A chameleon-like force that shifts its nature based on its environment could explain a major physics quandary: how the mysterious substance called dark energy is compelling the cosmos to expand faster and faster. But a new experiment casts doubt on some chameleon theories, researchers report August 25 in Nature Physics.
The chameleon force would be a fifth type of force beyond the basic four: gravitational, strong, weak and electromagnetic. And like a chameleon changing its colors, the hypothetical fifth force would morph depending on the density of its surroundings. In dense environments like Earth, this fifth force would be feeble, camouflaging its effects. In the sparseness of space, the force would be stronger and long-ranged. This force would result from a chameleon field — an addition to the known fields in physics, such as electric, magnetic and gravitational fields. A chameleon field with these morphing properties could drive the accelerating expansion of the universe without disagreeing with measurements on Earth.
But it’s a challenge to suss out such a changeling force. On Earth, says astrophysicist Jianhua He of Nanjing University in China, “it’s very, very tiny. That’s the most difficult part.”
So He and colleagues designed a detector to search for a subtle fifth force. A wheel with plastic films attached spins past another film sitting on a magnetically levitated piece of graphite. If a chameleon force really exists, the films spinning by would cause a periodic force on the levitating plastic, pulling it up and down. (Gravity also acts this way, but thanks to the device’s design, it should be much weaker than a chameleon force.)
The team was able to rule out a category of chameleon theories. In the future, the researchers hope to improve their results by chilling their device to allow for more sensitive measurements.
The first three months of covering the COVID-19 pandemic felt, by Tina Hesman Saey’s estimation, “closer to 300 years.” From February to April 2020, the Science News senior molecular biology writer had produced a flurry of stories on the new coronavirus that wove together findings from dozens of scientific papers and reports. Her hours were long and stress levels high. But the science wasn’t slowing down, so neither could she.
“We’re in a hyperdrive situation,” Saey said in May 2020, reflecting on her pandemic reporting. “It’s amazing how fast the science is moving.” In mere months, researchers had completely overhauled their understanding of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus infiltrates the body, and vaccines were already in the works. Readers were counting on Saey and her Science News colleagues to sift through the deluge of information pouring out of labs across the world. “The information that they get from us can really help them make life-or-death decisions,” Saey said.
Since then, Saey and other Science News reporters have cranked out hundreds of stories on SARS-CoV-2’s basic virology, new variants, vaccine rollouts and more. To boost public understanding of the new coronavirus, Science News has freely offered its COVID-19 stories to local and nonprofit news organizations since April 2020. “What Science News provided was authoritative reporting and in-depth articles on what we’re all talking about and what we’re all worried about,” Cleveland Scene editor in chief Vince Grzegorek said after his publication started reprinting Science News coverage. Whether a story was about the importance of masking up or the riskiness of in-person shopping, Grzegorek said, “what people can read from Science News on our site is going to go a lot further than a 45-second spot on the local [news] station.”
Science News’ push to get reliable reporting in front of as many eyes as possible harks back to before the publication was even a magazine. A little over a century ago, Science News got its start as Science News Bulletin — the first syndicated news specializing in science.
“There certainly had been media coverage of science before,” says Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University, who studies science communication. But that coverage was more sporadic and often plagued with sensationalism and superstition.
Newspaper magnate Edward W. Scripps, who believed that a functioning democracy required a science-savvy public, wanted to get more accurate, reliable science news in the public eye. To do that, Scripps teamed up with his zoologist friend William E. Ritter to form a new organization for science communication in 1921. Based in Washington, D.C., Science Service — now known as the Society for Science — was funded by Scripps and overseen by a board of 15 scientists and journalists. That board of trustees included famed astronomer George Ellery Hale and Edwin Gay, president of the New York Evening Post. “Science Service was formed at a critical time for science and public understanding of science,” says Susan Swanberg, who studies the history of science journalism at the University of Arizona in Tucson. In the early 20th century, the pace of scientific discovery was making it harder for nonexperts to keep up. At the same time, World War I, nicknamed “the chemists’ war” for the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield, had heightened many people’s uncertainty about, and interest in, science.
Scripps and Ritter hoped their new organization would help bridge the gap between scientists and the public. When Science Service announced its debut in the journal Science in April 1921, the organization branded itself as “a sort of liaison officer between scientific circles and the outside world.” In this go-between role, Science Service hoped to foster popular support for science while helping people become more well-informed citizens. That same month, Science Service launched Science News Bulletin, a weekly — then daily — dispatch of stories to subscribing newspapers across the country. This marked the first sustained effort to provide engaging, accurate news about scientific research to a national U.S. audience.
By October 1921, the bulletin fed more than 30 subscribing newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 1.5 million readers. Libraries, schools and science enthusiasts started requesting copies of the bulletin to keep for themselves. In response, Science Service began bundling its dispatches into a stand-alone publication, dubbed Science News-Letter. Readers got the first issue 100 years ago this month, in March 1922. The publication became Science News in 1966.
Slosson, Scopes and syndication Science Service’s first editor, Edwin Slosson, fancied himself a “renegade from natural science.” A chemist-turned-writer who had worked as a magazine editor and authored science books, he shared Scripps and Ritter’s belief that democracy hinged on scientific literacy — and that science didn’t need to be overhyped to capture readers’ imaginations.
“It is not necessary,” Slosson wrote in Science News-Letter, “to pervert scientific truths in the process of translation into the vernacular. The facts are sensational enough without any picturesque exaggeration.”
When Slosson took charge of Science Service in 1921, his challenge was not finding interesting science to write about. It was finding journalists to do the writing. Science journalism was a new field. And without an established pool of reporters to call on, Slosson reportedly spent his first month at Science Service begging friends to write articles for him, only to spend the next month, as he put it, “sending the articles back and telling them how rotten they were in such polite language as to induce them to send soon some better ones.”
But not all of Slosson’s early searches for science writers turned up disappointments. He did find Watson Davis — or rather, Watson Davis found him. The 25-year-old journalist and engineer was allegedly waiting on Science Service’s front steps to ask for a job when Slosson showed up for his first day at work. “Davis had the instincts of a journalist and an engineer’s ability to organize,” historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette wrote in a 2006 article about Science Service. “He could ferret out news and glean the essence from dull research reports, and proved to be a skilled manager.” Those traits served Davis well as Slosson’s right-hand man, and later as the director of Science Service from 1933 to 1966.
Science News-Letter’s earliest stories set the stage for the magazine’s coverage over the next century. Readers learned about news on the biggest scientific happenings, such as the discovery that insulin could treat diabetes, as well as curious everyday insights, such as what foods help houseflies live longer — detailed in a story charmingly titled “How to feed flies in case you love them.”
For Science Service writers, the name of the game was transforming the dry language typical of scientific papers into compelling narratives. But having staked its reputation on scientific accuracy, Science Service was careful to avoid sensationalism. Writers couldn’t risk alienating their scientist sources. Biology editor Frank Thone, for instance, once wrote a story describing insects that were “just as fond of the bright lights, a hot time and fast living” as their human counterparts — after which Thone sent a rather sheepish note to the researcher asking for forgiveness for the jazzy language.
Sometimes, Science Service’s deference to the scientific community went so far that, by today’s standards, it broke the code of journalistic objectivity. Perhaps the most striking example was Science Service’s involvement in the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925, when high school science teacher John Scopes was put on trial for breaking a Tennessee law that forbade teaching evolution. Leading up to the trial, Science News-Letter printed a pledge of support for Scopes by the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In another article, Davis proclaimed that anyone could see Scopes was in the right “if men will but use their eyes and their brains.” Science Service went far beyond editorializing in its coverage of the trial. The organization helped Scopes’ lawyers find expert witnesses to testify on his behalf. And when Davis and Thone traveled to Tennessee to cover the trial, they moved into the Victorian mansion that Scopes’ legal team was using as headquarters.
“All day long and far into the night, the rumble of scientific discussion and laughter issues forth from Defense Mansion,” Thone wrote, calling the place “the headquarters for the defenders of science, religion and freedom.”
From a 21st century perspective, the whole affair was completely inappropriate. But LaFollette doesn’t judge Science Service too harshly. “We must be careful in applying retrospectively contemporary standards,” says LaFollette, whose 2008 book Reframing Scopes explores Science Service’s role in the trial. The modern code of journalistic ethics was not as formal in the early 20th century as it is now, she says, and back then many journalists were more comfortable cozying up to their sources.
