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New Scientist is currently celebrating its 50th Anniversary, so what better time to write a review of it. In 1956 a publisher by the name of Maxwell Raison realised that there was a 'hungry thirst amongst ordinary people to know more about science and technology'. The result was the first ever edition of New Scientist. In the past half-century New Scientist has covered stories from the Chernobyl disaster, to the 'baby computer' (which was as big as a desk), diseases to lasers, New Scientist has reported the newest information in many areas of science.
However this introduction may sound, New Scientist isn't a magazine belonging only to geniuses, or gathering dust on library shelves; it is avidly read every week by loyal readers ranging from teachers to students, scientists to actors - anybody with the mildest interest in science will find something to interest them in each issue of New Scientist. Personally, I subscribed to the magazine when I learnt it was on a number of my first year university reading lists. I find it much easier to read than thick textbooks, and the fact that the stories are current and up to date kept my interest more than theories that have been the same for centuries.
The 100-page average magazine is published weekly and can be bought from most good newsagents. The date on the front is the Saturday of each week, but being a subscriber I usually get it around Wednesday or Thursday. Buying it weekly will set you back £2.70 in the UK (The cover tells me it's also $4.95 in the USA). Taking out a subscription, you will get a much cheaper rate, and the convenience of getting issues delivered to your doorstep, before they are released into the shops. The standard subscription price is £123 annually, which apparently saves you 10% on the cover price. If you are a student you can subscribe for £68 a year (Yae for student discounts!) saving 50% on the cover price! You can purchase a 'gift subscription' (for the same price as a regular one) but with this you get the first edition gift wrapped (!) and a copy of the latest New Scientist book 'Why Don't Penguins Feet Freeze?' (These are all UK subscription prices, other countries have alternate rates). With your magazine subscription, you also get full access to the New Scientist website, which I'll discuss in more detail later.
So you've sent off your money and got your very first edition of New Scientist, but what's in it?
Each week there are three or four main stories, which each cover several pages. The front cover usually tells you what the biggest story is roughly going to be. The current issue I have in front of me (25th November 2006) says 'Do I Know You? Living in a world without faces'. A quick look at the content pages tells me the main article starts on page 34 and it is mainly about a condition called Prosopagnosia, where sufferers can not recognise faces, and so everyone is a stranger to them. Other things on the cover of this particular issue are 'When Giants Roamed - how rampaging planets built the solar system' and a special competition. Besides the cover story, each magazine also features:
Editorial: A short (max 1 page) article from the editor on a subject that has usually graced the news recently. The current issue asks whether the climate change meeting achieved anything worthwhile.
Upfront: This is the next few pages after the editorial. Usually this is given two or three pages, and is covered in 'mini stories', each no more than a paragraph
or so detailing things that have happened in the world of science recently. The subjects covered here are very diverse, and most weeks one story from this page will jump out at me, making me want to read a little bit more about it, even if it's not something I would usually have any interest in. '60 Seconds' is sub-section of Upfront, with even shorter news - three sentences max - that's just like headlines of things that are currently happening. Quite often these stories will be covered in slightly more depth in the coming weeks and months, as new developments are made.
This Week: This section is pretty much self explanatory from its title - one or two page articles about things that have happened 'this week'. Also in this section in a short column called '50 years ago today' and this briefly tells you what was happening in the world of New Scientist 50 years ago. This week's is a piece called 'Feed the Hungary Lab Rats' from November of 1956.
In Brief: Quite like 'Upfront', this is mostly short (three or four paragraphs) about things going on in science. There are only two pages of these stories, sometimes I wish it was more as the short-and-sweet style articles are really easy to read with a short attention span!
Comment and Analysis: Each week, this page-long feature is written by a different guest author. Along with the three columns of text, there is often a carton picture in the centre of the page. This keeps the reading light-hearted and easy going, even when it's an otherwise heavy subject. From what I gather, the chosen author is given a sentence and has to argue the case for or against it - much like students are made to do in numerous exams! This week it is 'Bio weapons research in the US could trigger just the sort of arms race it is meant to forestall. But that's not the worst of it, argues John Steinbruner.'
Letters: The last of these 'mini' sections (before the full, long stories start) is a Letters page. Like all good magazines, the readers have to be given their chance to comment on stories, correct them where they are wrong (it has been known!) or just make general comments about anything!
Technology: This section is all about developments in technology in the recent past. This section contains stories that are a page or two in length, down to those that are a paragraph.
Next comes several pages of the 'full' stories, starting with the cover story. The main stories are usually quite different in topic, and this way there is nearly always at least one that quickly catches your interest, just from the title. This week's are: 'Face Blindness' (the story mentioned earlier), 'New World Order - think we understand how the solar system came to be? Think again', 'Locating, Locating, Locating - The way we look for things isn't as random as it seems … method in our madness', and 'The Traitors within - … Cancer treatments often leave the most dangerous cells untouched'. Of these, I would probably start with the space one, then the searching, then cancer, and finally (if I got around to it) the face blindness one. While these stories all cover an average of four pages, its not solid text, and it is easy to read. There are usually cartoon like pictures spread across the page, giving it some colour, and also graphs and tables where appropriate. These articles are written by different people each week, and it's interesting to read their different styles of writing. I find this keeps me engaged quite a bit better than a monotonous text book all written in the same style.
