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Bringing the World(s) Down to Size

From here to beyond

David Schoonmaker

A magazine that attempts to survey the breadth of the engineering and scientific research enterprise necessarily traverses a lot of topical territory. Often as not, however, doing so means covering a lot of geographical territory as well. The issue you’re beholding is certainly a case in point.

Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle start it off in grand fashion by essentially covering the world in “Accounting for Climate in Ranking Countries’ Carbon Dioxide Emissions” (pages 278–281). Their thesis—that heating- and cooling-degree days are beyond the control of a given populace—visits every sovereign nation on the face of this planet. It’s a provocative idea that, as you’ll see, turns the tables on a number of nations.

Henry Petroski serves as our travel agent for a visit to the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Bridges—in particular, “Government Bridge” (pages 288–292)—are naturally on the itinerary, but we’ll stop by several other notable examples of architecture. I was particularly intrigued as I think I’ve been just everywhere in Illinois and Iowa except the Quad Cities.

Rob Dorit does a tour of duty in France—only in 1918 to talk about the Spanish flu that American soldiers imported to that country toward the end of World War I. In “The Fear of the Known” (pages 293–296) he goes on to discuss the ramifications of the sequencing of that virus as well as the rapid evolution in the laboratory of mammalian transmissible H1N1 (often called “bird flu”). Fear that such developments could be used for bioterrorism has made publication of the details controversial. Studies were finally published in Nature and Science in early May, and we went right down to the deadline wire to include Rob’s commentary, which, incidentally, he finalized while in Singapore. One more cheer for the Internet.

We also get some pretty candid snapshots of people in far away places in our update of “100 Reasons to Become a Scientist or Engineer” (pages 300–305). I say “update” because the first 75 commentators appeared in a 1986 issue to celebrate the magazine’s 75th birthday. We thought it such an excellent idea that we saw fit to add 25 more voices to bring it up to 100 for the 100th. You can find the original 75 on the magazine’s website.

Although she did the writing at nearby Duke University, Kendra Sewall’s subjects—animals that match calls among group members and mates—are a very diverse bunch. “Vocal Matching in Animals” (pages 306–315) ranges from coyotes in Death Valley to elephants in Africa to Australian galahs (a cockatoo species). It’s a perfect example of the sort of animal behavior research that has become part of Exploring Animal Behavior (Sinauer), a popular college textbook complied from American Scientist articles and now in its fifth edition.

In terms of far-flung places, though, it’s going to be hard to one up Kevin Heng. Writing from Zürich, he explores the atmospheres of extrasolar planets in “The Study of Climate on Alien Worlds” (pages 334–341). Despite his modesty—“… one aims to be roughly accurate rather than precisely wrong”—it is simply extraordinary what he and other astronomers have been able to deduce about very far away swirling gases.

Finally, to hark back once again to the magazine’s centennial, we bring you book reviews (pages 344–348) that have stood the test of time—70 years, in fact. The first reviews appeared in the first issue to be called American Scientist, back in 1942. We considered trying to count the number of reviews published since then, but we’d probably still be at it.—David Schoonmaker

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