“Davis and Thone believed they were doing the right thing by assisting the Scopes defense,” LaFollette says. After all, in its 1921 debut announcement in the journal Science, Science Service had sworn it would “not indulge in propaganda, unless it be propaganda to urge the value of research and the usefulness of science.” A decade after its birth, Science News Letter — which abandoned its hyphen in 1930 — had earned a reputation for top-quality, accurate coverage. Thomas Edison gave the magazine permission to print excerpts from conversations Edison had with Slosson in the twilight years of Edison’s life. In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly commissioned Science Service to collect statistics on women working in government science jobs. And in 1936, the Science News Letter staff arranged a meeting between Albert Einstein and engineer Rudi Mandl, who was working as a dishwasher. Mandl convinced Einstein to publish a paper on a then-theoretical curiosity known as gravitational lensing. It turned out to be a very real phenomenon that today’s astronomers use like a cosmic magnifying glass to peer at the distant universe.
Throughout the 1920s, Science Service sold articles to over 100 newspapers, potentially reaching more than 7 million people. During the Great Depression, newspaper subscriptions to Science Service’s syndicated material took a hit, but individual subscriptions to Science News Letter rose steadily. The magazine kept its readers in the know about a range of fields, announcing the discovery of penicillin —which one reporter mused “may turn out to be a useful antiseptic” — and tracking the emerging field of quantum mechanics. The magazine deemed this new realm of physics both revolutionary and “disturbing.”
Science Service’s reporting was seminal in the emerging field of science writing, according to science and society researcher Dorothy Nelkin’s 1995 book Selling Science. “It laid the foundation for contemporary science journalism,” Nelkin wrote, “giving the profession both a purpose and a style.”
The war years In 1936, Science Service helped throw one of the nerdiest dinner parties of all time.
By then, Science Service had grown to include several pioneers of science journalism, including acclaimed medical reporter Jane Stafford and psychology writer Marjorie Van de Water. “They were an extremely intelligent group of people,” LaFollette says. “If you couldn’t write quickly, think quickly, you didn’t last long in that newsroom.” But the staff wasn’t all serious all the time. One particularly extravagant display of the team’s playful spirit was a celebration that Science Service helped organize in November 1936 honoring the centennial of the U.S. patent system. Politicians and scientists gathered in Washington, D.C., for an afternoon “research parade” hosted by Davis, where inventors showed off their various gadgets. At the banquet that followed, tables were decked out with patented hybrid flowers, and guests dined from a menu that listed the patent number for each food and drink. The entertainment featured a phonograph recording of the late Thomas Edison and a radio show broadcast from a plane flying overhead.
Science Service’s unbridled enthusiasm for the scientific enterprise was often its greatest asset. But staff members’ devotion to particular topics sometimes led to uncritical coverage. One prominent example was eugenics, a scientific and social movement in the United States and Europe in the 20th century that aimed to “improve” humankind by selectively breeding for desirable traits or breeding out undesirable ones. Such “undesirable” traits could be anything from mental and physical disabilities to supposed moral failings, such as promiscuity. Eugenics influenced U.S. immigration policies as well as laws that led to the forced sterilization of over 60,000 people in the United States. “By the time Science Service was created … eugenics had become well-established, both in the sciences and as a sort of popular political, culture and social movement,” says Emily Rader, an independent historian based in Long Beach, Calif., who was commissioned last year by Science News to provide an outside analysis of the publication’s eugenics coverage. “Science News published a lot of articles about eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s,” Rader says. That was perhaps not surprising, given that Davis was a board member of the American Eugenics Society. “There were almost no articles that brought up criticism of eugenics,” Rader says, even though some biologists and social scientists at the time had pointed out its problems.
In November 1933, for instance, the magazine published a story about American eugenicists praising Hitler’s new Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases. That law allowed the forced sterilization of several groups of people, including those who were born blind or deaf, and those who suffered from epilepsy or alcoholism. The Science News Letter article quoted an editorial from Eugenical News that said: “It is difficult to see how the new German Sterilization Law could, as some have suggested … be made an ‘instrument of tyranny.’”
Science Service’s “frequent failure to report alternative viewpoints, its gushing coverage of sterilization statutes and approving report about Germany’s new eugenics law, all suggest that the science news agency had wandered into the realm of propaganda,” Swanberg, of the University of Arizona, wrote in a 2021 article in American Journalism about Science News Letter’s eugenics coverage. If not propaganda, Swanberg wrote, this reporting was at least “not very enterprising journalism.”
Science News Letter’s eugenics reporting tapered off in the 1940s. This was around the time eugenics largely fell out of favor in the United States due to eugenics-inspired atrocities committed in Nazi Germany during World War II. There was however a slight uptick in coverage in Science News Letter in the 1960s, alongside a resurgence in eugenic ideas. (See Science News’ statement on its past coverage.)
World War II brought other changes to Science Service. Science News Letter articles touted the ways that science and engineering could aid the U.S. military. “Overshadowing almost everything else these critical days is the application of almost all our energies and our science to rescuing the world from forces of darkness,” Davis said in a speech quoted in the magazine in 1941. In a show of support for U.S. troops, Science Service began offering a pocket-sized, monthly edition of Science News Letter to service members. “This international edition,” boasted one 1943 advertisement, “will contain only the scientific news of interest to the men and women overseas.”
In the lead-up to WWII, Science News had plenty of atomic physics coverage. For instance, when physicists succeeded in splitting the uranium atom in 1939, it made the cover of Science News Letter. In the aftermath, the magazine published a slew of stories on what elements tumbled out when uranium cracked like a particulate piñata, on the prospects for using atomic energy as a fuel source or a weapon, and so on. But soon, government censorship and scientific self-censorship loomed over atomic physics. “It is very improbable that if significant advances are made in the release of atomic energy from uranium, details will be made public,” Science News Letter predicted in 1940. “It will become a military secret.” Lo and behold, by late 1942 the word uranium had all but vanished from the pages of Science News Letter. When one reader sent a letter to complain about the magazine’s recent dearth of physics coverage, Davis replied that although the magazine would “like to write more about uranium isotopes and atomic power … it is not possible to do this, because of the secrecy connected with our war effort.”
That all changed in August 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and a government report on the Manhattan Project — the Smyth Report — came out.
“It is one of the amazing documents of all time,” Helen Davis, editor of Chemistry magazine, wrote in a letter. She was filling in for her husband Watson Davis at Science Service while he traveled. “We got two copies. One we kept intact, the other we pulled the staples out of, so we could work on parts of it all at once.” Helen Davis, along with Science Service reporters Marjorie Van de Water and Jane Stafford, spent days cranking out stories on various aspects of the report. In a letter to her husband, Helen wrote, “It is beyond all imagining. It is THE document of the age, and makes all physics and chemistry B.A.B. (Before Atom Bomb, of course) completely obsolete.”
The Second World War may have ushered in a new era of science journalism as well. “Contemporary popular science is conventionally described as having been spurred on by World War II,” Cornell’s Lewenstein wrote in a 1994 article on the history of popular science in America. “Recognizing the role in winning the war of the atomic bomb, jet engines, radar, penicillin and a host of other scientific and technological achievements, the public ‘demanded’ more information about science and technology.”
Of course, many organizations were communicating to the public about science and technology, Lewenstein adds, including science museums and journalism organizations like Science Service. “Still, it is true that the United States had people and institutions ready to participate in new opportunities for public communication of science and technology after the war.” For starters, many newspapers at the time started doing more of their own science coverage.
In 1949, Ferry Colton, president of the National Association of Science Writers — founded in 1934 by a dozen reporters, including Science Service’s own Jane Stafford — hailed Science Service as a pioneer of science journalism. The scads of science writers now working for newspapers and magazines across the country were, Colton said, “the best possible testimony to the soundness of Mr. Scripps’ judgment in encouraging popular science writing.”
But that vindication was a double-edged sword. With more science writers on staff at other publications, there was less of a need for Science Service’s syndicated material. As a result, the organization ultimately phased out its syndication effort and instead focused on producing Science News Letter, which started going by Science News in 1966. “It is like being on a first name basis,” Watson Davis wrote in the editor’s note that explained the title change, “which we like.”
In shedding its original role as a nationally syndicated news source, Science Service “doesn’t lose its legitimacy,” LaFollette says. “It retains its authority as an accurate, reliable source of news about the scientific community.” But the organization now had other priorities besides getting science into the headlines — it was getting science on the airwaves and into the hands of kids across the country. Off the page Come one, come all, and join “expeditions to the frontiers of research!” Lend an ear as “eminent men of science tell of their own achievements!”
So opened one episode of Adventures in Science, a CBS radio program that Davis hosted for two decades.
