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Seed

Circulation: 150,000
Date of Birth: November 2001
Frequency: Bimonthly
Price: $4.95
Natural Habitat: In the lobby of a Harvard research laboratory next to Wired and People

by Bree Nordenson

If you’ve ever browsed the science magazine rack, you may have noticed that most of the publications fall into one of two categories: science for scientists and science for dummies. With the tagline “Science is Culture,” Seed treads the middle ground between American Scientist and Popular Science, emphasizing the practical implications of the discipline without oversimplifying them. While it could be argued that Scientific American occupies a similar niche, Seed distinguishes itself by placing science at the center, rather than the periphery, of social discourse. “Science is driving so much of our culture these days,” says founder and Editor-in-Chief Adam Bly.

Reborn last fall after suspending publication for almost a year, Seed is owned by Seed Media Group, which also runs scienceblogs.com, a science news aggregator called phylotaxis.com and an online version of the magazine. After a year at McGill University, Bly, now 25, dropped out to start Seed, the realization of his passion for “communicating science to the public.” A science prodigy of sorts, Bly is the youngest research assistant to have worked for the National Research Council of Canada, where he studied cancer. He founded the magazine in 2001 and moved it from Montreal to New York City in 2002.

As might be expected of a science magazine created by a young entrepreneur, Seed is hip. The glossy advertisements for liquor, luxury cars and high-tech gadgets cater to a young, educated readership. The writing style also leans that way. For the most part, the approach works, but on unfortunate occasions it backfires. Examples of Seed’s gimmicky inclinations include comparing the speed of a star to a celebrity fleeing the paparazzi and likening the repulsion between matter and anti-matter to “a marriage teetering on divorce.” The magazine is as unlikely to earn a reputation for being cutting-edge as it is for being serious about science when it uses the phrase “like, duh” and abounds with pun-inspired headlines like “Pucker Up For Safety.” Such tabloid-style prose calls into question a central claim in the magazine’s mission statement—that it provides “thought-provoking content.”

With a sleek, modern look created by a recent winner of a National Design Award, Seed has achieved a successful aesthetic—not too sterile, not too flashy—that conveys the magazine’s merging of serious science with current culture.

Seed’s content is a mix of news, analytical essays and reported features on topics ranging from physicists’ philandering to breakthroughs in understanding prime numbers and Africa’s burgeoning scientific community. It is organized into a long front section called “notebook,” a smaller front section dedicated to the latest scientific findings, a series of longer features and a back section of reviews. With the exception of “notebook,” the sections fulfill their function of propelling the reader through the magazine. At more than 20 pages, the “notebook” section is too long to exist without an organizing principle. The use of separate categorical subheadings for its individual articles only adds to the reader’s confusion.

While Seed succeeds in covering a variety of interesting and scientifically relevant topics, some articles fall flat. In the February/March issue, the cover story addressed recent research in neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) by neuroscientist Elizabeth Gould. Although informative, this article, like several others in the same issue, is presented amateurishly. Its organization is tentative, with awkward transitions between scientific explanations and descriptive reporting. When he characterizes Gould’s finding that stress inhibits neuronal growth as “startling,” writer Jonah Lehrer tends toward hyperbole. While the field of neurogenesis is relatively new, the nature-versus-nurture debate isn’t. Saying the “structure of our brain ... is incredibly influenced by our surroundings” is hardly a revelation.

Of the many writing formats found in Seed, the straight interviews are most effective. In the February/March issue, the magazine explores Literary Darwinism, an interpretive framework for literature that emphasizes evolutionary theory, by interviewing one of its foremost scholars, Jonathan Gottschall. The format allows Gottschall to explain his work casually, presenting the reader with a comprehensible account of a somewhat arcane theoretical framework. “Salon,” Seed’s designated interview section, presents lengthy conversations between scientists and experts in other disciplines. What makes the interviews successful is their ability to communicate the complicated ideas that emerge when science is examined through a cultural lens.

Perhaps the strongest piece in the February/March issue is an essay by Chris Mooney calling for scientists to communicate more effectively with the public, especially given “science’s newly exposed political and cultural vulnerability” under the Bush administration. Mooney notes that “too many [scientists] have grown accustomed to the security of their labs and university communities, occasionally lamenting the American public’s poor understanding of science but doing little in a concerted way to improve it.” The article is well-written and inspiring, and it encapsulates the magazine’s mission—to bring science to the forefront of culture.

Bly succeeds in creating a science publication that is interdisciplinary and culturally relevant, but in his aim to make Seed “the fresh face” of science magazines, he overreaches. The stylish graphics and punchy headlines may have contributed to a newsstand sell-through (the percentage of distributed copies sold) that is well above average, but they also reflect the magazine’s central shortcoming: a lack of sophistication. Bly’s attempt to create a “gutsy” and “bold” publication has ultimately overshadowed his simultaneous effort to make it “authoritative.” As a magazine still in its infancy, Seed may well be on its way to balancing intrigue with intelligence, but it’s noticeably not there yet.