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Building Themes

David Schoonmaker

Click to Enlarge ImageScience is the process of building on the past, as this issue and coming events so aptly demonstrate. Yet I am struck by how many different ways that “construction” can arise. Take Joseph R. Mendelson III’s Macroscope essay (pages 438–441). Mendelson trained as a herpetologist in the 1980s seeking out novel amphibians in the tropics, but the past decade of work has forced him to reconsider his position. He now accepts with resignation that he has become a forensic taxonomist. In the very saddest of ways, his subjects are history, yet the lessons learned are vital.

Pat Shipman’s Little Cayman snails (Marginalia, pages 454–457) aren’t faring too much better. Cerion nanus was apparently widespread in a naturalist’s 1888 account, but Pat and her husband were unable recently to turn up a living example. C. nanus, however, may turn out to have hope, but I won’t spoil the story.

Not all constructions (or deconstructions) on history are necessarily about extinction or even about life forms. Although you might surmise based on the lack of recent publicity that holography had passed away, Sean Johnston assures us in “Whatever Became of Holography?” (pages 482–489) that the technology still plays important roles in a number of disciplines—and is, in fact, so unnoticeable because it is so ubiquitous. When was the last time you thought about that anticounterfeiting symbol on your credit card?

It’s also worth considering just how long people have been building on technological history. Henry Petroski relates in Engineering (pages 448–452) that engineers who moved the so-called Cleopatra’s Needles from Egypt to Paris, London and New York in the 1800s were merely emulating those who followed the emperor Caligula’s orders to move one from Heliopolis to Rome in the first century A.D. It’s pretty amazing how 360 tons can get around.

Of course, it’s the best-built work that persists and is worth adding stories to. Take Amory Lovins’s concept of negawatts. Coined in 1989, the term lives on in this issue’s Sightings (pages 490–491), in which we learn how MIT Field Intelligence Lab scientists and engineers are automating the detection and location of thermal waste.

But I am also of a reflective mind because I currently play a small role in a very important part of the history of science and engineering—American Scientist. If you check the numbers at the top of the previous page, you’ll notice that this is Volume 99, Number 6. Thus, the next issue marks American Scientist’s 100th anniversary. We have a number of things planned to help celebrate that milestone, but we’re at least as interested in how you see the magazine’s place over the years.

I’ve been here 18 years, and devote as much time as I can afford to learning more about the magazine’s past, but many of you have been reading American Scientist much longer than I. What are your favorite articles, illustrations, columnists, cartoons (we don’t have to ask about favorite cartoonist) and so on? A few of our choices can be seen at American Scientist Classics, but there are surely many more that are equally worthy. Please share your thoughts!

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