Science Service got in on the ground floor of commercial broadcasting and was involved in radio for nearly 40 years. In the 1920s, the organization started producing weekly radio science news scripts, which were mailed to dozens of stations across the country and read on the air by local announcers. By the early 1930s, Science Service was producing the weekly news program that would soon add interviews and would come to be known in 1938 as Adventures in Science. “They were attempting to use radio to do something similar to what they were doing in print,” LaFollette says. That is, get the public excited about science. But promoting science on the radio came with new challenges. Science Service often had to fight to protect its trademark scientific rigor from network executives who put more stock in making science shows entertaining than accurate. For a few months in 1938, CBS seized full control over Adventures in Science, replacing Davis with CBS announcers as hosts. That setup led to “watered-down dramatizations” of scientific discoveries and short, “almost flippant” interviews with scientists, LaFollette wrote in her 2008 book Science on the Air. The new version of the show was so unpopular it lasted only a single summer — after which CBS handed the reins back to Davis, who kept Adventures in Science on the air until 1958.
Print and radio were far from Davis’ only tools for promoting science. “He was a tremendously creative guy,” Lewenstein says. And one of Davis’ most successful out-of-the-box ideas was Things of Science.
The Things of Science program mailed experiment kits in small boxes to children, schools and science clubs around the world. Every kit contained some scientific goody, such as a fingerprinting kit, flexible magnet or silkworm cocoon — including some Things of Science products that definitely wouldn’t fly today, like asbestos-containing fabrics. Each bit of paraphernalia came with a little placard to display the item. “In a short time,” promised one 1957 flyer, “you will build up an extensive and unique little science museum of your own.”
MIT signal processing researcher George Moody recalled saving a quarter each week for four months to buy his subscription as a child in the 1960s. “I suspect that many of us who chose careers in the sciences found at least part of our inspiration in those blue boxes,” Moody wrote in a blog post about an online Things of Science catalog he created. The Things of Science program launched in 1940 and ran for decades. Around the same time, Science Service undertook another major effort to encourage the next generation of scientists: The organization started hosting science competitions for science-minded kids around the country — and later the world. It all started in 1942 with the first annual Westinghouse Science Talent Search, now called the Regeneron Science Talent Search, for high schoolers. In 1950, Science Service kicked off a second annual competition that has grown into the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, which draws high school competitors from across the globe. And since 2010, middle schoolers have competed in the annual Broadcom MASTERS contest.
Amid all these other ventures, Science Service continued mailing out copies of Science News — which also played a role in inspiring young minds. The magazine was a natural fit for student readers, says Barbara Culliton, who covered life sciences for Science News from 1966 to 1971. “There’s a lot of explanation of the mechanisms of how things work,” she says. “That is a formula that speaks particularly to people who want to learn something.”
Joseph Bates of Newton, Mass., remembers reading issues of Science News when he was growing up in the 1960s. “They gave me the sense of science as a search for truth,” he says. “You really had a feeling of the liveliness of scientific inquiry.” Watching the drama of science unfold in real time helped Bates envision himself as a scientist. Bates became a computer scientist, and in 1992, Science News covered his research on how to build lifelike characters in virtual reality.
To help younger readers connect with the coverage, Science Service launched a second publication in 2003. The online magazine Science News for Kids — now Science News for Students — covers a similar range of topics as Science News, but is written at a middle school reading level.
“Kids shouldn’t have to work to understand our stories. They should read them because they love them, and because it explains their universe,” says Janet Raloff, who started writing for Science News in 1977 and has helmed Science News for Students since 2007. “They’re just sponges trying to understand all this cool stuff.”
Andrea Distelhurst, a high school biology teacher in Bradenton, Fla., has used both Science News for Students and Science News with her students. “We try to impress upon them that science keeps changing over time,” Distelhurst says. Science News gives the teenagers a front-row seat to those changes. On the beat In 2011, Science News editor in chief Tom Siegfried assigned Raloff a herculean task. Over the next year, he wanted her to scour every past issue of Science News and compile a list of the most important stories from each decade to commemorate the magazine’s 90th birthday.
Undaunted, Raloff started carrying bound volumes of old print magazines home from the office on weekends and vacations. “In a beach house, I was going through all these volumes, taking notes,” Raloff says. “My family thought I was crazy.” But Raloff rose to the challenge, reading more than 70,000 pages of Science News in a single year.
Her assessment? “We did very catholic coverage across all of the disciplines,” she says. But over time, different scientific fields took the spotlight.
In the 1960s, all eyes were on the space race. But earthly issues came to the fore in the following decades, as public concerns over the environment mounted. Science News covered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement that it was outlawing use of the harmful pesticide DDT and the signing of the global Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-destroying chemicals. In the 1990s, growing agreement among scientists about human-caused climate change shifted environmentalists’ focus toward cutting carbon emissions. Amid a surge in molecular biology research, Science News explained how scientists become masters of manipulating DNA — creating synthetic genes and accomplishing other feats of genetic engineering in the 1970s, and then deciphering the human genetic instruction manual, or genome, at the turn of the century.
Whatever the hot topic at any given time, Science News didn’t let other fields slip through the cracks, says Julie Miller, who covered life sciences for the magazine from 1976 to 1986 and returned as editor in chief from 1995 to 2007. “You have so many people enthusiastic about their own fields that there’s always some coverage across the board,” she says. Miller recalls an old journalism professor visiting her at Science News headquarters and noting, “It’s like you’ve got a little university here with just one person in each department.”
Joel Greenberg, editor in chief from 1981 to 1988, had a similar feeling about Science News staff. “The writers and editors were just so invested,” he says. “They just lived their beats.”
Perhaps no one embodied his beat more fully than Jonathan Eberhart, who covered space science and exploration for Science News from 1960 to 1991, including the Apollo 11 moon landing. Eberhart was such a dedicated reporter that he moved to Pasadena, Calif., for several months during the Viking mission to Mars so he could report new findings directly out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“He was so curious and so smart and had such great questions that they loved him and almost accepted him as a member of their team,” says Kendrick Frazier, who was the Science News editor in chief at the time. “That contributed to the quality of his articles.” Those articles won Eberhart the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Westinghouse Corporation’s joint science writing award in 1976.
Science News staff did on-the-ground reporting for other major scientific events, too. Thone, for instance, witnessed the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in July 1946. And Raloff visited the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant after its historic meltdown in 1979.
Science News reporters also got many of their story ideas from scientific meetings. “The meetings we went to were where cutting-edge papers were presented,” Greenberg says, “so we’d get in on the ground floor on all of these new developments.”
Miller still vividly remembers one such meeting. It was a gathering of medical researchers in 1981 — just after the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, had appeared in the United Sates. “The scientists there were running around, all upset about this cluster of diseases that were occurring in gay men, and they put together a symposium on the spot,” Miller says. “I came back and said we had to write about this.” As the AIDS outbreak became an epidemic, Science News followed the quest to develop tests and treatments.
There were “so many parallels to what’s going on now with the coronavirus,” Greenberg recalls, “including a guy we quoted a lot back then in the search for a cure for AIDS. A guy named Anthony Fauci.”
Some meetings offered Science News writers a brighter glimpse of the future. Ivars Peterson, who covered math, technology and other physical sciences from 1981 to 2007, recalls one particular gathering of physicists in the 1990s. “I saw this amazing thing called a Web browser,” he says. “I was blown away.” Other meetings granted Peterson access to more offbeat scientific curiosities — like a meeting of engineers who had given the Statue of Liberty a makeover in the 1980s, which ended with a private tour of the renovated statue.
That mix of big, flashy findings and more obscure advances won Science News the 1987 George Polk Award for excellence in science reporting. In his nomination letter, New York Times science writer Malcolm Browne wrote, “I can’t imagine any significant development in science, however arcane the discipline, escaping the speedy notice of Science News.” All about the science Science News staffers — past or present — often describe their readers as science buffs.
“We reported on increments that were much smaller than any newspaper or other publications,” Greenberg says. Naturally, that attracted readers who were “interested in every nook and cranny of science.” Some were scientists keeping up with the latest in other fields. Others were plain-old science enthusiasts.
“There is an eclectic mix in there,” says Raloff, who has received reader letters and phone calls from farmers, motorcycle mechanics and artists alike. But Science News readers have always been united by one common feature, she says: “People who just loved science and wanted to get their fix of what’s new this week.”
Science News staffers have typically been science buffs themselves. And that has influenced the kinds of stories that the magazine tells. Historically, Science News has focused more on regaling readers with new discoveries, Lewenstein says, than, say, investigating the motivations of those who fund certain research projects.
John Travis agrees. He covered biology for Science News from 1995 to 2004 and is now the managing news editor at Science, an academic journal that also covers news in science. “At Science, we cover policy, we cover the community, we cover the failures and weaknesses of scientists,” he says. Science News has given those topics less attention.
