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Column: How a science magazine from Charles Darwin’s era found new life online amid the coronavirus

The 1870s was the decade that gave us the telephone, the light bulb and phonograph, Vaseline, PVC and Darwin’s book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” And it also gave us Popular Science, a magazine that has been published for 147 years — and for the last 21 years, has offered all sorts of science delights on its website.

Corinne Iozzio became its editor in chief just as the coronavirus crisis was starting. Since then, the website has delivered user-friendly and inventive takes on the practices and practicalities of COVID-19, like a step-by-step guide to cleaning your groceries, how to clean your face mask and how to tell allergy symptoms from COVID-19. That’s in addition to regular sprightly and engaging science and tech stories with headlines such as: “We are eating large animals to extinction,” “What avocados and clownfish have in common, sexually speaking,” and a personal favorite, “Why two by fours don’t really measure two inches by four.”

In an age when science is right there on your phone, Iozzio wants to help make you make science work for you.

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How is Popular Science covering coronavirus? What’s your response and responsibilities?

This is one of those moments where the word “popular” in our name is absolutely the most important thing that we have to keep as a watchword, to not necessarily get too deep into the science and the lab work of what’s going on in the face of a global pandemic, but to really just take that breath and take that step back and think about what are the things that our readers want to know. What are the measured answers to the really important questions? And how do we deliver them to them in a way that’s accessible and approachable and just doesn’t really talk down to anybody in any real way?

And what do they want to know?

They just want to know practical things: I have symptoms that I would normally just think are a cold. When should I be worried? What’s the threshold for when I should be really pressing to get a test. What’s the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] say? I’m out of hand sanitizer. What the heck do I do? Really practical things that I think of when we talk about what we need to be covering, what we need to be sharing with our readers, is what is life in the time of COVID.

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I saw one article about how to stop touching your face. I can’t imagine anything more practical.

Even taking that step back and taking a breath and thinking, how do I become more conscious of all of the things that I do without thinking? All of the things that I take for granted? And how does every iota of that need to evolve?

Or even, just what are the things that make me want to touch my face? Is this a nervous tic? Do I have allergies, therefore, I have itchy skin?

Once you identify your triggers and you think, what do I do to stop those? How do I change that habit? Do I twiddle my thumbs? Do we need to bring back fidget spinners just to keep our hands busy? These sorts of very practical day-to-day things that can have a really big impact on people’s lives.

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‘We were ready for this. And since the end of the Cold War, we’ve been dismantling systems because they cost money and we don’t want to spend the money.’

A lot of our job is translating. cutting through all of the jargon. And frankly, when the news is so saturated right now, all of the noise — what are the facts and figures? What are the things that we can trust and put forward and really use that authority?

This is a brand that’s 147 years old. And that’s not something that we take lightly. We take that authority that we have, and we wield it in a very strategic and methodical way.

Are you there as a fact checker to debunk some of the mythology that’s out there?

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I think we do serve that sort of role as gatekeepers and as people who push our proverbial glasses up our nose and say, here’s what’s really happening. We’re going to talk about this for a second. Now, you heard that you can distill vodka into hand sanitizer. Can we just have a reality check on this for a second, please?

Have those been some of the most popular pieces on your site?

Obviously, in the last few weeks, all of our COVID coverage has been extremely popular, but stories like that, stories about how all of the stores are completely out of hand sanitizer — OK, well, let’s talk about aloe vera gel. Let’s talk about rubbing alcohol and then let’s do the math for you to figure out the right proportions to put those together, so that you will have something that’s just as effective as if you went to the market and bought some sanitizer.

Popular Science is a quarterly publication, but you can’t wait that long to cover something like this.

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The magazine serves a very different function than the website. The magazine we think of as a keepsake. They’re all single topic cover to cover. We just dig our teeth into something that’s super-duper fun and interesting and can touch on every facet of science, something that can really sit on the shelf and you can come back to it time and time again like you would a nice hefty coffee table book.

The website, popsci.com, is actually our largest platform, and that’s where we do the type of work serving the day-to-day needs and curiosities of our audience.

What’s the difference between the quarterly magazine’s readership and the people who read you online?

The magazine readership skews a little older generally and it skews more male, which is something that we have been slowly changing over the last several years. The digital audience is very different. It’s younger. Both of our audiences are very geographically diverse. Our audience is spread not just on the coasts, which is more typical of science and technology magazines. We have a very large concentration of readers in the middle of the country. And that’s true for both print and digital.

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What’s remarkable about our digitals, about popsci.com, is that our readership there is close to a 50-50 split, men and women. And that’s something that we worked really hard to change over the last three or four years.

It used to be much more heavily skewed male and we’ve pulled it center, which is something that we’re really proud of. I think it’s not a matter of, we came in and suddenly started covering women’s issues. What our science desk found was that women’s magazines were covering issues of women’s health and science that were more traditionally relevant to women, but they weren’t covering it with the real scientific authority that Pop Sci could have.

