Wonder and Skepticism

Davi Corcoran In 1978 The New York Times introduced the weekly Science Times. Now one of few “freestanding science sections left on the diminished landscape of American newspapers,” writes David Corcoran ’69 in The New York Times Book of Science, “it remains one of the paper’s most popular features.”

I’m grateful for Science Times—and for this book, an oddly enlightening historical account of current events. Alumni of a certain age—dedicated liberal artists like me—will nod when I say that my Amherst education truly began after commencement. Especially in science. In The New York Times I first read of fractal math, the selfish gene, endorphin highs, the right/left brain, AIDS, global warming, string theory, cloning, dark matter. Science Times not only improved my stock of metaphors but bettered my health and buttressed my political thinking.

The Times’ science reporting did not begin in 1978. In his modest introduction to this immodest attempt to capture “More than 150 Years of Groundbreaking Scientific Coverage,” Corcoran—who edited Science Times from 2001 to 2014—notes that “the first mention of science in the Times came in its very first issue—Sept. 18, 1851” (in an obituary for Sylvester Graham).

Corcoran’s book marshals 125 news items, features, editorials— even a poem!—in 13 chapters. The arrangement is prosaic: alphabetical. But the editor’s skill reveals an epic sweep that starts in Tutankhamen’s tomb and culminates in the passenger seat of a self-driving Google car. The tension between progress and process keeps it interesting: In 1919, experimenter Arthur Eddington tests Einstein’s theories and confirms “the inference that light has weight.” The scientists and the reporter agree that something important has been proven—but what? Reporting on a new telescope in 1929, James H. Jeans writes, “Man is no longer content to stare through a telescope as at a rare show; the dumb attitude of astonished wonder has passed and he is beginning to ask insistently what it all means.”

Book of Science

Astonished Wonder and Deep Meaning are two legs science writing stands on. Both are in this volume, sometimes in the same Times story, as on July 21, 1969, when the front page contained not only the “MEN WALK ON MOON” headline but also a poem by Archibald MacLeish:

moon, a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our lights, our lives—perhaps
a meaning to us...
O, a meaning!

Great writing can make the familiar seem strange and wonderful, and bring miraculous discoveries down to earth. Almost every page in The New York Times Book of Science qualifies as great. Listen to Dennis Overbye, wondering what happened before the Big Bang: “Like baseball, the universe makes its own time.”

Journalists say, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Scientists might amend that to, “Reproduce the results.” The two professions share a healthy skepticism. Science journalism has faced a crisis at least since 1964, when the surgeon general linked smoking to cancer and the tobacco industry sought to discredit the report with its own scientists.

“Doubt is our product,” declared a 1969 Brown & Williamson memo spelling out Big Tobacco’s strategy. This cynical gaslighting, standard practice today, makes the work of science reporting hard—and vital. A savvy public may not be best informed by “a study I saw on the Internet.” I prefer a book. The science is scholarly and the writing learned. I wouldn’t call this a work of popular history or popular science, although it calls for reading skills common to both genres. This report from the “radio editor” in 1933 that “Television is Brought Nearer to the Home” benefits from a reading that melds historical and scientific skepticism:

“What will this mean in the wars of the future when a staff officer can see the enemy through the television eyes of his scouting planes or when they can send a bombing plane without a man on board which can see the target and be steered by radio up to the moment when it hits?”

What will this mean? Indeed: what does it mean now? O, a meaning!