Over the years, Science News has pondered some thorny ethical questions surrounding new science. When the first heart transplant was performed in 1967, for example, Science News covered surgeons’ concerns about whether it was moral to save one person’s life using a treatment that relied on someone else’s death. In 1975, the magazine covered a meeting about how genetic engineering could be regulated to prevent scientists from spawning unnaturally dangerous bacteria in the lab.
But, historically, such stories have not been the main focus for Science News. “For better or for worse,” Travis says, “they focus on the curiosity and wonder of science more than the downsides of it or of the scientific community.”
There was good reason for Science News’ “very pro-science” attitude, Peterson says. “Science is a very useful way of looking at the world.” But that didn’t necessarily mean the magazine hailed every reported result as a breakthrough, he adds. “We were always very careful to put in what the scientists like to put in,” Peterson says, “which is the ‘maybe’s’ and the ‘with a high probability,’ to avoid overstating things.”
Travis remembers applying that skepticism when he covered the announcement that two research groups had completely mapped the human genome in 2000. “I was so annoyed at the press conference,” Travis says now. The epic mapping project wasn’t actually finished. Neither group confirmed that its genetic sequence was free of gaps or errors — and in the opener for his story, Travis pulled no punches: “Biology’s hottest race has been declared an amicable tie,” he wrote, “even though one competitor has a clear lead and neither has actually reached the finish line or knows exactly what the prize contains.”
That sober perspective would probably have made Davis proud. While director of Science Service, Davis drafted a list of “Stories That Should Be Handled with Care,” from reports about the healing powers of hypnotism to long-range weather forecasts to “sweeping claims of any sort.”
Science News hasn’t always perfectly applied that critical eye, as Raloff discovered in her 90-year review of the magazine’s coverage. “There’s a series of those things,” she says, “where you just look at them and you go, ‘Oh my god. How could we ever have covered that, just straight-faced without challenging it?’” Raloff was particularly shocked by a Cold War–era article about a proposal to excavate a new Panama Canal with nuclear explosives. “We covered it like … ‘Isn’t that a clever idea?’” she says. “No! It’s a horrible idea! You’ve just gone through World War II. How could you think that’s a good idea?”
The problem with those kinds of stories, Raloff says, was often that writers reported on bold claims without including comments from other researchers in the field. Seeking comments from outside experts to provide perspective and criticism has now been standard practice at Science News for decades. “It’s kept us from having egg on our face, I think, in some of our contemporary coverage,” Raloff says.
Kevin Parker of Greenbelt, Md., who has been reading Science News since 1969, appreciates that approach. While other publications have “a tendency to do kind of the print version of clickbait,” he says, Science News stories usually “manage to keep an even temper.”
The magazine has always put a premium on factual correctness in stories. “There was a lot of care taken to make sure things were accurate,” Peterson says. “It would screw up once in a while, but that was rare.” One 1985 article, for instance, reported the discovery of a lost city in Peru that was not, in fact, lost at all, but had previously appeared on maps and in guidebooks. Science News published a follow-up story acknowledging and correcting the error, just as an editor’s note appears on corrected stories today.
“Reporting without sensationalizing and getting things right,” Frazier says. That has always been and continues to be the Science News brand. “It’s a quality, reliable, respectable science news source.”
Going digital and beyond A popular science magazine may have been a niche product when Science News-Letter got its start, but half a century later, Science News was far from the only game in town. The 1970s and 1980s brought a flurry of new science magazines. Many of those publications ultimately folded because they couldn’t sell enough ads, but Science News survived on the support of its subscribers.
“It seemed to have a really devoted following,” says Richard Monastersky, who covered earth sciences for Science News from 1986 to 2000. “The people who got us really loved us.” Hollywood icon and Science News subscriber Marlon Brando, for instance, sometimes called Science News reporters to discuss stories that piqued his interest.
Greenberg recalls meeting Science News readers from California after he had left the magazine in 1988 to become a science editor at the Los Angeles Times. “I’d get on a plane, and there’d be somebody from JPL or Caltech, and they’d say, ‘What do you do?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m a science editor at the LA Times,’ and they’d … go back to reading or something. And then I’d say, ‘But I used to be the editor at Science News,’ and they would drop everything,” Greenberg says. “It was like I was a matinee idol or something. They’d just want to talk and talk … they couldn’t care less about any newspaper stuff, but they really were devoted to Science News.”
Such dedicated readers were the key to helping Science News thrive in the 1980s. But in the 1990s, Science News faced a whole new wave of competition online.
Science News launched its website in 1996, the same year that Scientific American and the New York Times went online. Each week, the Science News website posted short summaries of every story in the magazine and the full text of at least three articles. Raloff’s food science column “Food for Thought” and Peterson’s “MathLand” were among Science News’ first online-only content. But Science News’ print magazine was still the mainstay of the operation; the website was just a bonus.
Not every staff member was sold on the staying power of the internet. In her final editor’s note of 1996, Miller expressed her skepticism. “Will the Web evolve into the New Media, as Wall Street analysts proclaim, replacing television, newspapers, and other sources of information and entertainment?” she wrote. “Maybe, maybe not.”
“How could we have been so naive!” Miller says now. “We were about to get run over by this train, and we were thinking, ‘Maybe it will come, maybe it won’t.’”
Of course, as it did for everyone, the internet changed everything for Science News. “For the kinds of people who read Science News,” Lewenstein says, “suddenly, you don’t really need Science News.” Online readers had all kinds of publications to read for free, and scientists could speak directly to the public on their own websites.
When Siegfried became editor in chief of the magazine in 2007, his mission was to help Science News stay relevant in the digital age. “It was a recognition that online news was becoming a dominant force,” Siegfried says. “The online publication was a way to increase the timeliness, to reach out to more people and to … create general awareness of the magazine and try to boost circulation that way, too.”
To that end, Science News started posting news online every day and collecting the most important stories into a biweekly magazine. Going to print every two weeks, rather than weekly, allowed the newsroom to focus on more rapid online coverage and to produce a heftier magazine for each print issue, Siegfried says. “That was a big change in how things were done.”
By operating as a daily news outlet, Science News could jump on new discoveries faster. In 2012, Science News broke the discovery of the Higgs boson a day before scientists made their official announcement, thanks to then-editor Kate Travis, who uncovered an announcement video accidentally posted early on CERN’s website. In 2019, Science News published a story about the first image of a black hole mere minutes after it was unveiled. That article drew over 1.5 million unique page views in a single day — a nice achievement for a publication believed to be the first to use the term “black hole” in print, in 1964. Despite Science News’ growing online audience, print circulation was dwindling. “We were like all magazines or newspapers, in that we had survived on advertising and subscribers,” says Maya Ajmera, who became president and chief executive officer of the Society for Science and publisher of Science News in 2014. “That model completely changed.”
Ajmera sought new funding from private donors and foundations, and launched the Science News in High Schools program to boost print readership. (Science News in High Schools provides educators at more than 5,000 schools print copies and online access to the magazine, along with other classroom materials.) Those changes have helped make Science News more financially sustainable, Ajmera says, with more than 21 million visitors to its main website in 2021. “I’m excited by the next century of Science News.”
The century ahead Today, Science News is aggressively covering some of the biggest stories of our time, including rapid new developments in the COVID-19 pandemic and the global crisis of climate change. Reporters have their eyes on game-changing technologies across all fields, from gene-editing tools that could cure diseases to quantum computers that promise to perform feats of calculation impossible for normal computers. But, true to form, the magazine also serves up the lighter side of science, explaining why wombats have cubed poop and what gravitational waves from a wormhole might look like.
“I’d also love to see more stories that are dealing with the human condition,” Ajmera says. She points to reporting by social sciences writer Sujata Gupta, who has covered research on police reform and how the pandemic has worsened some socioeconomic inequalities. “How do we produce more stories that can really touch everyone’s lives?” Ajmera asks. “I think we can do more.”
Editor in chief Nancy Shute thinks so too. When Shute came to Science News in 2018, she says, “I thought it would be really important to expand our social sciences coverage to help people see how science could help them understand what’s happening to them and what’s happening to the world right now.” Part of that was bringing on Gupta to cover social sciences. But stories in other fields can elucidate people’s personal connections to science, too. Shute is especially proud of a series that Tina Hesman Saey took on before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Genetic testing goes mainstream” explored the uses and limitations of direct-to-consumer DNA testing for medical information and tracing ancestry.
“It was a great example of explanatory science journalism that people could really engage with, because it directly impacted their lives,” Shute says. “That’s a great example of the superb work that Science News can do.” In fact, the series won a 2019 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Communications Award.
Shute also hopes to captivate more readers with new types of storytelling. For a century, the written word has been Science News’ bread and butter. But that form has its limitations. “Online journalism is a visual medium,” Shute says, “and it’s really important that we invest more in that.” She would like to produce more data visualizations akin to one that Science News developed last year to illustrate every cosmic collision known to have kicked up gravitational waves.
