Making Scientific Americans

(Prefatory note: In October 2011, I gave a talk at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society. Some material from this talk was included in The Visioneers. Other parts had to be cut. But a recent newspaper article motivated me to go back for another look…)

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 4.49.42 PMA new popular science magazine recently appeared. Nautilus is “about science and its endless connections to our lives.” Appearing quarterly – subscriptions are $49 – each issue is devoted to a “single story told by the world’s leading thinkers and writers” that “combines the sciences, culture and philosophy.”

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The first “issue” of Nautilus

Funded with monies from the Templeton Foundation, Nautilus is positioning itself as a “New Yorker version of Scientific American.” Although designed to be accessed primarily on-line, a few print copies of the first issues are available. Dennis Overbye described one as having “thick, color pages” with the “production values of a corporate report.”

The appearance of such a luxurious new publication devoted to popularizing science, stimulating the imagination, and mixing fiction with non-fiction immediately brings to mind a much earlierbut similar venture – Omni magazine.

(Confession: As a teenager, I loved Omni. I had a subscription for years. One of the great things about writing The Visioneers was to have an excuse to go back and re-read old issues.)

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Omni’s inaugural issue

Soft-core pornography magnate Bob Guccione launched Omni in the fall of 1978. Guccione said he never wanted to be a pornographer. Peddling porn was to just a way to pay for his first love, art. Nonetheless, Guccione’s X-rated publication Penthouse made him splendidly rich. Guccione magazine, with its muckraking journalism and images that left nothing to the imagination, enticed millions of readers each month. Penthouse also made the millions of bucks that enabled Guccione and his partner Kathy Keeton, a self-made South African ballerina turned exotic dancer, to start Omni.

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Guccione and Keeton, 1993. From Getty Images.

Omni’s appearance coincided with average citizens’ “acute need to know more about science and technology” in the mid-late 1970s.1 Dozens of new science and technology magazines, newspaper sections, and TV shows about science and technology appeared. Omni differed from these other publications that made up the bubble in popular science publishing and broadcasting. Omni wasn’t a direct competitor to “establishment” publications like Scientific American or shows like NOVA but existed in a class of its own. Instead it was more of a “para-scientific” publication that reported on recent developments in science and technology but for a non-elite audience.2

The “para” prefix also suggests transgression and subversion. This is fitting for a magazine that covered transgressive paranormal “science” – UFOs, ESP, parapsychology, Bigfoot, and so forth… as well as conventional stories about science and technology. Seen from this perspective, the outside-the-mainstream topics that Omni presented bear a similarity to books like The Tao of Physics which bridged western science with eastern mysticism, a topics Dave Kaiser has presented so nicely in his How the Hippies Saved Physics book.

If Omni depicted the future, the future was going to be very good looking. Guccione spared little expense for his new publication. Full-color illustrations filled entire pages and issues regularly featured gorgeous photographic essays with scientific or technological themes. Guccione and Keeton even developed a special sans-serif font for their new publication which added to its sleek, futuristic look.

But who were the “scientific Americans” Bob Guccione wanted to reach? Omni appealed strongly to the classic baby-boomer demographic – 18 to 34 year old, mostly single men, people with considerable disposable income. According Ben Bova, science-fiction writer and former Omni editor, told me “We liked to think of our typical reader as someone who reads the Sunday New York Times. Up-scale, financially and educationally.”

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Typical Omni advert, 1978

The magazine’s advertising reflected its demographic target. Every issue featured sophisticated pitches for high-end foreign cars and the latest in consumer electronics such as digital watches and the first compact disk players. Many of the companies who bought space in Omni developed advertisements designed to reach the magazine’s future oriented readers. And, of course, there were Omni’s pervasive pitches for cigarettes and top-shelf liquors. Out of this mélange, we can construct an image of the Omni reader: a mostly-masculine consumer, a sophisticated, tech-savvy, and open-minded person comfortable with computers, intrigued by space exploration, and interested in the latest news from the borderlands of “science-faction.”

