Monday, January 24, 2011

Engineering Over Time Through Scientific American

In 1970, when I was 17, my grandmother bought me a gift subscription to Scientific American magazine. This was an act of faith on her part as much as anything else, since I suspect teenage boys were not a big item in the magazine’s marketing strategy. But I’ve been a subscriber ever since. I bring this up because this weekend, I boxed up my backfiles of the magazine, almost 500 issues, and prepared to ship them to an outfit in Georgia which offered me a reasonable price for them. It’s not every day someone offers to pay you to clean out your attic, so that’s what I did. It got me to thinking about science, engineering, and the changing status of both as reflected in a journal which has tried to be to the scientific community of America what The New Yorker tries to be to the nation’s arts-and-letters contingent. Exactly what that is can be debated, but it can be summarized as a prestigious forum for the latest and greatest, presented to readers in the upper strata of its chosen group.

Just to make the comparison more vivid, I will look at two sample issues of the magazine spaced widely in time: the March 1957 issue (a beat-up old thing I obtained under dubious circumstances, which I am not sending to Georgia) and my latest current issue, for January 2011. The only thing that is unquestionably the same in the two issues is the masthead logo or whatever you call it, the words “Scientific American” on the cover. Other than that, the differences are vast.

The major articles in the 1957 issue were about evenly divided between the life sciences and the physical sciences. On the biology side, there were pieces on hormones, a famous physician of antiquity named Galen, and a rare genetic disease called porphyria that a researcher had tracked down to a single prolific South African immigrant. On the physical-science side, the interested reader could learn about current techniques of seawater desalinization, recent findings about the Crab Nebula, and frozen free radicals. There were also a couple of articles on psychological matters. I have lost the cover for this particular issue, but if it was like the others of its time, it featured nothing but the magazine’s name, the date, and a single elegantly prepared artwork illustrating one of the articles, with a short subtitle. That was all.

Turning to January 2011, its cover also is dominated by a single image: the male and female symbols used by doctors, made three-dimensional and assembled in what could be described as a suggestive way. The dominant headline (one of several) reads “The Real Sexual Revolution,” and summarizes an article about the evolutionary development of sex. (In case no one has told you, sex sells, at least with magazines.) Three other headlines describe a few more pieces: one on the physical brain substrate of consciousness, one on the development of new flu strains, and one on robot scientists. There is a dominance of biology and the life sciences over the physical sciences, and this trend continues inside. Of nine feature articles listed in the table of contents, only two pertain primarily to physical science. And even those two deal not so much with physics per se as with technology and society: one speculates on what we’ll do if we actually make contact with an interstellar society, and another discusses energy policy.

Another thing to examine is the advertisements, which say a lot about the clientele a magazine hopes to procure. The 1957 issue is full of ads placed by companies wanting to hire scientists and engineers: places like Avco, Northrop, Boeing, RCA, Bell Labs—really an honor roll of the high-tech sector of that time. A tone of desperation even seeps into some of the ads. Clearly it was a seller’s market then, if you had an advanced technical degree in the physical sciences or engineering. The 2011 issue’s ads are softer and less focused, more institutional than purposeful, and many could (and do) appear in any high-prestige slick magazine these days. I saw no ads offering jobs: those have long since retreated into the specialty professional locations where they are more cost-effective. But if I want to buy some software to teach me Chinese, or take a cruise with like-minded Scientific American readers, or be impressed by the high-tech sector of the Czech Republic (the magazine sells special advertising sections to entire countries from time to time), I will find what I’m looking for in this month’s issue.

Another thing that has changed, and in my opinion not for the better, is that the 1957 issue maintains a highly objective and non-political tone throughout, except in a small section called “Science and the Citizen.” Of course, strict objectivity is an illusion, but like good manners, it can be very convenient to employ nonetheless. When longtime publisher Gerard Piel and editor Dennis Flanagan left the magazine’s helm in 1984 to others, the new crew took on an advocacy role in both editor-authored statements and in their choice of articles. In their selection of columnists and direct editorials, the magazine now has an obvious anti-supernatural bias which was hard to detect in its earlier incarnations.

What has all this got to do with engineering, let alone engineering ethics? For one thing, it says engineering is a much more diverse field now than it was in 1957. Back then, an advertiser stood a good chance of addressing the small pool of high-tech American professionals through the pages of a single magazine. Nowadays everything is a lot more complicated: science and technology in general, and the process of finding people who can do what you want, in particular. This little comparison also shows how the physical sciences (and technology based exclusively on them) have shrunk in relative prestige compared to the life sciences. What this means for engineering is not exactly clear, except that engineers themselves must pay more attention to life science than ever before. This explains the growth in programs such as biomedical engineering, and says that too much specialization of any kind may not be a good idea in today’s rapidly changing world.

NOTE on the Readers’ Poll: Last week I asked for suggestions on themes for a new engineering ethics video I will have the opportunity to contribute to. The response was not exactly overwhelming (I think I got two so far), so if you have any ideas along these lines, please see last week’s blog and pass them along. In any event, I will discuss these next week.

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