“It was so creative,” Shute says. “Being able to do things like that, and give people another way to explore the science that’s scientifically accurate but also incredibly fun and can deliver surprises, is just a joy.”
That’s really what science journalism is all about, says Laura Helmuth, who interned at Science News in 1999 and is now editor in chief of Scientific American. “The fundamental goal [is] making the most important research accessible and engaging and entertaining and fun to read,” she says, which has been the purpose of Science News from the start. “I think that sticking with that principle has really been the reason it’s survived and thrived.”
In May 1921, just one month after Science Service was born, Ritter wrote a letter to his old pal Scripps. In it, Ritter expressed his optimism that Science Service’s journalism would meet an eager audience. “Unquestionably there are aspects of science that appeal strongly to popular interest,” he wrote. “There is much that is curiosity-satisfying, much that is practically useful, much that is dramatic.”
Indeed, the last 100 years have revolutionized scientists’ understanding of everything from the architecture of the atom to the size of the universe. Through it all, Science News has tried to shine light on as many corners of science as possible. It is, as Shute says, “everything you need to know about science, including things you didn’t know you wanted to know.”
In late 2019, with the 100th birthday of Science News a few years off, our team considered how we might celebrate. We realized that inviting the world to explore the more than 80,000 original reports of advances in science, medicine and technology in our archive was an obvious choice.
Newspaper magnate Edward W. Scripps and zoologist William E. Ritter founded Science Service, the original name of the news organization, to provide accurate, engaging news of science to the public. “The success of democratic government as well as the prosperity of the individual may be said to depend upon the ability of the people to distinguish between real science and fake,” wrote our founding editor Edwin Slosson in 1921.
But Science Service didn’t always live up to those ideals. As we planned for our centennial, we knew that alongside stories chronicling great feats of science there would be articles that we now find horrifying. Through much of its early history, this organization widely shared, and in some cases endorsed, ideas that were racist, sexist, xenophobic and otherwise prejudiced, as well as supposedly “scientific” justifications for immoral and unethical behavior.
We are deeply sorry.
Other publications, universities and nonprofit organizations have recently reckoned with their pasts. Our own efforts to grapple with previous coverage turned up specific examples of racism, sexism and prejudice against members of the LGBTQ community and others in reporting from the 1920s through the 1960s. Though the examples discussed below will be hurtful to some readers, we believe doing better in the future requires an honest and transparent examination of our past.
Our most egregious failing was our supportive coverage of eugenics, a field of study and associated practices born from the false belief that humankind could be improved if only the people judged to have the most desirable traits were allowed to reproduce. Francis Galton, a British polymath who coined the term in the late 1800s, wrote that eugenics would “give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”
Slosson and several of our founding board members were proponents of eugenics, which gained popularity in scientific communities in the United States in the early 1900s. But research of the day did not support the assertion that one group of people was genetically superior to another, and today’s science outright refutes that assertion.
Eugenics was used to justify racial, ethnic and other forms of discrimination. It led to the forced sterilization of over 60,000 people in the United States, including immigrants, Black people, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, people in prisons and people facing poverty. It shaped immigration policies that kept Southern and Eastern Europeans out of the country for decades.
In the 1930s, Nazi Germany enlisted scientists and physicians to argue that society needed to be “cleansed” of people who posed a threat to its “genetic health.” Eugenic theories shaped Nazi policies of persecution and so contributed to the murders of millions of people in the Holocaust. Science News, previously named Science News Letter, often covered eugenics approvingly, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. Watson Davis, who served at Slosson’s right hand, was director of Science Service from 1933 to 1966 and probably did more than anyone to shape editorial direction in our early decades; he was also on the board of the American Eugenics Society, a clear conflict of interest for a journalist.
In a 1922 article, Slosson equated population growth in districts in Great Britain that had overcrowding, poor education, high rates of death from tuberculosis and infant diseases with “evolution working backward.” An article from 1924 quotes eugenicists advocating for “numerical limitation and careful selection of immigrants.” Another from 1935 was headlined “Sterilization is urged to prevent blindness.”
In the late 1930s, Science News Letter reported on how proponents of eugenics sought to distance themselves from sterilization policies aimed at specific social, economic and racial groups. Yet this reporting included the disturbing passage: “On the average, it is found that those parents who provide the best home training for their children are also those with the best genetic stock.” And a headline from 1940 read, “Eugenics seen as vital to future of democracy.”
It’s not as if eugenics didn’t have critics at the time. Renowned anthropologist Franz Boas denounced it as early as 1916 and continued to do so throughout his career; he saw race as a social not biological construct. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu challenged what he called “the fallacy of race.” Other scientists pointed out that people’s living conditions played a major role in their health and behavior — it was not just nature, but also nurture. Science News in some cases covered these ideas, but for the most part failed to recognize them (or report on them) as counterpoints to eugenics.
Uncritical coverage of eugenics in Science News picked up again in the 1960s, during a resurgence in eugenic ideas. In 1964, the magazine published an article by Frederick Osborn, chairman of the board of editors of the American Eugenics Society, who was leading the rebranding of eugenics as an effort aimed at “saving genes for superior ability wherever they are found.”
Our early coverage was often racist, assumed white superiority and debased Indigenous cultures. An article from 1954 summarized the thoughts of one anthropologist, saying, “a Negro may have been black before he was a man.” Another from 1925 was headlined “American children claimed more intelligent than Chinese.” An article in 1921 on the coming popularity of the avocado described the raising of the fruit as a “white man’s job” because it required “a high order of intelligence.”
Coverage of women was focused primarily on their role as family caretaker. Issues of women’s rights, reproductive health, welfare and education received comparatively little attention. In a 1924 article titled, “How women control the future,” Slosson wrote that women’s right to vote was insignificant in relation to the role the woman has in the family.
Women were disparaged in other ways in our reporting. Headlines in particular were often patronizing or fed into existing stereotypes: “Women fatigue easily during first work days,” for example. A story headlined “Women’s personalities do not depend on age” led with, “A middle-aged woman may not have the figure of a young lady, but her emotional make-up is essentially the same.” An article from the 1960s quoted a source who blamed the issue of “No women in space” at least in part on the challenges of designing spacesuits for women, without any question or criticism.
Our coverage of the LGBTQ community through much of the 1950s and 1960s failed to question science that perpetuated bias, including characterizing gay men as having a “pathological personality.” We reported on psychotherapy that “cured” one gay man. One headline read: “Homosexuals need help.”
We were wrong in other ways. The same spirit of science boosterism that championed eugenics seems to have been behind enthusiasm for less sinister but still dangerous notions, including a 1945 article touting the use of the pesticide DDT in wall paint, and one from 1964 suggesting the use of nuclear explosives to dig a new Panama Canal. And, yes, in the late 1940s, we touted the marvels of asbestos-laden dish towels, and actually distributed them to readers.
Hindsight is of course easy, and some historians will warn us against applying today’s knowledge and perspectives to different times. With the exception of our 1960s eugenics coverage, our reporting was for the most part consistent with prevailing views among the people in power at the time. Yet we wish Science News had followed a different course. As journalists, we need to be skeptical and ask tough questions. It’s humbling to see that Science News journalists a century ago got so much wrong, and it pushes us to strive to do better. So we ask ourselves, what are our current biases? Where are the gaps in our coverage? When are we narrow-minded? Whose voices are we amplifying and whose experiences are we omitting?
We are taking action to address our shortcomings. We have prioritized increasing the diversity of our staff through hiring. Because staff turnover can be slow, we are also seeking out freelance writers from countries and communities historically underrepresented in our coverage, as well as editors from those communities, who help us identify potential biases in story selection and language use. For several years, our writers have been growing an effort to track source diversity, which expanded after the Black Lives Matter movement gained national attention. They are holding themselves accountable for interviewing and quoting scientists with a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. And we are participating in staff training in diversity, equity and inclusion through the Poynter Institute and other organizations.
We are also looking to what science can tell us about bias, race and diversity. We increased coverage of the social sciences, including the challenges scientists face in defining race in the U.S. Census, the negative effects of racism on physical and mental health and how scientists are trying to study racial bias in policing. And we are reporting on how misinformation and disinformation about science warps people’s understanding of crucial issues such as climate change and COVID-19 vaccines.
Science will be key to building a safe and sustainable future for humankind and our planet. Though Slosson, our founding editor, didn’t always live up to his own ideals, we endorse his statement from a century ago that the ability of people to understand science, and distinguish between real science and fake, is essential to society’s success.
We know our efforts moving forward will be imperfect. We suspect if Science News survives another century, our future colleagues will look back on some of what we did with dismay. Yet we hope reckoning with our past, being transparent about what was terrible alongside what was great, will help us hold ourselves accountable today. And we ask our readers to hold us accountable as well.