But where earlier publications like CoEvolution Quarterly and the Whole Earth Catalog had stressed frugality and pragmatism, magazines like Omni presented a hedonistic view of the future made shiny and sexy by technology. Instead of self-composting toilets and woods stoves, one finds advertisements for home electronics and European sports cars sprinkled amidst stories about personal ultra-light aircraft and space tourism. Both Whole Earth and Omni promoted lifestyles fashioned by technology with a bit of escapism thrown in. But where Whole Earth reflected readers’ aspirations for individual self-sufficiency, Omni linked corporate-based technical innovation to personal fulfillment and financial success. Put more simply – hippies versus yuppies.

Besides presenting popular science discoveries, Omni crossed borders into areas that more mainstream magazines like Scientific American wouldn’t touch. Its articles often straddled the borders of fiction and fact. Deeply curious about the paranormal, Guccione and Keeton made sure that each issue included articles about fringey things like psychics, the Loch Ness Monster, and UFOs. Scientific research on life extension, as well as cryonics, also piqued their interest.

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Omni piece on life-extension research

Omni’s paranormal coverage reflected public skepticism about mainstream science (or at least scientific experts), a desire to consider alternative ways of thinking about nature, and hint of conspiracy theory, themes which would be continued in the 1990s by popular shows like The X-Files.

Interviews with iconoclastic researchers were another regular feature – Freeman Dyson, John Lilly (known for studying sensory deprivation and dolphin-human communication), futurist Alvin Toffler, and physicist Richard Feynman all appeared in Omni’s first year.

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Freeman Dyson, interviewed for Omni’s first issue

Omni’s fiction proved another big attraction for readers. In 1978, Guccione recruited veteran science-fiction author and editor Ben Bova to Omni. Bova attracted a cohort of writers who wrote about science, technology, and alternate realities without resorting to worn sci-fi tropes. Several of them, people such as William Gibson, became award-winning authors after appearing in Omni. Bova wanted to bring sci-fi writing to a broader audience and many of Omni’s fictional pieces – which were oddly dystopian for such a techno-optimist magazine – addressed the same technological topics that appeared in its non-fiction essays.

Bubbles collapse. By the mid-1980s, quite a few of the new high-profile science publications had gone dark. Omni, however, survived, in part, because its stories were not just about “science qua science” but also touched on sex, politics, and the unconventional. Omni maintained its format, topical focus, and modern look largely unchanged until print publication ended in 1996. By the time Omni expired though, its  look and focus were out of touch with the new cyber-times. Ironically, for a magazine that was about futuristic technologies, Omni didn’t survive the transition to web-based publishing.

In its best years, Omni offered a novel “publishing space” where borders between mainstream and fringe and science and the occult were broached, blended, and blurred. Omni was therefore a venue for both popularizing science (“science for the people”) as well as vehicle for popular science (“science of the people” – that is to say topics closely connected to its readers’ interests).3 I see Omni as part of a longer trend of science communication shaped by entertainment values. As a result, Omni helped create a different kind of “scientific American,” one who saw an interest in science and technology of all stripes as something that was as much about a lifestyle as it was about edification. I’m very curious to see how the new Nautilus effort positions itself in this regard.

Guccione and Keeton once had buttons printed for its readers which said “The meek will inherit the earth. The rest of us will go to the stars.” The future turned out differently of course…the new “scientific Americans” didn’t go to outer space but to cyber-space instead. But along the way they read and enjoyed Omni.

  1. Arlie Schardy. “The Science Boom.” Newsweek, September 17, 1979, 104. []
  2. Sarah Kaplan and Joanna Radin, “Bounding an Emerging Technology: Para-Scientific Media and the Drexler-Smalley Debate About Nanotechnology,” Social Studies of Science, 2011, 41, 4: 1-29. []
  3. Jonathan R. Topham, “Introduction – Historicizing Popular Science,” Isis 2009 100, 2: 310-318. []