The Science of Cool
Seed makes science too cool for school
Remember your high school science teachers, the lab-coat-wearing nerds who always said, “Science is all around you”? It might be an illuminating statement, but it never helped you remember the periodic table any faster or identify the inner workings of a formaldehyde frog, now did it? Still, you suspected then – as you now know – the nerds were right. Science plays a significant role in everyday life: it drives market economics, it informs public policy and political decisions, and it fuels innovation in art and entertainment. Don’t deny it – you’ve watched CSI and enjoyed it. Science has permeated our culture so much that today it’s actually cool to be a geek.
Über-cool geek Adam Bly sensed this cultural shift in 2001 when he started Seed, a magazine that explores the science all around us – how we shape it and vice versa. Seed certainly isn’t the first science magazine that claims to do this. Genre heavyweights Discover, Scientific American, and Popular Science have been bringing science to the masses for decades. But Seed sets itself apart by attracting a unique audience of affluent and highly educated male and female thirty-somethings who previously had little interest in science.
Born and raised in Montreal, Bly, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Seed, is not yet 30 himself. He has always been a precocious overachiever, even before he could legally drive. By 16, Bly was the youngest researcher at National Research Council Canada. At 18, while at a science conference in Budapest, he sketched out plans for Seed magazine. And when the magazine launched in Montreal in 2001, Bly was 20. During its first year, both the magazine and its editor matured. In 2002, after some necessary editorial restructuring, Seed launched again, this time in New York, with a new tagline: “Science is culture.” “We’ve taken the magazine to a place where it is more confident,” says deputy-editor Laura McNeil. And the numbers prove it’s working; circulation currently stands at 150,000 – 80 per cent from subscriptions.
When exposing the magazine to the public for the first time, Seed‘s editors opted for a sexual sell. The premiere issue featured a man and woman in profile, naked from the chest up. The magazine was criticized for being too sensational and misleading. Today, it maintains a strong visual appeal, but uses more conventional techniques for the covers, like head shots. Despite the text-heavy nature of the magazine, it also includes generous white space, a smart use of colour, pull-quotes, and boxes with tidbits of science news to break up the visual monotony. A 16-page science-fiction section published in issue 10 was printed on heavy, pink matte paper. In issues nine through 11, the articles covering the U.S. election were presented using cartoons and illustrations evoking Adbusters.
Election coverage and science-fiction supplements set Seed apart from established titles in science journalism. The only election-related articles in Scientific American concerned electronic ballots and rigging the vote, while Discover had a slightly more political hook. In a September 2004 article, it looked at the mathematics behind voting systems. Seed, however, examined the science and environment platforms of both candidates for the U.S. election. They even included an interactive article that listed where each candidate stood on a given issue. Readers could check off whom they agreed with, then tally the votes to see who should get their vote.
Their novel approach to science reporting has already yielded Seed a number of accolades. Last year it was nominated for Utne Reader‘s independent press award in the science/technology category. And the January/February 2003 cover story, profiling James Watson on the 50th anniversary of the double helix discovery, was selected by the editors of The Best American Science and Nature Writing for their 2004 anthology.
Véronique Morin, Canadian Science Writers’ Association president, has been following Seed since its Montreal début. She describes their articles as smart, current but not sensationalist, and going beyond simple analysis of science information. “It draws the trendiness out of topics that can be very dry and boring,” she says. “They bring an edge to science stories.” Like all science promoters, Morin applauds any effort to make the topic more accessible. According to readership studies by Erdos and Morgan, Seed‘s audience is, on average, eight and 11 years younger than that of Discover and Scientific American, respectively. They are also better-educated and generally make more money. They rarely read other big American titles like Rolling Stone, Wired, Vanity Fair, or The New Yorker. “It bridges the science-culture gap for a certain portion of our society,” says Morin. “It reaches a slice of the population which has money, is educated, is interested in science, and stimulates their intellect.”
John Rennie, the editor-in-chief of Scientific American, agrees that Seed‘s approach to covering issues is very different from his magazine. “They are less interested in the details of science,” says Rennie, who isn’t worried about losing younger readers to the magazine. With newsstand sales regularly over 150,000,Scientific American is assumed to be a magazine for those who have some training in science. Unlike the audience that Seed is trying to reach, Scientific American is directed to a more elite audience, says Bruce Lewenstein, an associate professor of science communication at Cornell University. He occasionally picks upSeed and believes it has long-term potential, but needs to work on living up to its grandiose claim of uncovering the science issues that shape our culture. “Critical examination of science is important to see how it is uplifting, engaging, and an artistic experience,” he says. “I don’t see a questioning of science.” Discovery Channel-producer Peter McMahon agrees: “Covering science for the masses is good,” he says, “as long as the people producing it don’t just go ga-ga instead of being accurate, balanced, and responsible.”
In response to Seed‘s critics, deputy-editor McNeil agrees that the magazine sometimes steers away from the technical side of science. She says it is done to avoid alienating those who wouldn’t traditionally read science magazines. But McNeil also recognizes that Seed still needs to build more credibility before it can become a trusted source for science coverage. “We need to develop and earn that sense of authority,” says McNeil. “We can only do it by being consistent with a variety of topics and rigorous journalism.”
McNeil finds it flattering that some have called Seed science’s answer to Wired. She says Bly often talks about how Rolling Stone magazine became the medium of choice for the late 1960s and early 1970s music generation, while Wired did the same for techno-culture in the 1990s. Seed is striving to be that kind of voice for science.
For now, though, Seed‘s voice is somewhat subdued. While the magazine is winning awards, it isn’t captivating the imaginations of enough readers to become the voice of their culture in the way of Bly’s preferred forebears. But Seed has successfully created a new niche, and so far it remains unchallenged in the circle our latest cultural paradox – the hip geek.