This statement was developed by the Science News Reckoning Team, including Emily Conover, Martina Efeyini, Cassie Martin, Elizabeth Quill and Cori Vanchieri, with insight and guidance from many members of the Science News staff. It has been endorsed by editor in chief Nancy Shute and the Science News senior staff.
When it comes to cooling the planet, forests have more than one trick up their trees.
Tropical forests help cool the average global temperature by more than 1 degree Celsius, a new study finds. The effect stems largely from forests’ capacity to capture and store atmospheric carbon (SN: 11/18/21). But around one-third of that tropical cooling effect comes from several other processes, such as the release of water vapor and aerosols, researchers report March 24 in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change.
“We tend to focus on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but forests are not just carbon sponges,” says Deborah Lawrence, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “It’s time to think about what else forests are doing for us besides just absorbing carbon dioxide.”
Researchers already knew that forests influence their local climates through various physical and chemical processes. Trees release water vapor through pores in their leaves — a process called evapotranspiration — and, like human sweating, this cools the trees and their surroundings. Also, uneven forest canopies can have a cooling effect, as they provide an undulating surface that can bump hot, overpassing fronts of air upward and away. What’s more, trees generate aerosols that can lower temperatures by reflecting sunlight and seeding clouds.
But on a global scale, it wasn’t clear how these other cooling benefits compared with the cooling provided by forests’ capturing of carbon dioxide, Lawrence says. So she and her colleagues analyzed how the complete deforestation of different regions would impact global temperatures, using data gathered from other studies. For instance, the researchers used forest biomass data to determine how much the release of carbon stored by those forests would warm the global temperature. They then compared those results with other studies’ estimates of how much the loss of other aspects of forests — such as evapotranspiration, uneven canopies and aerosol production — affected regional and global temperatures.
The researchers found that in forests at latitudes from around 50° S of the equator to 50° N, the primary way that forests influenced the global average temperature was through carbon sequestration. But those other cooling factors still played large roles.
Forests located from 30° N to 30° S provided alternative benefits that cool the planet by over 0.3 degrees C, about half as much cooling as carbon sequestration provided. And the bulk of that cooling, around 0.2 degrees C, came from forests in the core of the tropics (within 10° of the equator). Canopy topography generally provided the greatest cooling, followed by evapotranspiration and then aerosols.
Forests in the far north, however, appear to have a net warming effect, the team reports. Clearing the boreal forests — which stretch across Canada, Alaska, Russia and Scandinavia — would expose more snow cover during the winter. This would decrease ground level temperatures because snow reflects much of the incoming sunlight back into the sky. Still, the researchers found that altogether, the world’s forests cool the global average temperature about 0.5 degrees C.
The findings suggest that global and regional climate action efforts should refrain from focusing solely on carbon emissions, Lawrence says. “There’s this whole service that tropical forests are providing that simply are not visible to us or to policy makers.”
The research shows that clearing tropical forests robs us of many climate-cooling benefits, says Gabriel de Oliveira, a geographer from the University of South Alabama in Mobile. But deforestation isn’t the only way that humans impair forests’ cooling ability, he says. Many forests are damaged by fires or selective logging, and are less able to help with cooling (SN: 9/1/21). It would be useful to consider how forest degradation, in addition to deforestation, impacts regional and global climate temperatures, de Oliveira says, to assess the impact of restoring and protecting forests (SN: 7/13/21). “It’s cool to see beyond carbon dioxide, but it’s also very important to see beyond deforestation.”
The boa constrictor’s choke hold is an iconic animal attack. By coiling around its prey, a snake can squeeze the life out of a victim in mere minutes before gulping it down whole (SN: 8/9/15). But it’s been unclear just how Boa constrictor squeezes so hard — or swallows something as big as a monkey — without suffocating itself.
Now, experiments show that when one part of a boa constrictor’s rib cage is compressed — preventing the part of its lungs enclosed there from drawing in air — the snake can move another section of its rib cage to inflate its lungs there. Boas and other snakes probably couldn’t have started throttling and swallowing large prey without this ability, researchers report March 24 in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Biologist John Capano of Brown University in Providence, R.I., and colleagues implanted metal markers on the ribs of three boa constrictors, about one-third and halfway down the animals’ bodies. Tracking those markers in X-ray videos of the animals let the researchers map rib motions over different parts of the snakes’ lungs.
In these videos, the team wrapped a blood pressure cuff around different parts of the animals’ bodies. Then, the scientists increased the cuff’s pressure until the rib cage couldn’t move in that area — mimicking the effect of a snake using that part of its body to grip or gulp down prey.
When gripped by a cuff about one-third of the way down their body, snakes breathed by moving some ribs closer to their tails. When wrapped in a cuff about halfway down their body, snakes breathed by moving some ribs closer to their heads. “They can basically just breathe wherever they want,” Capano says. That makes him wonder whether snakes also adjust their breathing during other activities that compress their bodies, such as slithering.
Like two great songwriters working side by side and inspiring each other to create their best work, the Magellanic Clouds spawn new stars every time the two galaxies meet.
Visible to the naked eye but best seen from the Southern Hemisphere, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are by far the most luminous of the many galaxies orbiting the Milky Way. New observations reveal that on multiple occasions the two bright galaxies have minted a rash of stars simultaneously, researchers report March 25 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.
Astronomer Pol Massana at the University of Surrey in England and his colleagues examined the Small Magellanic Cloud. Five peaks in the galaxy’s star formation rate — at 3 billion, 2 billion, 1.1 billion and 450 million years ago and at present — match similarly timed peaks in the Large Magellanic Cloud. That’s a sign that one galaxy triggers star formation in the other whenever the two dance close together. “This is the most detailed star formation history that we’ve ever had of the [Magellanic] Clouds,” says Paul Zivick, an astronomer at Texas A&M University in College Station who was not involved in the new work. “It’s painting a very compelling picture that these two have had a very intense set of interactions over the last two to three gigayears.”
Even as the two galaxies orbit the Milky Way at 160,000 and 200,000 light-years from Earth, they also orbit each other (SN: 1/9/20). Their orbit is elliptical, which means they periodically pass near each other. Just as tides from the moon’s gravity stir the seas, tides from one galaxy’s gravity slosh around the other’s gas, inducing star birth, says study coauthor Gurtina Besla, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
During the last encounter, which happened 100 million to 200 million years ago, the smaller galaxy probably smashed right through the larger, Besla says, which sparked the current outbreak of star birth. The last star formation peak in the Large Magellanic Cloud occurred only in its northern section, so she says that’s probably where the collision took place.
Based on the star formation peaks, the period between Magellanic encounters has decreased from a billion to half a billion years. Besla attributes this to a process known as dynamical friction. As the Small Magellanic Cloud orbits its mate, it passes through the larger galaxy’s dark halo, attracting a wake of dark matter behind itself. The gravitational pull of this dark matter wake slows the smaller galaxy, shrinking its orbit and reducing how much time it takes to revolve around the Large Magellanic Cloud.
The future for the two galaxies may not be so starry, however. They recently came the closest they’ve ever been to the Milky Way, and its tides, Besla says, have probably yanked the pair apart. If so, the Magellanic Clouds, now separated by 75,000 light-years, may never approach each other again, putting an end to their most productive episodes of star making, just as musicians sometimes flounder after leaving bandmates to embark on solo careers.
People who grow up outside of cities are better at finding their way around than urbanites, a large study on navigation suggests. The results, described online March 30 in Nature, hint that learning to handle environmental complexity as a child strengthens mental muscles for spatial skills.
Nearly 400,000 people from 38 countries around the world played a video game called Sea Hero Quest, designed by neuroscientists and game developers as a fun way to glean data about people’s brains. Players piloted a boat in search of various targets.
On average, people who said they had grown up outside of cities, where they would have presumably encountered lots of meandering paths, were better at finding the targets than people who were raised in cities. What’s more, the difference between city dwellers and outsiders was most prominent in countries where cities tend to have simple, gridlike layouts, such as Chicago with its streets laid out at 90-degree angles. The simpler the cities, the bigger the advantage for people from more rural areas, cognitive scientist Antoine Coutrot of CNRS who is based in Lyon, France, and his colleagues report.
Still, from these video game data, scientists can’t definitively say that the childhood environment is behind the differences in navigation. But it’s plausible. “As a kid, if you are exposed to a complex environment, you learn to find your way, and you develop the right cognitive processes to do so,” Coutrot says.
Other bits of demography have been linked to navigational performance, including age, gender, education and even a superior sense of smell (SN: 10/16/18). Figuring out these details will give doctors a more precise baseline of a person’s navigational abilities. That, in turn, might help reveal when these skills slip, as they do in early Alzheimer’s disease, for instance.
