Letter From Discover

Awe and wonder or doom and gloom?

Thursday, March 31, 2005

One of our senior editors sounded a cautionary note a few years ago as we were publishing a journalistic tour de force about the health risks of drinking milk after childhood. “I think Discover’s readers come to the magazine for awe and wonder, not doom and gloom,” she said. To some extent, reader surveys support her theory. The problem is that the core of our magazine is news. We think Discover should offer you important information before anyone else does, and we take pride in beating other publications to many stories by months and, in some cases, years. Keeping on top of the news requires activating that part of the brain that notices a green snake moving along a green branch in an otherwise motionless green rain forest. Diligent journalism involves lots of awe and wonder, but it also feeds on doom and gloom.

In this issue we strike a balance between evoking the majesty of scientific exploration and noticing the menace of the snake. Our cover story focuses on the staggering amount of dust that Earth’s weather systems are able to transport—as much as 10,000 miles across an ocean to land on another continent (awe and wonder). But once you’ve read that, what keeps you going? How is the story important to you and your life? The story takes on special relevance because a lot of very dangerous stuff is riding along on the dust (doom and gloom). Buffering that article is a photographic delight of new species (awe and wonder) discovered recently on Madagascar. And the letters of Richard Feynman, one of the world’s greatest physicists, ameliorate the mood by showing us how delightfully human a technical mind can be. Of course, then you’re likely to notice our story on mercury, a substance so toxic (big doom quotient) that the author of the story, Karen Wright, vowed to have her dental fillings removed once she had finished her reporting.

Worrying about another major earthquake while discovering that scientists can drill in the San Andreas Fault to find out what makes it slide straddles both the awe and doom camps nicely. It helps that author Brad Lemley has a sense of humor about being caught in an earthquake while researching the story. Another article that straddles both camps is Jeff Wheelwright’s story about the medical importance of understanding genetic variation (awe and wonder) in the midst of a long history of racial wariness (gloom). And R&D reports the discovery of a new dinosaur and entire new galaxies (awe) as well as a scary new virus (doom).

Finally, our special yearlong celebration of Discover’s 25th anniversary takes the form of a Think Tank, with world-class archaeologists showing that they’re getting so good at what they do, there may not be much left to unearth in 25 years. While you’re deciding if that’s doom and gloom or awe and wonder, we’ll be busy assigning an article on what’s beyond the edge of the universe (nothing but awe and wonder).

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