More than 150 years ago, The Atlantic published a book review by Asa Gray, a Harvard professor and botanist. Most book reviews are quickly forgotten, but history has taken note of this one. At the time, Gray was among America’s most esteemed scientists and his review, which took as its subject Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, was the first full-throated defense of Darwinism to appear in the upper echelons of American letters.
As should be clear, The Atlantic has been covering science—and covering it well—for some time now. But until today, we have hosted most of our science coverage here at TheAtlantic.com in our Technology and Health sections. From today on, Science will have its own section.
We live in an age that may come to be regarded as a second enlightenment, a time when science supplies us with discovery after discovery, each more wondrous than the last. Scientists have measured the temperature of the Big Bang's afterglow out to ten decimal places. They have mapped a decent chunk of the observable universe, in detail so granular, it astonishes. They are predicting events that will take place one trillion years from now.
Scientists are slinging drones out to Pluto, to image its icy peaks. They are bringing distant earths into focus. They are beginning to understand how this Earth's physical, biological, ecological, technological, and cultural systems interact, across vast time scales, and with important consequences for our future. They are sequencing and reshuffling genomes. They are starting to get a grip on the brain, the most complicated phenomenon in the known universe.
And yet, many mysteries remain. What does it mean that human beings emerged only a geological moment ago, lone survivors among a larger family of hominins? Charles Darwin may have explained the origin of species, but what about the origin of life? Or the nature of quantum reality, which appears to be indeterminate, in some deep sense? What does that mean? And how has this tiny, teeming world given rise to consciousness, a phenomenon that seems to belong to its own metaphysical category? Will we ever be able to reverse engineer consciousness? Or in this, as with so many other questions, are we now reaching the limits of science? How are we making sense of all these questions, each one of us, in our distinctive human cultures?
The Atlantic’s science section will follow those questions closely, but it will also take you inside the world of science. And not just the romantic stuff—the expeditions to the deep jungles, deep seas, and deep space—although we’ll take you there, too. We’ll show you how science works, at the personal, everyday level. We’ll tell you when science is broken or stagnant. We’ll tell you whom it excludes. Scientists are often depicted as a nerdish, almost priestly class—but scientists are complex, flawed, fully realized human beings like the rest of us. We’ll tell you their stories.
To that end, we’ve hired Ed Yong, one of science writing’s finest storytellers, to be the section’s founding staff writer. Ed will be reporting from London, and wherever else his curiosity takes him. Already, he’s given us a glimpse inside a Komodo Dragon autopsy, and the inside story on the most extraordinary hominid find in recent memory. He’s explained how blood in the belly of leeches can be used to track down some of the word’s most elusive endangered species. And he’s held psychologists’ feet to the fire.
If Ed were the only one writing for The Atlantic’s science section, we’d still be worth a daily read. But of course he won’t be. You’ll also hear from other staffers here at The Atlantic, and from interesting freelance voices, be they science writers or scientists. (If that’s you, get in touch.)
Near the beginning of his review of the The Origin of Species, Asa Gray explains our natural human resistance to new ideas. “We cling to a long-accepted theory, just as we cling to an old suit of clothes,” he says. “A new theory, like a new pair of breeches, is sure to have hardfitting places ... it oppresses with a sense of general discomfort.” He was right. Science is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. We hope to push your boundaries here at The Atlantic. But we also hope to make you marvel, at the sheer weirdness of the natural world. And we hope to make you laugh.
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