November 1998
s m u g
back issues
by Joshua Allen


Scientific American

I've had a flirty kind of relationship with Scientific American over the years. Being forever trapped in the right side of my brain, the world of science has held the same appeal as other things I know absolutely nothing about and have no skill at, like balancing checkbooks and interpersonal relationships. So I've lurked around the periphery, a curious onlooker, idly wishing that I knew what was going on. These feelings have manifested in minor ways. For example, for the past three years I've dressed up as a mad scientist for Halloween. A few things about that:

  1. It's an easy enough costume, thanks to an inexpensive lab coat from the medical supply store (which is, by the way, a pocket full of quivering and sweaty ecstasy for those of us with perhaps-too-substantial surgical fetishes) and my own personal hair's natural predilection for standing on end and pointing at various and sundry points of the compass.
  2. I really would like to be a mad scientist, you know, for a living, like coasting on enormous grants that fund my wicked and unholy experiments, and so I tend to wear the costume even on non-Halloween days, to formal occasions like debutante balls, sporting events for charity, lectures, etc.
  3. I did poorly in science-related classes in school, preferring the lack of precision, forethought, accuracy, and attention that only English could provide.

So everytime I visit the newsstand and am flipping through Fangoria and American Cheerleader and the like, I see Scientific American, over there in the corner, taunting me thusly:

Scientific American: Are you tough enough to flip through my pages, bucko? Ready to get caught up on pharyngocutaneous ducts and single nucleotide polymorphisms? Or would you rather get back to writing your girly little poems?

Me: Haha, no, no, I'm no sissy.

SciAm: Then step right up, pal, and I'll clock you senseless with my selective estrogen receptor modulator.

Me: Oh, ah, yes ... that sounds very very nice indeed.

It's clear that I don't have the chops to absorb all that Scientific American has to offer, and yet my perverse interest in science compelled me to take the plunge and peer inside its foreboding pages.

It had been waiting for me, and it knew exactly what I needed.

See, Scientific American is the bridge between the layman and the scientist. Just look at the title: It's not American Scientist, nor is it just plain Science. This magazine is for Americans, god bless it, and, worse, it's for Americans who think they're scientific, i.e., dorks like me who think it's cool to throw out phrases like "pharyngocutaneous ducts" because it makes me feel smart and like a raging chick magnet.

So while SciAm (their cute abbreviation, not mine) does delve deep into some hardcore topics, it realizes that it's dealing with "scientific" Americans and so uses every trick in the book to ease the reader into complicated waters while not being obvious about it. I mean, look at the friendly beginning of the article on the newest high-tech prosthetic limbs: "'Whee!' exclaims Melissa Del Pozzo, a vivacious 10-year old who is watching an electrical trace on a computer screen undulate up and down like ocean swells." Aww. Cute, engaging, poetic - it's just as good as a short story intro written by a hack undergraduate aiming to be the next Robert James Waller. And check out the nifty diagrams that explain multiple SYN packets and ACK/SYN transmissions! They're hand-drawn! And the evil hacker is wearing shades and a fedora, looking like the black Spy vs. Spy guy. Darling! I want to know more!

Before you know it, you're learning things. And even though the magazine covers just about everything under the science umbrella (a dab of physics, a heaping tablespoon of astronomy, an oozing slime gland full of biology), they manage to bring you up to speed with just a few well-placed explanations and gentle reminders of factoids you may have learned long, long ago (e.g., "Variations in the speed of light are familiar to anyone who has looked at prism."). It somehow manages to juggle an unfathomably broad subject and present it in palatable chunks for your everyday scientist wannabe.

Scientific American knows what sells. This is a mass-market magazine, folks, not the Journal of Tedious Old Men Sniffing Petri Dishes (although if I saw the JoTOMSPD I might be tempted to pick it up just to, you know, add it to the fan of waiting room material that currently adorns my coffee table), so they have to play up the cool and sexy stuff. What's on the cover? Hackers! Slime eels! Antimatter! Breast cancer (I mean, if you can't really put a half-naked Claudia Schiffer on the cover you might as well at least mention the word "breast" and maybe even put a full-body rendering of the nude female body, complete with visible milk glands and a uterus [which they do])! What's inside? "Injecting human tumor cells into the eyes of rabbits prompted angiogenesis." "It is swarming with hundreds of half-meter-long hagfishes, which are methodically gnawing away at the whale's chalky blubber, bite by bite." "An angry customer complains that Refrigerators R Us's Web site features a pornographic movie with a refrigerator as a prop." Creepy, titillating stuff.

I figured Scientific American would smack me with some tough love, force me to face the ugly truth that science is not all cloning and killer viruses and robot hair-combers, but actually a lot of sitting around and waiting and paperwork and a godawful amount of mathematics. But no, it indulged me. It poured a high-quality, high-octane fuel upon my fire, tricking me into thinking that science was cool and weird and dangerous and, most damaging, accessible to a liberal arts slacker like myself. It made me feel like I knew what was going on, like I was an informed citizen, like I could contribute my own two cents to the scientific discussion, perhaps even continue the experiments that I began as a child, the ones involving Mister Whiskers and the powdery insides of two dozen antihistamine capsules.

By placing these feelings and beliefs within the non-scientific community, SciAm is effectively diluting and dumbing-down all that it holds sacred. It has made science into a weekend hobby, like whittling or paintballing, in its effort to make this knowledge available to everyone and sell a few magazines. It's the loftiest of goals that tend to have the most insidious repercussions.

Or perhaps it's all part of an experiment, vaster and more complex than we can ever comprehend.



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