Gerry and the pacemakers

The Age of Science
July 5, 2002

John Maddox goes on a voyage of discovery with a scientific American.

Gerard Piel, otherwise "Gerry", is a legend in his own time. His claim on public attention is that, when a reporter for Look ( Time magazine's then newly founded sister magazine) in the late 1930s, he had the wit to appreciate that the reputation of science would be greatly enhanced by the second world war. He had the daring to arrange, in 1948, to buy the venerable but moribund monthly Scientific American and the flair, as publisher and co-editor, to turn it into the vehicle for the popularisation of science and the international institution it has become.

Piel's new book, The Age of Science , is not, as might have been expected, about that heroic enterprise, but about modern science and its antecedents. He says he is simply telling what he learned about the genesis of scientific discovery through his work for Scientific American and from its contributors, but there is more to it than that. It is an intelligent account of where fundamental science now stands, by a lively and irrepressible intelligence. The prose is mostly as clear as a bell, although readers may find it helpful to keep a pencil and paper handy to check the arithmetic repeatedly required of them. Scientific American has been a little like that from the beginning.

The new regime in 1948 was a stirring time for all concerned - readers, contributors and the small band of people who produced the magazine every month. Even among academic scientists the new magazine was electrifying, and for a simple reason. The formula on which the new owners had settled was to publish articles by scientists with important discoveries to report in language that everybody (or nearly everybody) could understand.

But how could that be possible when scientists are notoriously incapable of writing in simple language? By paying them enough so that they would endure the indignity of having their prose "run through the typewriter", of course. When $1,000 was a small fortune, there was no shortage of willing contributors. Forget the Nobel prize: Scientific American is an easier touch, the practitioners of science would say.

Operating the typewriter through which incoming manuscripts were processed was one Dennis Flanagan, at the outset an equal partner with Piel in the venture and, like him, a general journalist from the Time-Life stable. Partly because of Flanagan's profound deafness (in the days before digital hearing aids), Piel became the front man and the company president, Flanagan the rewrite man and editor, (he was brilliant at it).

Three other ingredients of the magazine helped to make the venture a success: the quality of its illustrations was, from the outset, superb, while regular columnist Martin Gardner provided readers with a distinctive blend of mathematical entertainment and challenge every month. Phillip Morrison, a graduate of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became the book reviewer; in other words, he decided what books should be reviewed and then he reviewed them literately. Period.

The formula worked like a dream. The magazine was read as eagerly by scientists wanting to know what their colleagues were really up to as by its ostensible audience, the men and women in the street. When Donald Miller, the talented business manager, arranged for distribution to subscribers in Britain and found that he was selling hot cakes, the idea crept in that Scientific American might be translated into other languages. Piel's history degree from Harvard ( magna cum laude , as he reminds us in The Age of Science ) ensured his enthusiasm.

Scientific American then embarked on franchising its brand overseas. Would-be foreign publishers were offered the opportunity of translating into their own languages the content of each month's Scientific American or of substituting some content of their own. At the peak in the early 1980s, there were nine foreign-language editions with a combined circulation of more than a million a month. At that point, the US domestic circulation had exceeded 600,000, when the magazine found itself advertising both whisky and whiskey and, occasionally, an upmarket motor car.

But then disaster struck. In 1984 Flanagan wanted out. A third party had made a bid for the enterprise that he wanted to accept. Piel, however, referred him to the terms of their partnership agreement, stipulating that a partner could not sell out unilaterally unless he had first offered his stake to the other and had been refused. Piel then bought out Flanagan. Piel then installed as Flanagan's successor his own son, Jonathan, a lawyer by background who was neither a scientist nor a journalist. A decade later, with advertising revenues in free fall, the magazine was bought by the Von Holtzbrinck group of Stuttgart.

None of the above information appears in The Age of Science . Piel has allowed himself only ten pages (out of 450) for personal material under the heading "About this book and myself". Even so, he has over-diligently airbrushed away the colleagues who helped him reshape Scientific American into the indispensable general account of discovery that it became when the second world war had ended. The exception is that the book is dedicated to Morrison, whose role in the present enterprise is otherwise not explained.

