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.”