Looking Back On A Century of Science

29:09 minutes

dreamy, cloudy image with red, white, blue and purple space swirls with several twinkling stars in the foreground
Hubble image of runaway stars. Credit: NASA

In 1921, the discovery of radium was just over 20 years in the past. And the double helix of DNA was still over thirty years in the future. That year, a publication that came to be the magazine Science News started publication, and is still in operation today.   

Editors Nancy Shute and Elizabeth Quill join Ira to page through the magazine’s archives, with over 80,000 articles covering a century of science—from the possibilities of atomic energy to discussions of black holes, to projections of the rise of the avocado as a popular fruit. There are mysteries—are spiral nebulae other universes? And there are missteps, like the suggestion that the insecticide DDT should be incorporated into wall paint.

Further Reading

Go back in time with Science Friday! Get never-before digitized stories and audio bites from our archives.

Segment Guests

Nancy Shute

Nancy Shute is Editor in Chief of Science News.

Elizabeth Quill

Elizabeth Quill is the Special Projects Editor at Science News. 

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, launching the next edition of the SciFri book club, with a book about rising seas and communities banding together. But first, what was science like a mere 100 years ago, let’s say 1921. Well you had the discovery of radium, it was only 20 years in the past, the double helix of DNA was still 30 years in the future. And in 1921, a publication called Science News began operation. I began reading it religiously decades ago, it’s still in operation today, and it’s seen a lot of science over that 100 years.

Joining me now to talk about a century of covering science is the Editor-in-Chief of Science News, Nancy Shute, and Elizabeth Quill, Enterprise Editor and archive wrangler for the magazine. Welcome to Science Friday.

ELIZABETH QUILL: Thanks Ira, great to be here.

NANCY SHUTE: Great being here Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you both. Nancy let me begin with you. Give us the origin of the magazine, where did it come from?

NANCY SHUTE: That’s a great question, Ira. Way back in the early 1900s, newspaper magnate E.W. Scripps, after he made many pots of money in the publishing industry, became friends with a zoologist, Edward Ritter, at the University of California. And these two men realized they shared a deep interest in science’s potential for making the world a better place. And they also thought that a healthy democracy depended on public understanding of science.

Scripps actually thought that newspapers were doing a pretty crummy job covering science. They were running a lot of articles about fake cures, dangerous patent medicines, conspiracy theories. So he and Ritter decided that they were going to join forces and launch a syndication service that would provide factual, evidence-based articles to the nation’s newspaper. And that was the precursor of Science News. It started in April 2, 1921.

IRA FLATOW: So it wasn’t like an independent journal that would get mailed to people. It was a service for newspapers.

NANCY SHUTE: Right. They actually mailed out articles that newspapers could reprint. And it became really popular. Actually, I looked back, and there was one in April 21, which is the founding month, where the Emporia, Kansas daily gazette published one of the wire service stories about the discovery of the oldest and stalest bread in America. Which was actually a 500-year-old archeological finding in the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park.

But they covered a lot of real bigger news as well. You know, including earthquakes in California, and it quickly grew to the point where just members of the public wanted to get it in the mail. And so it first expanded into something called “Science Newsletter,” which was a weekly newsletter, and then became a four-color magazine, which is what we still have today. And that’s Science News.

IRA FLATOW: And I recall reading about the early days, seeming that the newsletter was very closely tied into the structure of official Washington science, right?

NANCY SHUTE: Yeah it’s interesting, looking back, that they were doing things that we wouldn’t do today, really. I mean the early offices were over at the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences. In the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt asked Science Service, which was our precursor organization, to research the number of women working in science and government. But definitely deeply tied into the Washington, D.C. science community.

IRA FLATOW: Now Beth, I know you’ve been rambling through the archives of those 100 years, some 80,000 articles is that correct?

ELIZABETH QUILL: That’s right. More than 80,000 news reports in our archive.

IRA FLATOW: Any general impressions or takeaways from that list?

ELIZABETH QUILL: Wow. There’s so many gems in that reporting. And you can find anything if you’re interested in basic discoveries, that’s there. The reporting of insulin as a treatment for diabetes is there. All the way up to cloning of Dolly the sheep. The first use of the term, to our knowledge, the term black holes, in print appears in our archive. There is just so much to investigate, for people like me who are really interested in the history of science, and for anyone who wants to know how currents of the past connect to current events.