What Piel does tell us is how he found out about the Manhattan Project to build the first nuclear weapons while it was still wrapped in secrecy. Using scraps of published information, the US Defense Department's requests to editors not to publish certain information, and by gossiping to R. A. Wood, the then-retired professor of physics from Johns Hopkins University, Piel says he had pieced together the purpose of the Manhattan Project and knew where and how it was operating long before Hiroshima. No doubt that unpublished scoop explains why early Scientific American took a close interest in what P. M. S. Blackett had called, in 1947 "the social and economic consequences of atomic weapons".

As a historian of science, Piel puts himself on the fringes of the school of the history of science founded by the late Thomas Kuhn. In other words, he believes that "the 'reality' of physical reality remains an open question", and that there have been frequent occasions in the development of science when attempts to fit new data into the framework of accepted theory are recognised to be impossible, so that the existing "paradigm" must be replaced by another.

The Copernican revolution, which put the Sun and not the Earth at the centre of the universe, is the classic example, but Piel is careful to point out, for example, that Einstein's special relativity ("nothing travels faster than light") did not spell the end of Newton's 17th-century codification of mechanics, but was merely a necessary correction of it with unexpected philosophical implications.

Piel is at his best at the beginning of his tale and with Galileo, who spanned the 16th and 17th centuries and who died under house arrest on account of his heliocentric heresy that the Inquisition had forced him formally to renounce. Piel beautifully explains the significance of Galileo's experiments in which balls are allowed to roll down an inclined plane at different inclinations - an experiment still carried out in secondary-school science classes that, on cultural grounds, should surely be made a universal ingredient of the curriculum. The function of the inclined plane is simply to "dilute" the force of gravity, so making the acceleration it causes measurable (in Galileo's time).

Piel's enthusiasm for science shows through most conspicuously in his account of particle physics in the 1960-70s and of the doings of the great machines built for accelerating particles of matter to great energies. He faithfully records the emergence of the idea that neutrons and protons, previously believed to be the indivisible constituents of atomic nuclei, are made of other particles called quarks. His fingers are firmly crossed in the hope that there will soon be evidence for the so-called Higgs particle, (named after Peter Higgs, now retired from the University of Edinburgh), that would put a capstone on the current menagerie of particles of matter. He does not shrink from telling his readers about "string theory" (by which point-like "particles" of matter are given an internal structure), but steps gingerly around the question of whether it would be simpler to suppose that space and time themselves, like all other physical quantities such as energy, come in quanta - discrete amounts.

The life sciences - occupying the closing 40 per cent of the book - are also well dealt with. Piel does his best to give his readers a sense of the scale of things - the small size of cells relative to the organisms they constitute, the huge numbers of molecules in single cells and so on. He has as clear a popular account of how photosynthesis works as I have seen anywhere, together with an explanation of why this was one of the crucial steps in the evolution of life. On DNA, he gives less attention to the discovery of the structure (by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953) than would most people - and than the discovery merits. Reflecting Scientific American itself, he is less vigilant in spotting the unanswered questions in biology than in physics.

The consistent and surprising fault with The Age of Science is that the illustrations do not work. Somebody (probably Piel) decided at the outset that they should be free drawn to simulate the backs of envelopes on which real scientists proverbially record provisional ideas. The result is that most of the illustrations are needlessly large while the legends (in neat black handwriting) are often superposed on dark green or gray ink, sometimes making them illegible. Professional illustrators (of whom Scientific American has many) know that it takes great artifice to create the appearance of informality.

Whatever its provenance, Piel's account of the origins of modern science is a mine of information and has the makings of a good read for adults as well as for younger people. Few will be put off by Piel's frequent unhistorical asides. Thus he is scornful of the "postmodern talk about the ground of knowledge" that has flowed, in recent decades, from the supposed paradoxical character of quantum mechanics. He concludes with contemporary social problems - population growth and poverty: "The success of the inquiry started by the first toolmakers challenges the humanity of H. sapiens ". That also is a good read.

Sir John Maddox is emeritus editor of Nature .

The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the Twentieth Century

Author - Gerard Piel
ISBN - 1 903985 07 2
Publisher - Perseus Press
Price - £24.99
Pages - 460

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