So then we took this notion that there is this underserved thing: Let’s take our scientific authority and apply it to things that a more heavily female audience would be interested in. And once we started to do that, the change happened very quickly.

What are a couple of examples of those stories?

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I’ll name a couple of my favorites. One of our younger editors became very enamored with a particular brand of tights, this brand called Heist. They’re the most comfortable tights. They didn’t run. They didn’t bunch. They didn’t roll down at the waistband. And she just became completely enamored.

What is the innovation? What is the engineering marvel that has allowed these tights to come into existence? So she called up the company, she talked to their heads of product. And what she found was that it wasn’t that the technology to make better tights wasn’t out there. It’s just that somebody bothered to try. And that’s true of so many things pertaining to issues that predominantly impact women.

More women than men, for example, suffer from chronic migraines. And only in the last two or three years have you seen real advancement in the types of drugs that can not only treat migraines, but help prevent them.

How has the mission of Popular Science changed over nearly 150 years?

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Even if you look 10 or 15 years ago at Popular Science, you would have looked at it and you might have thought it to be an enthusiast magazine, for somebody who’s really, really, seriously interested in science, somebody who is an early adopter in terms of gadgets and audio video equipment.

And that’s changed so much, just in terms of the pervasiveness of technology in our day-to-day life, the amount of time that we spend interacting with it. And also just this notion that our entire world is science, this sort of awakening to everything that’s happening around us,

Science is part of everyday conversation in a way that it hasn’t been before. And we’re seeing that made manifest. Scientists aren’t the geeks and the nerds hanging out on the fringes. They’re part of the national conversation. We’re the cool kids now. And that’s a really great place to be.

There’s entrenched feeling that science is difficult, that it’s hard to be a scientist, or even engage in science just as an interested amateur.

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It’s both worlds, right? Science is hard and it does require a tremendous amount of education and discipline and reading and knowing everything that came before you in order to figure out how you move forward.

But it’s also participatory. We’re each one of us, a source of data, and more data makes better information. If you look back at predictions of the future, we had flying cars by now and we were living in “Jetsons” condos in the sky, but nobody saw the smartphone coming.

Now it’s like we use Waze as a mapping tool. And each one of us is helping to map and catalog traffic on a day-to-day basis. And that’s something that nobody ever saw coming.

If you even bring it back to what’s happening right now with coronavirus and COVID testing, testing is important because it’s a mechanism by which people can get the treatment that they need. But testing is also important because it helps us get the data that we need to really understand what’s happening. And in that way, science is a very community thing and it’s incredibly participatory.

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If science hasn’t always been political, then it certainly can be now. Is that something you have to deal with every day?

It’s something that we’re aware of every day, and it’s something that we take a lot of care in how we touch on politics, when we cover things and when we talk about things.

We’re very sensitive to something that might get very easily construed as what we just think is like some sort of offhanded joke, or some tiny little word choice can be very off-putting to someone who you’re trying to get to understand what’s happening.

We want to bring science to people’s doorsteps and help them understand how it impacts their day-to-day life.

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Like the Green New Deal, for example. Giant, nebulous, hard to wrap your arms around. We say, OK, let’s look at this state by state. If we had a Green New Deal, what does that mean for you in Colorado? What does that mean for you in Delaware? Or California needs to do a lot of work retrofitting its buildings.

It’s just a matter of really drilling down like that. And that’s how you take the politics out of it. You just say, OK, I’m not going to talk to you about Republican or Democrat or independent or whatever. I want to talk about how this hits you where you live. Science is about facts, not opinions, and politics is grossly often on the opposite side of that.

Have you been surprised at how broadly science can be defined — internet freedom, pantyhose; it seems pretty wide.

I always say you could hand me a mechanical pencil and I could find you three science stories in that pencil without breaking a sweat. Let’s talk about the guy who made the clicky thing. Let’s talk about the synthetic rubber in the not-rubber eraser on the tip of it. It could go on and on and on. It’s everywhere.

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How did you get into science journalism?

I got into science journalism through tech journalism. I was always the kid working with my dad running speaker wires under the living room floor, drilling holes in the floor, then running across beneath in the basement so that he could hook up his Bose floor speakers.

And then early in my career, I worked in tech journalism right around when the first iPhone came out. So it was kind of the best moment to become a gadget reporter.

With the coronavirus crisis, we see people turning to science and saying, ‘Science! Save us!’ It seems that every 10 years, something comes along and science has to come in in the last reel and be the hero in the white hat. Or the white lab coat.

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It’s absolutely true. We want the undercurrent of science to not only be something that becomes part of the public conversation in an emergency. This is always something that’s happening in the background. And all of these wheels and mechanisms and research is always moving forward so that when something like this does happen, we’re hopefully at a stronger position every single time.


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