"Science is culture." So says Seed Magazine on its cover. A friend of mine gave me a subscription to Seed, though I am only vaguely aware of why. Maybe it was because he knew I was a scientist as well as a spiritual seeker, and he was hoping that a regular dose of rationality would somehow sway me to enlightened agnosticism.
Seed is a curious kind of magazine. It's hard to know who, exactly, it is trying to appeal to. There are some features that clearly are appealing to the scientists themselves -- the rank and file bench workers and post-docs slaving away, with little more than their own high self-regard to comfort them. They have a regular feature, "Workbench," which is just a picture of some scientist's work space -- a desk or office or cube or laboratory -- with little annotations about the pictures and tchockas and books and papers that fill the space. I liked that, because that shows a lot of insight into what the lives of these people are like. Scientists spend a lot of time at the desk, and the view from that desk is as good a symbol as any of the monk-like existence that they lead. I was reminded of the movie Into Great Silence, a documentary about French Trappist monks, and the long shots they would take of snowy scenes outside a monk's cell. The scene that monk would look at for the rest of his life. It has beauty in it, but a bleak kind of beauty, and not what I would call hope.
I think that's part of the problem with Seed. In style it mimics other magazines of the mega-cool future, especially Wired. It has the same trippy two-page color spreads with call-out quotes from an article, something that is supposed to be provocative and compelling. The layout sometimes has the crazy collage quality of Wired, with colorful exploding graphs and maps. But then lapses just as suddenly into the clean staidness of a 1970's Scientific American. Clearly it wants to taken more seriously than billowy lightweights like Popular Science or Psychology Today. But the content falls into this weird space, more technical than puff-piece but not nearly the page length to sustain really complex content, like you would see in Scientific American. And it has social issues on its mind, and it's so serious about its seriousness about social issues that you come away with no other thought than, "Boy, do those guys take themselves seriously." None of the featured scientists smile. Well, maybe in a long shot you might see a smug smirk in the distance. A few non-Caucasian women venture real smiles, but the North American men and women . . . well, they are just too important to be caught smiling.
So the overall tone is . . . cold. Add to it the fact that it's very light on advertising -- just a smattering of full-page officious feel-good propaganda from big pharmas and big oil companies and one or two eco-cable channels. Cold, cold, cold. If the purpose of this magazine is as evangelical as it seems, to make science and scientists look more important and influential and cool . . . Well, they seem to have missed entirely on the "cool" part. The primary missing ingredient is joy. Wired Magazine explodes with enthusiasm, because its guiding ethic is capitalistic and optimistic. The people featured in it tend to have a wild gleam in their eyes, because they're planning on making a few million dollars in their twenties and getting laid tonight, and besides they are having the time of their lives, and, oh yeah, I guess the world will benefit from this cool stuff we're doing. By contrast, the people in Seed look . . . Sad? Bored? They look like people who wish other people took them more seriously. And so, of course, we don't.