In celebration of our Centennial, we’ve launched what we’re calling the Century of Science project. And it looks back at major advances in the sciences across the fields. It builds on those 80,000 news reports. And what’s amazing is the articles not only track the greatest discoveries and give context for what scientists thought at the time, but they also show that some of the biggest questions in science are enduring. How our brains work, what’s the nature of the cosmos, how did humans evolve. Those stories are there from the beginning, and they still are sparking our curiosity today.

IRA FLATOW: I want to play a few excerpts from some of those early articles. Let me begin with this one from 1921 on the potential of something called atomic energy.

– Nowadays, everyone knows that the peculiar behavior of radium is due to the fact that its atoms disintegrate, setting free the large amount of energy which all atoms are supposed to possess inside themselves. The disintegration of radium is not controllable, but goes on at a constant rate, which man can neither increase nor retard.

Ever since the nature of radioactivity has been understood, it has been a dream of scientists and novelists alike, that man would one day learn how to control atomic disintegration. Such as that of radium, and how to utilize the vast stores of energy inside of atoms. Stores so large that the total energy of the world’s coal beds is tiny in comparison.

IRA FLATOW: And of course out of that we got the atomic bomb. Which I’m sure you covered also.

ELIZABETH QUILL: That’s right. And it’s so interesting that we have the discovery of radioactivity, but we have to bring ourselves back. Because at the time, we didn’t know about fission, we didn’t know about fusion in the sun. And so there’s so much context that we have today when we listen to that, they didn’t have then, and it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah because I was reading one of the articles about that. About surprising news about what is powering the sun, we really don’t know what it is. They seem to think, back in those early days, that it was actually the splitting of the atom or something. But the term fusion was not even around then.

ELIZABETH QUILL: That’s right. And that article you’re referring to, it’s so interesting to read, because I think it also mentions that the sun is perhaps hundreds of billions of years old. And we now know our universe is about 14 billion years old. So it’s, again, so many little pieces that over a century, add up to create our knowledge and understanding that we have today.

IRA FLATOW: And so many times when you go through these articles and you see what was written, and the projections, people get projecting into the future so wrong, so many times.

ELIZABETH QUILL: Yeah. I mean, I think they do. I think they do. Certainly there are elements where, I think there is an article, and I don’t have the details, but that said we would be flying around the world in, or across the country in two hours. You know, and you read these things, and you’re like, well sort of right.

We’ve definitely seen improvements, but we’re not there yet. And that’s not the direction things have gone. I kind of, when I read it, I’m struck by both the power and the limitations of human imagination. In some ways you’re like, wow if I could really bring myself back, it’s amazing that they knew so much and got so much right. But also what was wrong really stands out to you.

IRA FLATOW: You speak about what was wrong and we were just talking about nuclear power. And then again, what you have on the other side, is you have a history of cold fusion, where everybody bit into that back in the early ’90s. I know even talked about it on Science Friday. And then it just went, you know so many predictions for it, and then just totally dismantled.

ELIZABETH QUILL: And you also have elements like gravitational waves. Where there were early searches for gravitational waves and claims of discovery that then proved to be wrong. But the basics of that is right. And we’ve now detected gravitational waves today with LIGO and Virgo detectors. So it’s really amazing how things come and go and then come back in some ways.

IRA FLATOW: Nancy, other publications have long histories too. I’m thinking of Scientific American, Popular Science, and they each have their own flavor. What flavor would you describe Science News as having?

NANCY SHUTE: I think our flavor is that we’ve always focused on just like straight up, here’s the news as we know it. We’re obsessed about accuracy. Clearly our mission, from the beginning, was to counter misinformation or disinformation about science, or just lack of understanding, and really say you know this is how it works. This is what we know. This is what we don’t know. And we’re still really doing that today.

And I think as science has grown in extraordinary ways over the past century, you know, it’s hard for us regular civilians to keep a grip on this. And a lot of our readers love the fact that we cover across the fields of science. Because even if they might be a scientist themselves, it’s really hard to keep up. And as someone who was an English major, I particularly love our coverage of physics and astronomy. Because hoo boy, I’m not a physicist, but it’s fascinating. I love reading about it, and trying to learn about it. And I get to do that every week, it’s wonderful.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah me too, it’s great. You know it’s almost impossible, I know how many tens of thousands of pages you have. It’s almost impossible during our discussion, to cover all the things that have happened, all the advances that have happened in the last 100 years. From the invention of the birth control pill, to genetic engineering that didn’t exist before the late ’60s and the ’70s.

