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3 Popular Magazine Covers Supernatural Science Sells Images of scientists working in the laboratory, discussed previously, contributed to the notion that scientists are separate from—that is, above—society and “ordinary” citizens. That perception persists, according to Dorothy Nelkin, who has written, that “scientists still appear to be remote but superior wizards, culturally isolated from the mainstream of society.”1 The “scientific mystique,” as Nelkin refers to it, also applies to the ways in which scientific research is covered in the media. But, do the media simply reflect public perceptions of the scientific enterprise, or are media sources responsible for shaping them? Nelkin concedes that, although public perceptions tend to align with media messages, it is difficult to determine which entity is responsible for shaping our dominant images of science. Still, she argues, when it comes to policy decisions, “It is the media that create the reality and set the public agenda.”2 Popular science magazines can be included under the umbrella of “the media” and thus contribute to cultural characterizations of the scientific enterprise. Books, as the saying goes, ought not to be judged by their covers, but magazines depend on people judging their covers to stay in circulation. In The Magazine from Cover to Cover, Johnson and Prijatel describe the magazine cover as “the most important editorial and design page in a magazine. The cover, as the magazine’s face, creates that all-important first impression. . . . Editors, art directors, publishers, and circulation directors spend hours trying to select the perfect cover for each issue—one that sells out at the newsstands and creates a media buzz.”3 From their description, two points must be made: first, magazine covers, as the “faces” of magazines, are portal images in that they persuade prospective readers to open the magazine and engage with the interior contents; second, magazine covers are rhetorical—they are the products of editors’ and art directors’ choices about such elements as layout, color, types of images, and amount of text. Science magazine covers are complex, persuasive visual 52 • Introducing Science through Images documents that are responsible for making potential audiences receptive, attentive , and well disposed to scientific content.4 Whether viewed on the shelf with dozens of other titles or viewed on a website, the covers of magazines are seen by everyone, even if the interior contents are not. Therefore, whether or not viewers or passersby engage with the interior contents of the magazine, the magazine cover still acts as a portal, but with higher stakes—a portal into “Science .” That is to say, magazine covers bear the burden of defining what science looks like for broad public audiences. Every issue of a magazine defines its subject matter for its intended audience first through its cover image and its descriptive cover lines. Given that magazines publish several issues a year, often weekly or monthly, there are ample opportunities for visual definition and redefinition of the main subject, whether it is “good housekeeping” or what it means to be “wired.” Looking at large swaths of a publication’s covers over time can provide more insight into how it defines its main subject than looking at a single cover because trends emerge in an analysis of several covers that would be indiscernible from a single one.5 Three popular science magazines—two well-established publications and one newer one—illustrate the options that are available for engaging viewers and simultaneously defining the scientific enterprise visually. Not all popular science magazines take the same approach to cover design, nor do they all attempt to reach the same audience, but one aspect that they all have in common is the burden of selling science in order to sell copies. As with the previous examples of portal images in this book—frontispieces and images of scientists working—magazine covers make use of culturally relevant imagery and symbols to capture the attention of viewers. Frontispieces, the engraved illustrations in the front of natural philosophy books, featured mythological characters and objects with which their audiences would have been familiar and so began a long history of mythologizing the scientific enterprise . Portraits of scientists at work valorized scientists and set them above and apart from “ordinary” citizens—another form of mystifying science in the public eye. Magazine covers also contribute to the mystification of science, albeit in a different way. Consider, for example, the cover of Science Illustrated in figure 13. A vibrant image of an explosion accompanied by the sensational cover line “Earth on Fire...


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