Letter from the Editor

Article excerpt

Man-eating trees? You won't read about them in Science News-or about the evil and beneficial influences of the numbers 7 and 13. These topics are on a list of stories that should be handled with care. It was prepared almost 50 years ago by Watson Davis, editor of Science News Letter (the forerunner of Science News). The topics weren't completely forbidden, because "some of the impossible things of today may become possible tomorrow." Indeed, the transmutation of metals, long-range weather forecasting, and drugs for curing obesity have moved from Davis' list into serious scientific, and thus journalistic, consideration.

While the topics have shifted over Science News' 75 years, the magazine's purpose and writing style, at their best, have remained surprisingly constant. In this anniversary supplement, we pause to glance over our shoulders before accelerating into the coming years. As we peer into a future of instant computer access to ever-growing mountains of information worldwide, we are convinced that our basic goals as journalists will remain much the same. Science writers will continue to sift out the most important and interesting findings and present them to readers in appealing, informative, and thoughtful stories.

Upset by what they regarded as misinformation about science in newspapers and an increasingly superstitious mind-set in the U.S. population, the founders of what is now Science Service wanted to convey the process of science and the discoveries of scientists to a wide audience. Today, we work to share with a broad range of readers both the intellectual excitement of science and the accumulating scientific information needed to form opinions about such practical concerns as health and the environment.

Before the days of academic programs in science journalism or even press releases, it was hard for Science News Letter to find qualified writers to tackle technical topics. The early writers had degrees in science, and some of the magazine's material was contributed by scientists. Eventually, a staff of full-time writers was hired. Warren Kornberg, who served as managing editor in 1966 and later as editor, insisted that the writers become more professional-that they be as smart about the topics they covered as the scientists were.

Staff writers began to specialize in various branches of science and soon became in-house authorities on them. The next editor, Kendrick Frazier, remembers his task as "having good people and letting them write as they thought best."

Most of those good people in the late 1960s and early 1970s had learned their science as journalists, but soon young people trained as scientists began turning to writing. Many of today's Science News writers studied science in college or graduate school.

Who are the scientists whose work is grist for science journalists? In the 1920s, the founders wanted to make public the work of "a few hundred, or at most a few thousand, well-trained men equipped with great mental capacity." By 1993, the number of Ph.D. scientists and engineers-men and women-in the United States had reached 700,000.

The scientific community has always been international, and from the start Science News Letter covered work done in other countries.

As phone service improved, far-flung scientists became more accessible to the Washington staff. The Internet has provided a quantum jump in international communication. Although Science News puts the scientific significance and substance of stories ahead of human interest and writing style, its editors have emphasized good writing tailored to the general reader. …