And all the things that came out of that, all the general relativity, and all the physics that came, the discoveries of different kinds of stars and black holes. It’s impossible, just impossible. But you have it all in one spot that people can look through themselves. Tell us how we can do that.

ELIZABETH QUILL: Well yeah www.sciencenews.org. That’s our site. And from there you can access our archive, all of those reports. And also, our Century of Science page is www.sciencenews.org/century. And that’s where over a year-and-a-half, we started this project last January, and it will continue through March 2022, will be highlighting a subfield of science each month.

And doing original reporting perspectives, as well as highlighting some of the people in science who we’re calling them our unsung characters, who are under-recognized at the time and now, and their stories weren’t told, and we’re hoping to tell them. So we invite everyone, and hope you’ll check it out.

IRA FLATOW: We have to take a break. We’ll be back with more conversation with the Editor-in-Chief of Science News, Nancy Shute, and Elizabeth Quill, Enterprise Editor and archive wrangler for the magazine. We’ll be right back. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re looking back on 100 years of science with the publication Science News. My guests are Nancy Shute, the Editor-in-Chief, and Elizabeth Quill, Enterprise Editor for the magazine Science News. Now Beth, you’re not always looking at the super serious. Here’s a clip from 1921 about the great frontiers in fruits.

– The favorite fruit of Americans, of the generations to follow us, will be the avocado, or alligator pear. That this large meaty tropical fruit will be a common daily food of the future, is the opinion of David Fairchild, in charge of the US Department of Agriculture’s work of introducing new and useful seeds and plants into this country.

A few crackers and an avocado sprinkled with a little salt, make a hearty and well-balanced lunch, declares Mr. Fairchild. Although over 1,200 acres of avocado trees are now planted in Florida and California, the tropics of the United States, the alligator pear is still a rich man’s fruit. Eventually, Mr. Fairchild believes that it will be just as well-known and as popular as oranges and lemons.

IRA FLATOW: No mention of guacamole there anywhere. [LAUGHS]

NANCY SHUTE: What’s so wonderful about that is that is from 1921. So we the public were a little slow on getting on the avocado train, but we sure as heck are there now.

IRA FLATOW: We certainly are. One thing that surprised me, many historians, and you mentioned this before, we started talking about black holes. They credit John Wheeler, the famous physicist, with coining the term black holes in 1967. But you have an instance of it in your publication in 1964.

– Space may be peppered with black holes. This was suggested at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Cleveland, by astronomers and physicists who are experts on what are called degenerate stars. Degenerate stars are not Hollywood-types with low morals, they are dying stars or white dwarfs, and make up about 10% of all stars in the sky.

The faint light they emit comes from the little heat left in their last stages of life. It is not known how a star quietly declines to become a white dwarf.

IRA FLATOW: You know that really answers a question that has been plaguing me for decades. Because John Wheeler, who is credited with not making up the term black holes in 1967, but saying that he heard it in a question at a conference, where someone in the audience asked him about black holes and then he went on to use it. Well your article explains how that could happen. That you had it in your publication three years before then, somebody sees it, and then asks John Wheeler about it.

ELIZABETH QUILL: Yeah that’s right. And our research suggests that Wheeler himself did speak at the symposium, from which our report came. But no one there has recalls him naming black holes back then. So we never really got to the bottom of who first said it, but we’re very proud that we’re able to kind of point to our article to say, here it is. And to uncover this kind of quirky bit of history.

IRA FLATOW: Nancy, you have a story about a person who washes dishes and Einstein. Can you tell us please that story?

NANCY SHUTE: Oh this is one of my favorite gems of the many gems in our archive. Where in 1936, in the spring of ’36, a restaurant dishwasher named Rudi Mandel showed up at the Science News offices in Washington, D.C. And he said he had a theory about how gravity could distort light like a lens.

And he very much wanted to talk to Albert Einstein about this. And the editors listened to Mr. Mandel and they said, OK, here we’re going to buy you a train ticket. Get on the train, go up to Princeton, and talk with Professor Einstein about your theory. And the two men got together, it sounds like they had a lovely conversation. And sometime later, Einstein published a paper outlining what we now call gravitational lensing. And he thanked Mandel in the paper.

IRA FLATOW: Do we think that Einstein got the idea for gravitational lensing from a dishwasher?

NANCY SHUTE: I mean it was, the concept was out there. But I think that, who knows, it might have sparked Einstein to do some more thought and work on it. And I love what it tells us about what life was like in the 1930s. That a dishwasher would wander into your office as a journalist. And you would say, hey, go talk to Albert Einstein. And Einstein and the dishwasher would talk.

