledge and expertise amongst the writers, with a sci-fi author (of all people) called Greg Egan claiming in 2006 that this now presented “a real threat to the public understanding of science.” (In all probability, it’s more a case of the public now has such a wide source of different science materials available via the internet that it is able to both educate and misinform itself exponentially and in equal measure as it becomes ever harder to differentiate between the dodgy and the legit on the web). Tellingly, Editor Jeremy Webb, replied to Egan’s criticism at the time, saying that it is “an ideas magazine-that means writing about hypotheses as well as theories”.
Despite its controversies New Scientist has survived. The weekly non peer-reviewed English-language international science magazine was launched in 1956, three years after Watson and Crick posited the double helix structure of DNA in the pages of Nature and a year before the Russians launched Sputnik and with it the satellite and space age, as bedfellows of the ’50s jet and atomic ages. This was a good time for science and so a brilliant time to launch a new science title. The public appetite for science was huge and the perception that we were poised on the edge of a wondrous series of discoveries that would change the world forever, most probably in beneficial ways, was everywhere.
Launched by Reed in London where its base still resides, it publishes editions in the States and Australia, as well as a website, which in common with the public enthusiasm for science, has seen elements close down, shrink and amalgamate in recent years. Most of it is now hidden behind a subscription pay wall. Time was in the ’60s every boy dreamed of being an astronaut and going beyond the moon and trekking to the stars with Captain Kirk. Nowadays the austerity budget cuts see the final frontier more out of reach than it seemed in then.
Content-wise New Scientist covers current developments, news, and commentary from the scientific community, on the big science subjects including space, technology, health, the environment, physics, maths and the place of science in society. Most importantly, New Scientist explains why a development is significant as well as putting social and cultural context around it. It has a powerful readership too with the print edition reaching almost 900,000 decision makers whilst the online version reaches more than 3 million unique users everyday which is more than FT.com. There is no doubt that over fifty years later New Scientist still has quality and brand to reach the opinion formers and next generation in science.
As the world mourns the death of Neil Armstrong perhaps now we have reached a turning point where we will go back to celebrating scientists over c list celebrities. New Scientist’s best days are yet to come?
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