Recently in Periodical Category

Publication: Scientific American
Frequency: Monthly
Average Page Count: 90
Issues Reviewed: February 2011, March 2011, April 2011

When it comes to biblical studies and theology, I can read Greek, employ technical commentaries when doing exegesis, and read both academic journals and books. I also enjoy science, but in a different way. If I picked up a scientific academic journal, it would be Greek…uh…Italian?…to me. That’s why I’m grateful for popular science magazines. I subscribe to three, in fact: Popular Science, New Scientist, and Scientific American.

This is the perfect time to review SciAm. Mariette DiChristina took over as editor-in-chief in December of 2009, replacing John Rennie who had been editor since 1994. She’s now had a little over a year to get into the groove of things, and we can begin to evaluate her unique contributions to the magazine.

More recently, late last year, SciAm underwent an overhaul. This wasn’t a simple redesign: It was a complete overhaul. The dimensions of the magazine changed, the binding changed (from staples to perfect), and even the website was redesigned. Those are all cosmetic though.

The overhaul was deeper than that. They also updated some of their editorial strategies. DiChristina has even expanded the size of the board of advisers. And they are still committed to the reason I fell in love with the magazine in the first place: in-depth feature articles on scientific issues written by scientists and researches—not journalists—that are clear and understandable to a general audience. I don’t know if I’d recommend SciAm for a ten-year-old (Popular Science is probably more on their level), but a high schooler interested in science should have no problem following the articles.

Where the editorial strategy has changed is the addition of shorter content interspersed between the longer feature articles. I was afraid at first this was a sign of “dumbing down” SciAm. I am happy to report they are still committed to the longer feature articles (usually six to eight pages), and I have even found the new, shorter material interesting.

In the February 2011 issue, there is a two-page feature (about one page of text and one page taken up by a full-page computer-generated image) about NASA’s NuSTAR telescope. The April 2011 issue featured a six-page photo essay about the Dead Sea and a two-page computer science feature (again, about one page of text and one page of illustration) discussing new techniques that may allow voice recognition software to decipher between multiple voices speaking simultaneously (something humans do routinely but is incredibly complicated for a computer).

I am less interested in biology, medicine, and earth sciences articles and more interested in physics, astronomy, computer science, and mathematics articles. SciAm usually has a good mix of both though. DiChristina does seem to pick more biology and medicine stories than Rennie did though. The cover stories for both the February 2011 and March 2011 issues were medicine articles: “Scaling Back Obesity” and “How Minds Bounce Back.” The April 2011 cover story, “Quantum Gaps in Big Bang Theory,” was a physics article and probably the article I enjoyed most of the three issues reviewed here.

Other articles that stood out were “Citizen Satellites” (February) about how standardization is lowering costs to allow small research agencies and even hobbyists to perform experiments on satellites, “Journey to the Innermost Planet” (March) about Mercury, and “Demons, Entropy and the Quest for Absolute Zero” (March) about new techniques for reaching ultralow temperatures.

The one area where I feel SciAm is weak is there book section. They have one page—and only one page—near the end of each issue dedicated to books. There is a recommended book with a one-paragraph (really, a few sentence) review (not much more than a summary), an excerpt from a recently released book, and a list with no commentary whatsoever of recently published popular science books. New Scientist dedicates two to three pages of each issue to books. There is usually one or two full-page reviews and then a page of three or four shorter (a few paragraph) reviews. SciAm should expand their book coverage another page and at least really review their recommended book of the month.