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We have been covering science for 100 years. See how it has changed – and not changed


A century ago, people needed help to understand science. Much like they do today.

So, like now, it wasn’t always easy to separate the exact from the wrong. The conventional media, then as now, regarded science as secondary to other aspects of its mission. And when science broke the news, it was often (then as now) confusing, naive, or dangerously misleading.

E.W. Scripps, a prominent newspaper editor, and William Emerson Ritter, a biologist, perceived a need. They envisioned a service that would provide the world with reliable news about science, dedicated to truth and clarity. For Scripps and Ritter, science journalism had a noble purpose: "To discover the truth about all sorts of things of human interest and to denounce it truthfully and in language understandable to those whose well-being is involved."

And so the Science Service was born, 100 years ago, to then give birth to the journal now known as Science News.

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In its first year of existence, Science Service delivered its weekly shipments to newspapers in the form of mimeographed packages. In 1922 these packages were made available to the public by subscription, giving birth to the Science News-Letter, the progenitor of Science News. Then, as now, the magazine’s readers celebrated a fading of delicious chunks of a menu that encompasses all the flavors of science: from the atom to outer space, from agriculture to oceanography, from transportation to, of course, food. and nutrition.

In those early days, much of the new company’s coverage focused on space, such as the possibility of planets beyond Neptune. Experts shared their view on whether spiral-shaped clouds in deep space were entire galaxies of distant stars, such as the Milky Way, or embryonic solar systems that are forming in the Milky Way. The articles explored the latest speculations about life on Venus (here and here) or on Mars.

Regular coverage was also devoted to new technologies, especially radio. A shipment from the scientific service informed readers about how to make their own home radio – for $ 6. And in 1922 Science News-Letter reported a surprising radio breakthrough: a set that could run without a battery. You can only plug it into an electrical outlet.

Much of the scientific future of the century was foreshadowed in those early reports. In May 1921, an article on recent subatomic experiments pointed to the "dream of a scientist and novelist just as man would one day learn to … use the vast reserves of energy within atoms." In 1922, Science Service editor Edwin Slosson speculated that the "smallest unit of positive electricity" (the proton) could "be a complex of many positive and negative particles," a faint but mandatory prediction of the existence of quarks.

True, some prognoses have not aged so well. The 1921 prediction that the United States would be required to adopt the metric system for commercial transactions is still awaiting fulfillment. A simple, common, international auxiliary language – “confidently predicted” in 1921 to become “a part of the equipment of every educated person” – remains unestablished today. And despite serious considerations regarding the reform of the calendar by astronomers and church dignitaries reported in May 1922, more than 1,000 same months have already passed without the slightest alteration.

On the other hand, "the favorite fruit of the Americans of the generations to follow us will be the avocado," as predicted in 1921, is possibly debatable, though the toast was not mentioned; just the suggestion that "a few cookies and an avocado sprinkled with a pinch of salt makes for a hearty, well-balanced lunch."

A happily false prognosis was the repeated prediction of the rise of eugenics as a “scientific” effort.

“Organizing an artificial selection is only a matter of time. It will be possible to renew as a whole, in a few centuries, all of humanity and replace the mass with another much superior mass, "he declared in a" notorious authority on anthroposociology "in a 1921 news item from the Science Service. “Eugenic Science” to “shed light on reason about the primitive instinct of reproduction,” so that “dysgenic marriages” would be banned just like bigamy and incest.

In the next century, thanks to a more genetic and sophisticated knowledge of genetics (and more social enlightenment in general), eugenics has been disenfranchised by science and now only the ignorant or malevolent are revived in spirit. And during that time, real science progressed to a high degree of sophistication in many other ways, to an almost unimaginable point for the scientists and journalists of the 1920s.

It turns out that the innovative experimental discoveries of the last century, revolutionary theoretical revelations, and mandatory speculations have not eliminated the familiarity of science with false beginnings, unfortunate false steps, and short-sighted biases.

When the Science Service (now the Society for Science) launched its mission, astronomers were unaware of the extent of the universe. No biologist knew what DNA did or how brain chemistry regulated behavior. Geologists saw that the continents of the Earth looked like separate puzzle pieces, but stated that it was a coincidence.

Modern scientists know this best. Scientists now understand much more about the details of the inside of the atom, the molecules of life, the complexities of the brain, the bowels of the Earth, and the extent of the cosmos.

However, somehow scientists follow the same questions, albeit now with higher levels of theoretical abstraction rooted in deeper layers of empirical evidence. We know how life molecules work, but not always how they react to new diseases. We know how the brain works, except those affected by dementia or depression (or when consciousness is part of the issue). We know a lot about how the Earth works, but not enough to always predict how it will respond to what humans are doing with it. We believe we know a lot about the universe, but we are not sure if ours is the only one and we cannot explain how gravity, the dominant force across the cosmos, can coexist with the forces that govern atoms.

It turns out that the innovative experimental discoveries of the last century, revolutionary theoretical revelations, and mandatory speculations have not eliminated the familiarity of science with false beginnings, unfortunate false steps, and short-sighted biases. Researchers today have expanded the scope of reality they can explore, but they still stumble across the remaining unknown jungles of the facts and laws of nature, looking for more clues as to how the world works.

To paraphrase an old philosophy joke, science is more like today than ever before. In other words, science remains as challenging as ever for human research. And the need to communicate their progress, perceived by Scripps and Ritter a century ago, remains as essential now as it was then.

Scientists and journalists share the fundamental belief in questioning, observing, and verifying to reach the truth. Science News reports on crucial research and discoveries across scientific disciplines. We need your financial support for this to happen. Each contribution makes a difference.

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