Science News Editor Colin Norman Explores the Modern Mysteries
Special 125th Anniversary Issue on Will Explore 25 "Big Questions" Confronting Researchers
From his vantage as the news editor of Science, Colin Norman has a broad view across many fields of research and a near-global command of the most important new discoveries in science, health and technology. For a special edition of the journal due out 1 July, though, Norman and his colleagues had to focus not on scientific knowledge, but on the lack of it.
The result is a compelling 27-page feature marking the 125th anniversary of Science. Called simply "What Don't We Know?" the project is a collection of 125 questions that will challenge researchers in the decades ahead. Closer attention is focused on 25 Big Questions, subjects ranging from cosmology and dark energy to systems biology and human longevity.
"One of the interesting things about doing this whole exercise has been to look at how the questions have changed" over time, Norman said in a recent interview. "Several of the big questionsthe 25 that we focused onwould not have been in the realm of the big questions, say, 25 years ago.
"Dark energy, for exampleit was only in the late 1990s that astronomers realized from studies of supernovas that the expansion of the universe was actually accelerating as some people had proposed a long time ago. Now two or three different lines of evidence point in the same directionthat the expansion really is taking place. So had we been going through this exercise for our centenary, rather than the 125th anniversary, that's a question that probably wouldn't have made it onto the list."
Norman, an Englishman, joined the Science staff 24 years ago and now is just weeks away from his 10th anniversary as news editor. Though a veteran science writer and editor, he seems freshly intrigued by the latest discoveries and the steady growth of scientific knowledge. Even in his early education, he showed proficiency in a broad range of endeavorsphysics, chemistry, pure mathematics and applied mathematics.
In the mid-1960s, he spent some time working in a chemical research laboratory. It was to be a pivotal experience.
"I found it enjoyable enough," he recalled, "but I was working in a fertilizer research lab and spent a whole year between high school and college with a group that was trying to make a kind of phosphate more soluble. And I thoughtis this really the kind of narrow-based question I want to pursue?
"So I ended up doing a very broad liberal studies course, particularly physics with politics and economics, and that allowed me to range very broadly within the sciences and outside the sciences as well. That gave me a good view of science and politics and the issues that arise there. And I realized that that was the direction I really wanted to take. Reporting on science from the inside and the outside seemed to me to be a very interesting thing to do."
After graduating in 1969 from the University of Manchester in the U.K., with first class honors in Liberal Studies in Science, Norman went to work as a reporter with Nature. From 1971 to 1977, he served as the journal's Washington, D.C., correspondent.
"Before I came to Science," Norman said, "the big story that probably shaped my reporting as much as anything…was the Asilomar Conference in the 1970sthe big conference in which biologists who had called a moratorium on recombinant DNA, splicing genes from one organism to another, met to try to decide how to proceed with this enormously exciting new area of research. There were forces on both sidesthose that wanted to carry on very quickly, and those who wanted to proceed very carefully. The meeting took place over three or four days in Asilomar, on Monterey Bay in California, with all of these people together and just a handful of reporters, and it was really fascinating to watch the dynamics play out."
Norman then spent several years at the Worldwatch Institute, where he wrote two books: The God That Limps: Science and Technology in the Eighties (1981); and Running on Empty: The Future of the Automobile (1979), co-authored with Lester Brown and Christopher Flavin.
After joining the Science staff in 1981, he wrote about science policy, energy research and development, biotechnology and AIDS research. He became managing news editor in 1990, and then news editor in 1995. In that post, he coordinates and edits the journal's award-winning news section and supervises a global team of staff and freelance writers.
Under Norman's direction, the journal's news coverage has continued an evolution that dates from the first issue, published on 3 July 1880 by journalist John Michels, with financial backing from the iconic inventor, Thomas Alva Edison. The first issue comprised 12 pages, with articles on the possibility of electric-powered railroads, the latest observations of the Pleiades and advice to science teachers on the importance of studying animal brains.
In the 1960s, Science News Editor Daniel Greenberg brought new commitment to the coverage of science policy news. Norman lists Greenberg as one of his biggest journalistic influences, and he has continued to build on Greenberg's vision: Science and policy news are not separated as strictly as they once were; reporters now often straddle the divide between science coverage and policy coverage; and there's an emphasis on keeping policy coverage pertinent to researchers. Where the News section was once produced largely in Washington, D.C., Norman now works with a worldwide network of staffers and correspondents. And stories more often now seek to convey the creativity of researchers and the drama of discovery.
All of those values are evident in the special 1 July issue and the "What Don't We Know?" feature. Norman describes it, drolly, as "a survey of our ignorance."
In the wrong hands, such lists can be a journalistic trifle, or simply misleading. But the process at Science was rigorous.
Planning for the issue began months ago. In an effort to identify the critical gaps in scientific knowledge, the journal's Senior Editorial Board and Board of Reviewing Editorsover 100 scientists in allwere asked to come up with two questions from their own field and one from outside their field. Staff reporters and editors were asked to do the same. The goal was to find consensus on the 25 "big questions."
"But when all of these questions came in," Norman said, "we realized that selecting just 25 wouldn't do justice to the grand sweep of science behind all of these suggestions. So we decided to look at 125 questions, and picked 25 of them to explore in a little greater depth, and listed the other 100 with some description of why they were important.
"We went through many meetings with a small group of us hereDon Kennedy [editor-in-chief of Science], plus a group of editors and writersto whittle all the suggestions that came in. We got to 25 using basically three or four criteriahow fundamental the questions are, whether answering them is like to have a broad impact across several areas of science, and to some extent whether or not they have critical societal implications."
And of the 125 questions, including the 25 Big Questions, which two or three are those of most interest to him?
"If we could get an answer to dark matter, which I think we will get in the next 25 years, I think that would be an immense intellectual advance," Norman said. "More difficult is the other, major unknown in the universe, which is dark energy, the odd force that appears to be pushing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. I'd love to know the answer to that onethat's a much more difficult nut to crack.
"From a societal point of view, our last question among the 25: Can we live sustainably on the planet, given the expected near-doubling of the population and the great increases in consumption we're seeing in the industrial world, can we sustain that? Will we drive the world's ecosystems to a point of no return? Those are immensely important questions, and I hope they're answered before it's too late."
Given the incredible expansion of knowledge in the past 500 yearsand especially in the past 100 yearsone might wonder whether solutions to the questions posed in the special edition would effectively complete human understanding of the physical world. Others have offered such speculation in the past, but Norman doesn't buy it.
"I think we're a long, long way from that," he said. "As we find new pieces of information, new questions just keep on arising. Many times over the past century people have wondered, including scientists, whether we're finally just connecting the dots. But new, fundamental questions keep on coming. A few on the list have been around more than a century. And it's likely to continue to be that way for some time, I think."
Read the full interview with Science News Editor Colin Norman here.
To read more coverage of Science's 125th Anniversary, go to our special anniversary page.
Edward W. Lempinen
30 June 2005