Interview: After the long articles, the magazine slips back into the shorter piece style. The first section is an interview with some prominent figure in the scientific community - it changes every week. They usually cover some background of the person, and then all the questions revolve around a central topic. The way the interview is written up is quite refreshing after the long articles, as its much more personified and not so highly polished as a finished report.
Review: Each week the magazine picks a new publication and reviews it. I don't often read this section as I'm not all that interested in the new publications. It might be more useful to people like Science teachers, who want to know about the most up-to-date books available to them.
This marks pretty much the end of the bits I read, aside from the last pages. We're about half way through the magazine, page-wise, and the majority of the rest is filled with job adverts. This might be useful to some, but to me it's irrelevant. The adverts range from very specific posts, to companies as a whole just looking for staff. There is also occasionally university courses advertised in this bit, but mostly they are jobs. Some of the adverts have whole pages to them selves, while other pages are more like the 'classified' with lots of very short ones.
Feedback: This is on the penultimate page, and is often very funny. It's mostly observations from readers, about things outside of New Scientist, such as plays on words giving something more than one meaning. An example would be: 'On the Amazon website, Wayne Joslin found a book entitles 'Griffith's Instructions For Patients With CD-Rom'. He says he had never heard of this disease but as soon as he read about it he started to feel feverish'
The Last Word: This is my favourite section of the magazine, and it's the part I always read first. It also seems quite popular with other people as there are several of books published devoted entirely to its content ('Why Don't Penguin's Feet Freeze?', and 'Does Anything Eat Wasps?'). The section is just odd questions that come in from readers, and other readers answer them. Some answers are very very scientific and long enough to be articles in their own right, while others are only a paragraph long. The main question this week is 'I was out running near Glasgow … when I noticed two trees that seemed to be completely covered in spider webs. No other trees were affected. What was going on?' Three answers are published (this changes each week depending on the length of the answers - they only have limited space to fill after all). All the answers tell the reader that the trees were probably Bird Cherry's, infested with a specific type of caterpillar that makes silky threads, and that's what the reader saw.
Aside from all of the sectioned detailed above, there is also quite a large amount of advertising in the magazine. In this issue, I counted 19 pages of advertising. Add this too 36 pages of job adverts, and that is over half the magazine. For this reason, you could claim that New Scientist isn't good value for money, and they could fit in many more articles if they only got rid of the advertising. But. Even though over half is advertising, there is still plenty to read in each issue, and it often takes me the whole week to read through it entirely. (And I am getting the cheap student rate too, so I can't complain too much!)
Subscribers get yet more advertising, in the form of paper leaflets inside the plastic packaging. Mine usually go straight in the bin but occasionally there have been relevant book adverts. I've never bought the shop copy, so I don't know if they come with this too.
The Website I mentioned the website earlier. When you subscribe to New Scientist, you get 'Full Access' to the website - you don't have to claim this, but why wouldn't you when it's free!? Around half of the website (newscientist.com) is available to anyone, but the longer articles (and I've found 'the ones I want to use as research') are all set that you need a login to read them. Without a login, you can read the first 100 or so words.
All of the articles from the magazine are also published online, as are a lot of extra stories - such as news that develops during the week. New Scientist also does a Podcast, downloadable from their website, with a round up of the week's main stories. There is also a Science Blog, and a Technology Blog that get updated almost daily. These are both quite interesting to read, as they feature things that usually don't make it to the magazine for months, if at all, and they cover up-to-the-day new topics.
"Should I read it?" Yes. If you have even the smallest interest in anything vaguely scientific, you will probably find something of interest in New Scientist. And the more you read it, the wider you interests become, as you learn about things you otherwise wouldn't have. I would recommend taking yourself along to www.newscientist.com and reading a few of the articles. Type something you are interested in into the search box and see what it shows you.
"Okay, but should I subscribe to it?" Being weekly, and being £2.70 an issue, a yearly subscription is quite expensive, and with a regular subscription you are 'only' saving 10%. I'd recommend, if you think you would read it every single week then a subscription would be a valuable investment. If, on the other hand you think you're only likely to read it every once in a while, buy it from the shops when the fancy takes you.
"Can you get online access without the full subscription?" This is something I'm quite disappointed in. You can't get the online access, without having a magazine subscription. I read the website much more than I do the magazine, even though the content is the same, it's just more convenient. It seems it would make sense for New Scientist to have some smaller subscription package, where you just get the online access, and no paper copy - but they don't do this, and claim to have no plans to do it.
Just a personal niggle about subscriptions - they start bugging you REALLY early about renewals! My subscription was a Christmas present, as so it expires in early January. I've been getting reminders (both by mail and by email) that my subscription will expire 'very soon' since August!!! For a weekly publication, this is slightly excessive!
Overall New Scientist is a great publication. As a science student, it keeps me up-to-date with current developments, while being much easier to read than any textbook I've come across. It'd be an interesting and informative read to anyone with the slightest scientific interest, from GCSE students upwards. The language is always simple, and where it needs to be overly complex, further explanation is given. New Scientist manages to maintain academic credibility, while appealing to a very wide audience. It's been going for 50 years - they must be doing something right!