Call it self interest, but I was most interested at AAAS by science journalist/all-around original thinker Margaret Wertheim, who spoke about where science journalism is going. She gave some impressive statistics about readership for the science magazines (around 20 million per month) and then pierced whatever chest-puffing may have ensued with some scale: the readership of women’s magazines is at least 70 million per month.
It gets worse: sci-mag readership is overwhelmingly male, middle-aged, and wealthy (81% male, 49 years old, making $115,000/year in Scientific American’s case for instance). Wertheim, an Australian, has managed to write a science column for the Australian versions of Vogue and Elle as well as produce a science TV show aimed at teenage girls. She thinks the rest of us can do that sort of thing, too – but she warns it’s the hardest work she can think of.
Wertheim has had a dream career, writing books with whimsical titles like Pythagoras’s Trousers, producing Australian TV, and starting the Institute for Figuring, which loves fractals, paper-folding, the kindergarten roots of modernism, and the aforementioned crocheted model of the Great Barrier Reef.
The reef is going on display next month at the Andy Warhol museum. It’s been discussed in the New York Times, New Scientist, and NPR. The technique is based on hyperbolic geometry, a 200-year-old branch of study that no one had been able to give three-dimensional reality to until 1997. A Cornell mathematician devised a simple, crochetable algorithm and then used a few ounces of yarn to disprove Euclid’s fifth postulate, which had been lying around for 2,000 years, unproved but grudgingly accepted, like a splinter. A few years later, Wertheim and her sister were sitting around crocheting in the living room of the Institute for Figuring when they noticed the resemblance to coral animals.
(Inkling take note: the IFF has the hands-down geekiest address ever: “Anchored in the conceptual landscape, the Institute for Figuring is located on the edge of the Mandelbrot Set.” Specifically it’s at 0.7473198, i0.1084649 . If you’re not familiar with the neighborhood, here’s a map, of a sort.)
So where does Wertheim think science journalism is going? Wertheim’s fantastically creative work takes abstract science to an unlikely audience, but it doesn’t seem to have a business model. Wertheim says the IFF is continually running on financial fumes. In that sense, it’s a shining example of what’s possible in the essentially volunteer outreach that the Internet has enabled. But it’s not really part of the future of science journalism.
When I asked Wertheim where quirky creativity like the IFF could find financial sustainability, she laughed. “That’s easy,” she said, “We just need the foundations to step in and fund us.” To me, that’s like saving biodiversity with captive breeding programs: Dedicating huge amounts of resources to prop up a few wonderful examples against ecological realities. Wertheim never mentioned the word “profit,” and she left me as confused as ever about how science news is going to survive in the new economic jungle.
(image: Institute for Figuring)