ELIZABETH QUILL: Yeah Einstein would see people. Yeah and Mandel was an engineer, and he really did the persuading to Einstein to take it seriously. I mean, Einstein knew that gravitational lensing was possible, but he didn’t think it would be, and others didn’t think it would be such an important effect. But Mandel really said, hey, look closer at it, pay more attention to it.

IRA FLATOW: And looking at another very important story, your reporters covered the Scopes trial, right?

NANCY SHUTE: Absolutely. Beth, do you want to do that one?

ELIZABETH QUILL: Nancy probably has even a little bit more of the details than I do. But the famous trial to determine whether evolution in modern science could be taught in schools, we were very involved in that. We went, we were on the scene, and we were supporting Scopes. Today, or in recent decades at least, that kind of involvement would probably be considered over the line for journalists. But at the time, we really saw ourselves as proponents of science and of the public understanding of science.

NANCY SHUTE: Yeah it’s a great example. Science Service, which was our name then, helped cover the defense costs for John Scopes, the teacher who was on trial. And the editors of Science Service sent telegrams to scientists on behalf of Clarence Darrow, who was Scopes’ defense attorney, trying to get scientists to testify. And it is just something no journalists would even think of today. But it is pretty cool that the photographs that our editor took of Clarence Darrow questioning William Jennings Bryan at the trial, are in the Smithsonian archives.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah it is unfortunate that one can think of some journalists who might cover it that way today. One of the big examples of a whole society getting something wrong, and we talked about how getting things wrong was par for the course, was DDT. Here’s a clip from 1945.

– DDT can send malaria mosquitoes, typhus lice, and other disease-carrying insects, to join the dodo and the dinosaur in the limbo of extinct species. Thereby ending these particular plagues for all time. One of the most promising carriers for household use of DDT seems to be wall paint, since flies, mosquitoes, and other domestic pests need only to touch it with their feet in order to pick up enough to kill them. A DDT-carrying painted surface turns the whole interior of a room into a big death trap for them. Several well-known commercial firms are already manufacturing DDT paints.

IRA FLATOW: Boy did we get that one wrong. I mean the law of unintended consequences, not knowing what they are, really bit us on that one, didn’t it Beth?

ELIZABETH QUILL: Yeah that’s right. I mean I remember when I first uncovered that story in our archive. And I was just like, wow. You know, we were often, perhaps you could say, had too much zeal in our coverage of chemistry and of new materials.

I mean, even our coverage of plastics is similar. They are certainly around us everywhere, but have also become global pollutants. And it’s interesting the way we covered it, and to see how we might do it differently today. And to know in hindsight what we know. There are a lot of stories like that just stand out.

And I think they’re an opportunity to kind of have us take a pause and say, what are we missing today. What are we as journalists not critical enough today, and where might our blind spots be, and where might we be overly-enthusiastic now. And I think that’s an interesting lesson to take from a lot of this coverage and a lot of this history.

IRA FLATOW: Nancy, one of the things that both science and science journalists have been struggling with over the century, is being more inclusive to a wider range of science and scientists. How have you grappled with that?

NANCY SHUTE: When you go back in our archives, it’s really instructive to see how the vast majority of the bylines are from men, who were white men. And we have had many brilliant women as reporters and editors at Science News over the decades. But it was really a man’s game for a really long time, as was science.

And I think that’s changed a lot. Science is changing, journalism is changing, but we still have a long way to go. And we’re trying to do a lot with Science News, and really thinking about who’s doing the science. How do we make sure that everybody’s voices are heard. Trying to make sure that we’re really inclusive in our sourcing. And also, looking at what science can tell us about diversity and race, and how science is or isn’t doing a good job on diversity and inclusion.

IRA FLATOW: We at Science Friday are celebrating our 30th year this year. And so you know, I just opened up your magazine to November of 1991. We started on the radio in November, and I looked at the stories that you covered during our first week of the broadcast, and I saw something that we did, a few things that we did. Like the discovery of, you had the discovery of the first pluripotent STEM cell, which is huge now, right.

ELIZABETH QUILL: Definitely. Definitely. Congratulations on your anniversary as well. That’s wonderful.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you.

ELIZABETH QUILL: Yeah. But every issue, you know, every issue you look at can find something similar. You can find something where it’s like, wow, that was a moment in time that changed things going forward. And that’s what’s amazing about this archive and that’s why for our centennial, we want to really invite readers into it. And give them the chance through the Century of Science project, to explore what’s there and to find what bit most interests them.

