A century ago people needed help to understand science. Similar to today.
Then as now it was not always easy to separate the exact from the faulty. The mainstream media then, as now, viewed science as secondary to other aspects of its mission. And when science got the word out, it was often (then and now) garbled, naive, or dangerously misleading.
EW Scripps, a well-known newspaper publisher, and William Emerson Ritter, a biologist, saw a need. They envisioned a ministry dedicated to providing the world with reliable news about science and dedicated to truth and clarity. For Scripps and Ritter, science journalism had a noble purpose: “To discover the truth about all sorts of things of human interest and to report it truthfully and in a language understandable to those whose welfare is concerned.”
And so Science Service was born 100 years ago – soon to produce Science News magazine.
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In its first year of existence, the Wissenschaftsdienst delivered its weekly programs in the form of duplicated packages to newspapers. By 1922, these packages were available to the public by subscription and spawned the Science News Letter, the ancestor of Science News. Then, as now, readers of the magazine enjoyed tons of delicious tidbits from a menu that spanned all kinds of science – from atomic to space, from agriculture to oceanography, from transportation to, of course, food and nutrition.
In those early days, much of the new company’s coverage focused on space, such as the possibility of planets beyond Neptune. Experts shared their views on whether spiral clouds in space are distant whole galaxies of stars like the Milky Way or embryonic solar systems that are just forming in the Milky Way. Articles examined the latest speculations about life on Venus (here and here) or on Mars.
The regular reporting was also devoted to new technologies – especially radio. A Science Service mailing informed readers how to make their own home radio – for $ 6. And in 1922 Science News-Letter reported an amazing radio breakthrough: a device that could run without a battery. You can just plug it into an electrical outlet.
Much of the scientific future of the century was predicted in these early reports. In May 1921, in an article on recent subatomic experiments, the “dream of scientists and writers alike was mentioned that one day man would learn how to … use the huge stores of energy in atoms”. In 1922, the editor of the Science Service, Edwin Slosson, speculated that the “smallest unit of positive electricity” (the proton) might be “a complex of many positive and negative particles,” a weak but predictive preview of the existence of quarks.
Some prognoses have not aged so well. A 1921 prediction that the United States would be forced to adopt the metric system for commercial transactions is yet to be fulfilled. A simple, common, international auxiliary language that was “confidently predicted” in 1921 to become “part of the equipment of every educated person” has not yet been established. And despite serious considerations on calendar reform by astronomers and church dignitaries, which were reported in May 1922, well over 1,000 of the same old months have passed since then without the slightest change.
On the other hand, “the favorite fruit of Americans for the generations that will follow us, the avocado,” as predicted in 1921, may be debatable, though toast was not mentioned – just the suggestion that “a few crackers and a sprinkle of salt Avocado makes a hearty and balanced lunch. “
One happily false prognosis has been the repeated prediction of the rise of eugenics as a “scientific” endeavor.
“The organization of an artificial selection is only a matter of time. It will be possible in a few centuries to renew all of humanity as a whole and replace the mass with another much superior mass, “declared a” respected authority on anthroposociology “in a message from the Science Service of 1921. Another The Eugenicist proclaimed, that “eugenic science” should be used to “shed the light of reason on the primal instinct of procreation” so that “disgenic marriages” would be forbidden as well as bigamy and incest.
In the century since then, thanks to more sensible and sophisticated knowledge of genetics (and more social enlightenment in general), eugenics has been rejected by science and is now only revived in the spirit by the ignorant or the malevolent. And during that time, real science has evolved in many other ways to an heightened level of sophistication that was unimaginable for the scientists and journalists of the 1920s.
It turns out that the groundbreaking experimental discoveries, revolutionary theoretical revelations, and predictive speculations of the past century have not erased science’s familiarity with false starts, unfortunate missteps, and myopic prejudices.
When the Science Service (now the Society for Science) started its mission, astronomers were unaware of the expansion of the universe. No biologist knew what DNA did or how brain chemistry regulated behavior. Geologists saw that the earth’s continents looked like separate pieces of the puzzle, but declared this to be a coincidence.
Modern scientists know better. Scientists now understand much more about the details of the interior of the atom, the molecules of life, the intricacies of the brain, the innards of the earth, and the vastness of the cosmos.
Yet somehow scientists are still pursuing the same questions, albeit now at higher levels of theoretical abstraction rooted in deeper layers of empirical evidence. We know how the molecules of life work, but not always how they respond to novel diseases. We know how the brain works except in people who have dementia or depression (or when consciousness is part of the question). We know a lot about how the earth works, but not enough to always foresee how it will react to what humans do with it. We think we know a lot about the universe, but we are not sure if our universe is the only one, and we cannot explain how gravity, the dominant force in the cosmos, can coexist with the forces that rule atoms.
It turns out that the groundbreaking experimental discoveries, revolutionary theoretical revelations, and predictive speculations of the past century have not erased science’s familiarity with false starts, unfortunate missteps, and myopic prejudices. Today’s researchers have expanded the scope of reality they can explore, but are still stumbling through the still-unknown jungle of facts and laws of nature, looking for more clues about how the world works.
To paraphrase an old philosophy joke, science is more like it is now than ever. In other words, science remains a challenge to human research. And the need to communicate your progress, noted by Scripps and Ritter a century ago, remains essential.
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