When health care providers enter notes into patients’ electronic health records, they are more likely to portray Black patients negatively compared with white patients, two recent studies have found. The unfavorable descriptions may perpetuate bias and stigma and influence the care patients receive.
“The first impression is the chart,” says Gracie Himmelstein, a physician training in internal medicine at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. “That narrative is going to shape your views of the patient, even if you think you’re just looking for the clinical data.”
Himmelstein and colleagues analyzed more than 48,000 hospital admission notes from a Boston medical center. Stigmatizing language overall, and about diabetes and substance use disorder in particular, was more often used in the notes of Black patients compared with white patients, the team reported January 27 in JAMA Network Open. Another study combed through more than 40,000 medical notes from a Chicago medical center. Black patients were more likely to be described as not complying with or resistant to treatment, among other unfavorable terms, a different research group reported in the February Health Affairs.
The two studies appear to be the first to quantify racial bias in the U.S. electronic health record. Bias can drive health disparities — differences in health tied to social, environmental or economic disadvantages — that occur between different racial and ethnic groups. For example, Black infants have a higher mortality rate than white infants due to health disparities (SN: 8/25/20).
The Health Affairs study’s team designed a computer program to look for phrases with negative connotations, including “not compliant,” “not adherent” and “refused,” in medical notes written from January 2019 to October 2020 for close to 18,500 patients. Overall, 8 percent of the patients had one or more negative terms in their electronic health records.
Black patients were 2.5 times more likely to have such words in their medical notes than white patients, the researchers found. This language “has a potential for targeted harm,” says coauthor Michael Sun, a medical student at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine.
Himmelstein and colleagues scrutinized the electronic health record for negative language like “nonadherent” and “unwilling” along with stigmatizing words — including the verb “abuse” — that label or place blame on the patient. The team studied medical notes that were written from January to December in 2018.
Overall, around 1,200, or 2.5 percent, of the admission notes contained unfavorable language. Notes about substance use disorder and diabetes had more of that language woven in, at 3.4 percent and 7 percent, respectively. In the full sample, Black patients were nearly 1.3 times more likely to have stigmatizing terms in their notes than white patients. That factor was about the same when the researchers focused on diabetes notes, while for records about substance use disorder, Black patients were 1.7 times more likely to have negative descriptions.
The new studies didn’t assess what impact the biased notes had on patients’ medical care. But other research has found that when short descriptions of a patient include stigmatizing language, the negative terms influenced physicians’ treatment decisions, making doctors less likely to offer sufficient pain medication.
Along with potentially leading to worse care, bias in medical notes may sour patients’ perception of their providers. Patients now have the right to read their electronic health records, as mandated in the 21st Century Cures Act. Notes that include stigmatizing or biased depictions can “potentially undermine trust,” says primary care doctor and health equity adviser Leonor Fernández of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
In a survey of nearly 23,000 patients, Fernández and colleagues found that 10.5 percent felt offended or judged, or both, after reading their own notes, the team reported in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in September 2021. (The survey didn’t ask about discrimination or racial bias specifically.) Many respondents also explained what prompted their feelings. One participant wrote, “Note said I wasn’t doing everything I could to lose weight which was untrue and very upsetting to see my Dr thought of me like that.”
Researchers have written about ways to remove stigma from descriptions of substance use disorder and obesity, among other conditions. This guidance encourages language that does not identify the patient by their illness and that focuses on the efforts a patient is making.
Rather than labeling a person a “diabetic,” for example, health care providers can write that a person “has diabetes,” researchers from a diabetes care task force recommend. And instead of describing a patient as “non-compliant” with their medication, the researchers suggest explaining why, as in, the patient takes insulin “50 percent of the time because of cost concerns.”
By noting the barriers to a patient’s ability to follow medical advice, says Himmelstein, a health care provider can “engage with that in a way that’s actually helpful in promoting health.” Instead of using terms like “non-compliant,” Sun hopes health care providers “think about what other context and what other story” can be told about the patient.
Accounting for the challenges a patient faces “actually makes you more effective” as a health care provider, says Fernández, and makes the patient less likely to feel blamed.
In the Health Affairs study, Sun and his colleagues observed an unexpected and encouraging change in the electronic health record over time. For notes written during the second half of the study, from March to October of 2020, it was no longer more likely that Black patients’ notes had negative terms compared with white patients. That time period coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests.
More work is needed to sort out what’s behind the drop, says Sun. He and his coauthors note that health care providers may have considered patients with COVID-19 less responsible for their illness, in contrast to other conditions. But perhaps it has something to do with how “impactful” that period was, Sun says, in raising awareness of racial health disparities. Perhaps the shift was “out of empathy.”
As Kristin Meyer set up her merchandise booth at the Anime NYC convention last November, she was sure she’d be exposed to the coronavirus at some point during the three-day event. “Getting that many people together in one spot, the chance that absolutely no one had COVID was zero,” she says.
Meyer was one of hundreds of artists who paid for a space to sell their art in the convention’s Artist Alley. Many signed up, despite getting a cold or the flu, bronchitis or pneumonia at previous fan conventions. “I used to get everything,” says Daifei, another artist, who asked to be referred to by their online handle. “Just from being around people.”
Anime NYC, first held in 2017, has become a beloved meeting place for fans of Japanese cartoons known as anime and comics called manga. Fans wearing elaborate anime-inspired costumes enter contests and pose for group photos. Actors who voice popular characters speak on panels and meet attendees for autographs. Media companies offer exclusive previews of their upcoming releases.
In the Artist Alley, attendees buy anime-inspired prints, charms, buttons and other custom-made merchandise. At an event like Anime NYC, artists can make as much as $15,000 in a weekend, says Daniela Muino, an artist who traveled from Texas with her partner to the 2021 convention. “People physically seeing your art in front of them” is great for sales, Muino says. The greatest draw of Anime NYC for many attendees is connecting with other fans. A hobby typically considered niche takes over one of the country’s largest convention centers — the Javits Center — and drives a three-day party in and around the venue. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the 2021 event drew a record 53,000 attendees from around the United States and 30 other countries.
People were clearly drawn to get together. “Self-isolating rules are vital [in a pandemic],” says Robin Wollast, a psychology researcher at Stanford University. But “they also undermine deep-rooted needs for social bonding.” In-person events can be crucial for mental health, he says, despite the health risks they pose.
Attendees aware of those risks were not surprised when news broke in early December that the convention may have been a superspreader event; one of the first U.S. cases of COVID-19 due to the highly contagious omicron variant had been traced back to Anime NYC. The shock came later, in February, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, in fact, omicron had not spread widely at the convention.
Anime NYC may offer some lessons for making large events safer now and in the post-pandemic future.
What went right? Peter McGinn, who works in health insurance, felt confident flying to New York City from his Minneapolis home for the convention. The 31-year-old knew the virus spreads easily through the air. But he was fully vaccinated and boosted, as were many of his 30 or so friends coming in from more than 10 states. The group used Anime NYC as a long weekend party; they shared accommodations and socialized at the city’s restaurants, bars and karaoke venues.
“I felt pretty comfortable based off of everything I did to protect myself, and what the people I was with did to protect themselves and everybody around us,” says McGinn, referring to his friends’ vaccination status and their masking in the venue, except when eating or drinking.
Once back in Minneapolis, McGinn didn’t feel great, but he attributed his symptoms to “normal con fatigue.” Plenty of attendees of these and similar events expect to get sick. At the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting, for example, attendees ruefully refer to “AGU flu,” which spreads among conference-goers every year.
When one of McGinn’s convention friends tested positive for COVID-19, McGinn took a PCR test, which came back positive. A week into his 10-day quarantine, the Minnesota Department of Health called to tell McGinn that he was the first known person in his state to be infected with the omicron variant. Once the health department learned he had been to the crowded convention in New York City, McGinn spent hours helping both Minnesota’s state agency and the CDC with contact tracing. Once word got out that McGinn had omicron and that several of his convention-going friends had also tested positive, news reports suggested he may have been patient zero for a potential superspreader event at the anime convention.
This news was reminiscent of the February 2020 biotech conference in Boston that had become one of the first superspreader events in the United States. Infections at that conference may have been linked to more than 300,000 cases, researchers reported in Science in December 2020.
In January, McGinn said he hoped the investigation into Anime NYC would push back against the perception that this convention had been a superspreader. “It’s overwhelmingly likely that where I caught COVID was outside of the event at dinner or karaoke,” he says. While at the convention center, he and his friends constantly wore masks.