IRA FLATOW: And looking back, another thing that struck me is how some of the ideas we take for granted, were still open for debate. Like in the story about spiral nebulae.

– Spiral nebulae may not be other universes. Distinct changes in the structure and form of the nucleus of the well-known spiral, Messier 99, are recorded by Dr. Lampland at the Lowell Observatory. The nebulae of the so-called spiral family are very numerous throughout the depths of space. But scientists have not yet been able to determine their size, distance, and composition. Or discover what laws govern their motions or how they are related to the stars and planets.

IRA FLATOW: Astronomy is always a fascinating thing to look back on. Because we get new tools, we get new telescopes, we get all kinds of new devices, we can look out and see further into space and back in time. It’s always changing, right.

ELIZABETH QUILL: That’s right and. That’s one of my favorite stories. Or that class of stories is one of my favorite, because of course, it was a question at the time, of what were those spiral nebulae and were they other galaxies outside of the Milky Way, or were they much closer by and part of the Milky Way. And it really speaks to our,

I mean, it was just later that decade that Hubble showed that there are distant galaxies outside of our own. And so it’s fascinating to kind of see the back and forth of the coverage. And to hear what the scientists, what astronomers were thinking. And to put that in context, and to really be a witness to the fact that our view of our place in the universe was changing.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. That started a whole discussion. Hubble and then Fred Hoyle, and then George Gamow, they all started discussing the Big Bang. Which was another supposedly derogatory term that Fred used to describe how the universe began. And there was a huge debate that still goes on today.

NANCY SHUTE: Yeah. So often in these stories, it’s like you can almost feel the scientists. Like they want to solve this question so badly, and they don’t have the data, or the technology, or the tools to do it. And one of the thrilling parts about looking back at this century is to see when they get the tool, whether it’s the Hubble Space Telescope, or whether it’s sonar so they can survey the ocean floor and discover plate tectonics. They couldn’t really figure it out until they had the technological tools to do it.

IRA FLATOW: That’s right. And think about all the things that have been discovered about the deep ocean floor, that we never knew about before, 100 years ago. The vents, the plate tectonics was a big discussion in the early ’20s, as you say, how does the Earth move. But we then created these deep diving vessels where people could go into them and see things they had never seen before. And I don’t think people could have predicted things like that, about what you would see if you actually had the tools to do it.

NANCY SHUTE: Yeah and I was just blown away by the fact that plate tectonics was still controversial in the 1960s.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, they were still talking about that. It took a while for that idea to catch on, didn’t it?

ELIZABETH QUILL: It’s really fascinating, some of those tools that we’re talking about, and that Nancy mentioned, weren’t just set within one scientific discipline either. But there were certain tools that came around that really transformed multiple fields at a time. You know, I’m thinking of something like the electron microscope, or you think of radiometric dating, that really had implications for biology, for material science, for human history, for our understanding of the universe. And it’s amazing to see how that one technology or one innovation can just open wide the doors of scientific inquiry.

IRA FLATOW: We looked back over the years and saw how science journalism started out 100 years ago, with the Scopes trial, at least in terms of what you were covering in the range of years. And then has morphed into other science journalism. Can you predict, can you make a prediction about the future of science journalism, Nancy?

NANCY SHUTE: Oh gosh. That’s easy, Ira. Well you know–

IRA FLATOW: Well can you make a prediction about where you would like it to go?

NANCY SHUTE: I would hope that Science News is going to be around for another 100 years. And that we will continue to do our deep dives and explanation about how science works, and the advances that make it happen, and how it affects society, and how we understand it. And just as science has been transformed by technology and discoveries in the last 100 years, so his journalism. We’re in a huge era of ferment and destruction. Some of it creative, some of it not.

But I’m confident we’re going to have science journalists 100 years from now. And I hope Science News journalists will be doing an even better job than we are today.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, we have run out of time. I’d like to thank my guests, Nancy Shute, the Editor-in-Chief, and Elizabeth Quill, the Enterprise Editor for the magazine. Science News, happy anniversary to both of you, and all the staff there who I’ve known and enjoyed talking to over the years.

NANCY SHUTE: Thanks Ira.


IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Also thanks to SciFri’s Annie Nero, Nadja Oertelt, Kyle Viterbo, Xochitl Garcia, and Diana Montano, for being the voices of those science news archive clips.

Copyright © 2021 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

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