The Sciences

Farewell to Discover

Fire in the MindBy George JohnsonFeb 27, 2014 2:11 PM

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It has been just over a year since I posted Lighting the Match, the first entry in this venture called Fire in the Mind. During that time I've written about a variety of subjects from fluoride paranoia to the mystical mathematics of rock and roll. Some of my favorite posts were about Oliver Sacks and his idiot-savant prodigies, the beguiling psychology of cancer clusters, Rosalind Franklin's missed opportunity to discover the double helix, the infinite obsessions of David Foster Wallace, and Jhumpa Lahiri and the magic of perfectly chosen words. There was also a dispatch about Horace Freeland Judson, author of the best science book ever written. His daughter, Olivia Judson, has been writing a moving series in the Times about cleaning out her famly's old house in Baltimore. (Be especially sure to read part 5, A Piece of DNA, in which she comes across part of Watson and Crick's famous wire and sheet metal model.) Toward the end of my run, I wrote mostly about the mysteries of cancer, the topic of my most recent book, with a side trip into the peculiarities of one of the most brilliant people alive, Murray Gell-Mann, the reluctant subject of my biography, Strange Beauty. He is 84. Now it is time to move on. In January I began a monthly column, Raw Data, for the New York Times. It will appear every third Tuesday in the science section, online and in print, and sometimes in between. The first two installments were about irreproducible experiments, confirmation bias, and the role of subjectivity in science. But as the column continues, it will range over as wide a ground as "Fire in the Mind," which ends now with this post. For the time being, the old entries will stay here, though I may eventually move them to my website, talaya.net. I was an early adopter of the Internet, hand-coding my own web pages on a Unix command line with an editor called pico. (The real hardcores use vi.) I accessed the web by telnetting to a server at CERN and later with a barebones browser -- text only -- called lynx. On equal footing back then with WWW were WAIS (wide area information server) and Gopher (from the University of Minnesota). With the invention of Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, they have become all but obsolete. Things have gotten better and worse since then. There were no ads or "search engine optimization" and it was years before I received my first spam, reading it with an email program called pine. (I also received around that time an email invitation from Steve Case, founder of AOL, to buy 1,000 shares of his company for $10 each. Knowing that AOL was not the future, I declined. I was right but I could have become wealthy in the short run.) I still like to play around with Unix, and I run my own domain and email server on an old Mac Pro in my office. But nothing beats ink on paper. I've enjoyed being at Discover and I thank the editors, especially Tasha Eichenseher, who has moved on to other ventures, and Siri Carpenter, who is rising rapidly through the ranks. Many other good people remain, and more are on their way, including (from my hometown of Santa Fe) April Reese. Last I heard via Twitter, she and a friend were approaching Discover's home office from somewhere in Nebraska. I hope some of you will become readers of Raw Data and continue to follow me @byGeorgeJohnson.

photo by Kerry Sherck

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