McGinn felt vindicated when the results of the investigation were published as a pair of reports in the Feb. 18 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. One study focused on McGinn and his friend group, and the other presented a big-picture view of COVID-19 at the convention. The researchers searched state and local health databases for test results from about 34,500 out of the 53,000 convention attendees whose contact information was available from the event organizers. They identified 119 cases among 4,560 people who got tested. Of those 119 cases, 16 were in McGinn’s friend group — and the only cases confirmed as omicron were among those 16.
The CDC characterizes a superspreader event as one infectious person giving the coronavirus to many others at a rate higher than average transmission. This didn’t occur at Anime NYC, the investigation found, because the rate of positive tests among convention attendees was close to the overall rate in New York City two weeks after the convention: about 3 percent.
“It’s nice to confirm that the event wasn’t a spreader event,” McGinn said after receiving news of the reports. “It makes me more comfortable in the future going to these types of events as long as mask and vax requirements are in place.” Layers of protection The CDC reports attribute this convention’s success to layers of safety measures put in place, including masks, vaccine checks and good ventilation.
“Everyone was always wearing their masks … when speaking to me or walking past my table,” Meyer says. She notes, however, that some costumed attendees took their masks off for photo shoots. And the Artist Alley was also located near the food court, where attendees took off their masks to eat.
Muino was impressed by the safety behaviors she saw at the convention in comparison with her home state of Texas. Still, the spacing of tables in Artist Alley “felt way too close together” for social distancing, she recalls. During busy periods, the area became incredibly crowded.
“There’s only so much control you can exert over a population that large,” Muino says. “People are going to take their masks off for pictures. They’re going to take them off to talk to friends.” Attendees needed to show proof that they’d received at least one vaccine dose, following the city’s regulations at the time. Among 3,845 attendees whose test results and vaccination status were both available from local health departments, 3.4 percent were partially vaccinated, 84.5 percent were fully vaccinated and 12.1 percent had received a booster dose. Studies have shown that partial vaccination offers significantly less protection against COVID-19 than full vaccination.
However, Anime NYC organizers had too few staff checking proof of vaccination outside the venue, leading to long lines and crowding outside. Some attendees waited outside up to four hours on the first day of the convention.
The Javits Center itself took COVID-19 seriously, partly due to its roles during the pandemic as a field hospital and then a mass vaccination site. Newly installed hospital-grade air filters throughout the building may have helped prevent transmission.
“All the employees at the Javits Center had to go through training,” says Gavin Macgregor-Skinner, senior director of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, part of the worldwide cleaning industry association that certifies organizations, including the Javits Center, on preparedness for biological threats. This training included cleaning protocols and how to manage traffic through the building.
This venue also worked with event organizers, including the company that runs Anime NYC, to ensure they followed safety protocols. The Javits Center’s attitude was, “if you come into our house, you follow our rules,” Macgregor-Skinner says. The CDC investigation results do not mention, however, that Anime NYC was also very lucky with its timing. When this event took place, omicron hadn’t yet gotten a foothold in Manhattan. The city’s first wastewater samples containing omicron were collected on November 21, the final day of the event.
If the same event had happened two weeks later — when omicron was raging through the city — organizers would have needed more safety measures, such as a stricter vaccination requirement and rapid testing, to achieve the same low transmission, says Ayman El-Mohandes, an epidemiologist and dean of the school of public health at the City University of New York.
Heroes wear face masks A successful COVID-19–safe event requires layers of protections that align with the community that the event is serving, says Mark Billik, founder of BeCore, a marketing agency that pivoted to organizing COVID-19–safe events during the pandemic. Billik recommends that his clients tailor their COVID-19 protocols for their events and he offered suggestions for future fan conventions (see Page 25).
Advance communication may be particularly successful when it’s tailored to a community and drives “enthusiasm about creating a safe environment,” El-Mohandes says. For instance, the next Anime NYC could provide masks with the faces of famous anime characters or post signs that show these characters encouraging distancing and frequent handwashing.
Using anime characters to promote safe behaviors is an example of classical conditioning, says Wollast, the Stanford psychology researcher. In classical conditioning, people learn to associate a particular stimulus (like wearing a face mask) with an unrelated stimulus (a favorite character) to drive a particular behavior. “My heroes are wearing face masks so I should wear one too,” Wollast says. Safety beyond COVID-19 Along with avoiding COVID-19, Anime NYC attendees who spoke to Science News noted that they also avoided other respiratory illnesses. “Less people have been sick that I’ve heard of this year, than any other convention that I’ve ever been to,” Daifei says.
Maybe a cold or flu doesn’t have to be a necessary evil of attending conventions or similar events.
COVID-19 safety measures probably contributed to an unusually low number of flu cases in the 2020–21 season, according to the CDC. Leaders in the events industry are considering safety measures that build on lessons from COVID-19 — such as new technologies to improve ventilation and cleaning protocols — to reduce future outbreaks of flu and other infectious diseases, according to the Global Biorisk Advisory Council.
Some Anime NYC attendees hope to see continued handwashing, mask use and policies that encourage people to stay home when not feeling well, long after this pandemic recedes. All these practices are “very applicable to non-COVID respiratory infections,” El-Mohandes says. Such safety practices may also make large events more inclusive for immunocompromised people, many of whom already had to avoid crowds for their potential to spread infection before the pandemic.
“I feel like this is something that we can actually keep doing,” says Nicole Tan, an artist who shared a booth with Daifei at Anime NYC. The pandemic inspired a widespread realization that “we could have prevented a lot of illness if we just put our minds to it.”
A gaping hole in the bony frill of a Triceratops dubbed “Big John” may be a battle scar from one of his peers.
The frill that haloes the head of Triceratops is an iconic part of its look. Equally iconic, at least to paleontologists, are the holes that mar the headgear. For over a century, researchers have debated various explanations for the holes, called fenestrae — from battle scars to natural aging processes. Now, a microscopic analysis of Big John’s partially healed lesion suggests that it could be a traumatic injury from a fight with another Triceratops, researchers report April 7 in Scientific Reports.
In summer 2021, Flavio Bacchia, director of Zoic LLC in Trieste, Italy, was reconstructing the skeleton of Big John, the largest known Triceratops to date, when he noticed a keyhole-shaped fenestra on the right side of its frill. Bacchia then reached out to Ruggero D’Anastasio, a paleopathologist at the “G. D’Annunzio” University of Chieti-Pescara in Italy who studies injuries and diseases in ancient human and other animal remains.
“When I saw, for the first time, the opening, I realized that there was something strange,” D’Anastasio says. In particular, the irregular margins of the hole were odd. He had never seen anything like it. To analyze the fossilized tissues around the fenestra, he obtained a piece of bone about the size of a 9-volt battery, cut from the bottom of the keyhole. The rest of Big John sold at an auction for $7.7 million — the most expensive non–Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur fossil ever.
Looking at the bone under a scanning electron microscope, D’Anastasio and his team found evidence consistent with the formation processes of new bone that are usually observed in mammals. New bone growth is typically supported by blood vessels, and in the bone near the border of the hole, the tissue was porous and strewn with vascular canals. Farther from the fenestra, the bone showed little evidence of the vessels.
The team found that the irregularity of the hole margins that D’Anastasio had observed was also present at the microscopic level. The border was dappled with microscopic dimples called Howship lacunae, where, in one of the first steps of bone healing, bone cells eroded the existing bone to be replaced with healthy bone. The researchers also observed primary osteons, formations that occur during new bone growth.
In addition, a chemical analysis revealed high levels of sulfur, indicative of proteins involved in new bone formation. In mature bones, sulfur is present in only low quantities. Taken all together, it was clear that this particular fenestra was a partially healed wound. “The presence of healing bone is typical of the response to a traumatic event,” D’Anastasio says.
Scientists can only hypothesize what happened so long ago. But the location and shape of the wound suggest that Big John’s frill was impaled from behind by a Triceratops rival, adding evidence to the idea that Triceratops fought with one another (SN: 1/27/09). It was probably an initial puncture that was pulled downward to create the keyhole shape, the researchers say.
“Pathology is a great tool to understand the behavior of dinosaurs,” says Filippo Bertozzo, a dinosaur paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels who was not involved in the study. Dinosaur behavior has long been in the realm of speculation, he says, but analyses like these can provide a glimpse into the lifestyle of these animals.
He adds that this particular wound is “not a Rosetta stone,” because it’s unlikely that all fenestrae are battle injuries. “Fenestration is still a big mystery.”
What’s also a mystery, D’Anastasio says, is why the bone remodeling seen in this Triceratops sample was more similar to healing observed in mammals than in other dinosaurs. And Big John himself might hold more secrets.
“We published an aspect, a paleopathological case,” D’Anastasio says. “The complete skeleton of Big John must be studied.”