Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Times "Eureka" magazine - first impressions

I've just spent an hour leafing through the Times's most recent addition to its publishing platform. It's called Eureka, its cover is very green, with an unattractive graphic of a chap who's lost the top half of his skull, with a plethora of sciencey things bursting forth from the exposed remainder.

Personally I find it hard to conceive of an image that is better guaranteed to confirm in the layman's mind that science is a nerdy thing that reveals more than you really want to know - an autistic  lack of the light touch, to say nothing of discretion and good taste .

Well, I hadn't intended to start on so negative a note, but it's sitting there next to me in all its disturbing, stomach-churning  immediacy, so I want to get that off my chest. First impressions still count, do they not?

Second and subsequent impressions are a lot more favourable. One doesn't envy anyone the task of producing a digest of science for the general reader of a newspaper, not even a serious one like The Times. How does one define the target audience, given that a relatively small proportion will  have formal scientific qualifications much beyond GCSE - or O-Level?  Then there is the notorious antipathy that exists towards science and scientists in the UK - one that has produced what someone described some years ago as the "ghettoization" of science.

Scientists are partly to blame themselves - let's not go into all that right now. Suffice it to say that the finger hovers over the remote when a science programme appears on TV. Woe betide any presenter who attempts to get too immersed in detail, or who overdoes the gee-whizzery, pie-in-the-sky delivery. The British public is inured to that kind of thing, and is likely to say "Come back in 10 years when you know some more, or have a workable, marketable product."

The criterion for a good thriller is that it is un-putdown-able. So what should it be for a periodical that appears only once a month?  Not un-putdownable - that would be asking too much, in view of the subject matter. I suggest it should be put-downable, ie nothing too long and demanding of time, but so pick-uppable again that it escapes an early fate in the nether regions of a bulging paper-rack, or worse still the dustbin.  In that sense I believe "Eureka" is over its first hurdle. There's a good mix of light and serious, human and technical, visionary and realistic to make it worth returning to if one only has the time or inclination to dip in now and again.

I'll come back in a day or two with a closer look at some of the features. I do have one or two quite serious gripes with some of the detailed science. In particular the feature "Living in the City" seems to have some unrealistic chemistry and biology. Since when has carbon dioxide reacted with magnesium chloride to give magnesium carbonate? (The reaction proceeds fine in the opposite direction!) But let's not nitpick today. The line-up of writers is impressive - with at least three with solid research experience and qualifications - up to and beyond PhD - and amazingly the Times has secured the services of Martin Rees - President of the Royal Society- whose keynote contribution is worth a read, touching as it does on a host of the issues that confront scientists, and the perception (or misconceptions) re the scientific approach to modern life and the myriad questions it throws up.

 Update: Friday 9 October

The individual articles in Eureka are now online, including the one with the questionable chemistry. Have submitted this comment:

"Hmmm. While one welcomes "out-of-the-box" thinking on technology, the fundamental science has to stay firmly within the box.

It would not seem feasible, for example, to use "magnesium chloride" as a trapping agent for CO2. Magnesium hydroxide, certainly, but since that's made from magnesium carbonate, heating in steam to drive off CO2,  it's self defeating re carbon footprints. 

With magnesium chloride, one is trying to make the following (well known) reaction go in reverse:

magnesium carbonate + hydrochloric acid -> magnesium chloride + water + carbon dioxide

Not only does it prefer to go in the direction shown, but if one did contrive conditions to make it go in reverse one would release hydrochloric acid fumes into the neighbourhood! Hardly environmentally-friendly!

The bacterial illumination look improbable too. Yes, there are strains that react oxygen with luciferin, but the light-show is mediated by the enzyme luciferase, and that catalysis, like the rest of bacterial metabolism, requires an aqueous environment. I doubt whether bacteria would take kindly to being incorporated into coatings if that meant having to exist lichen-like in all weathers. Bacteria - excluding their resistant spores- are a lot more fussy about their environment!"

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