The Science Show | 5 August 2000
A look at Australian Geographic’s new publication, Newton: Graphic Science, which was launched this week.
Robyn Williams: There's a new science magazine out this week for the very first time in Australia. Lynne Malcolm has a copy.
Lynne Malcolm: Next time you visit your local newsagent, there’s a good chance a new glossy magazine all about science will hit you in the eye. Newton, as it’s called is put out by Australian Geographic and it’s full of superb photography and lush illustrations.
Science journalist Wilson da Silva is the managing editor, and I asked him whether we really need another science magazine.
Wilson da Silva: Since Omega Science Digest disappeared in the beginning of the eighties, there’s really been no magazine that has reached a mainstream market with American magazines like Scientific American. They serve a market, but it is a US publication, it’s US focused. If you’re obsessed enough to buy New Scientist every week then great, but it’s also a British focus. Australasian Science out of Melbourne, incorporating Search – a valiant attempt – but against quite difficult circumstances.
What Newton tries to do is it’s about trying to find the mix that brings science to the reader who is interested in curious but perhaps doesn’t want to go to the smaller publications or the foreign publications. Something that is Australian but is also international.
Lynne Malcolm: In fact, the Newton magazine now on our news-stands can also be found in a slightly different form in Japan.
Wilson da Silva: It was a deal done with Australian Geographic by the Takamori family who originally started the magazine, back almost 20 years ago now. Newton is a magazine in Japan that is the number one science magazine, it’s a monthly, and it began when the Takamori’s were distressed that their son wasn’t interested in science. And they approached a few science communicators about it, and they said, “Well, look, create wonderful illustrations that will explain scientific concepts.”
So, they did that and the people reacted so well to them that they decided to launch a magazine that did this. Kind of a graphic science magazine that would in a Newtonian way break down difficult concepts, and explain them very visually.
Lynne Malcolm: Well the magazine certainly does have a Japanese feel. It’s got those larger than life hi-tech graphics. How do you reach that balance of it being accessible and flashy and appealing to a young audience, yet at the same time not losing the science. Because it’s easy to be cynical; to look at a magazine like that and think, oh you’re just going for the flash value of it.
Wilson da Silva: It’s always a challenge in science journalism, because concepts in science are quite difficult. We use things like analogies and say well compare it to how a flower grows, or find a comparison that is an every day common experience that makes sense.
What we have that’s additional and is the core of the magazine are these gorgeous illustrations which involve hundreds of man hours. Now for example something we’re going to have in a future issue is the Seven Wonders of the World as were described thousands of years ago when the term was first coined. Now only one of those wonders actually exists – it’s the great pyramid of Khafre. But thanks to these illustrations using the latest science, we’ve rebuilt these and you can actually take a tour through the Seven Wonders of the World, but looking at it pictorially. And I think this is the attraction of the Japanese. Whereas rather than rely on the original text that the Japanese commissioned, we get our own writers to do it.
So, for example in edition No.1 the origin of the universe, we have Charlie Lineweaver.
Lynne Malcolm: Yes, because one of the big stories in this magazine, I think it’s something like 38 pages on the origin of the universe – just to start with something simple.
Wilson da Silva: That’s actually what the director of Mount Stromlo in Canberra said to us, “Boy, you didn’t pick an easy one to start with: the birth of the universe!”. It was kind of a statement in that if the core of the magazine will always be the so-called specials, and they will tackle a big topic and try to bring the latest thoughts, the latest theories on that issue, but do it in a very visual way. So, we talk about things like quantum mechanics, that even as a science journalist for 14 years I had some difficulty with.
And I’ve got to tell you, in editing that one I actually discovered some things, or I finally understood some things that had been troubling me for years.
Lynne Malcolm: So, you’re not going for science news basically; it’s more educational background stories.
Wilson da Silva: It’s more entertainment. It’s more for the person who is curious about science but perhaps doesn’t have the commitment to a weekly science magazine, but they do have an interest in science. We know that more people go to museums and art galleries than go sporting events. We know that 2.25 million people watch Quantum every week on ABC TV.
The surveys indicate that people want to read more about science and less about politics and finance. And yet the newspapers and magazines of the country deliver them the exact opposite of that menu.
So, we know people are interested. It’s just a matter of finding the right editorial mix that will entertain, engage and satisfy that curiosity.
Lynne Malcolm: And do you see any competition in this new internet friendly world that perhaps you have to compete really hard with a magazine as opposed to a web page.
Wilson da Silva: I actually don’t think that we have a problem with that. Not just us at Newton but just generally with magazines. I mean if you think about a magazine, a colour magazine like Newton, it’s a random-access document that requires no batteries to work. In fact, all you do is cast light on it and you get to see these gorgeous images. And you get to travel wherever you want. And you can do it when you want.
Lynne Malcolm: Managing editor of Newton magazine, Wilson da Silva. And by subscribing to the publication you automatically become a member of the Newton Society, and that helps fund science research and community projects.