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2May 2013

Nautilus: Classy new science mag arrives online with Templeton Foundation funding.

Nautilus: Classy new science mag arrives online with Templeton Foundation funding.

A classy new science magazine called Nautilus makes its debut this week, with the first of what will be monthly single-topic issues released serially in "chapters" each Thursday.

According to its press release on PR Newswire, Nautilus "weaves leading-edge science, culture and philosophy into a single story told by the world's leading thinkers and writers." It will include "reported features, narrative non-fiction, essays, blog posts and interviews--as well as fiction, graphic stories, and interactive widgets and games," the release says.

"Nautilus connects science to our lives, one mind-expanding topic at a time," the release says. "Join us." It is being launched with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, which funds a variety of projects on science and religion.

So far, we have two issues on which to render a verdict. The first is a preview issue called "The Story of Nautilus," which was presumably used to float the concept to potential funders and advertisers. The site is clean and inviting; but what about the copy?

Editor-in-chief Michael Segal chose to launch the issue with an interview with Benoit Mandelbrot, the distinguished mathematician who discovered fractals, the curious patterns in which the shape of an object is duplicated by the shapes of its parts, and the parts of its parts, and so on. (This is my definition; mathematicians may attack it at will.) The shell of the chambered nautilus is an example.

I agree with Segal that this was an excellent idea, except for one very minor detail: Mandelbrot passed away in 2010. Unwilling to let that unfortunate event derail the launch of Nautilus, Segal and his team "tapped into 18 different sources, including three that were unpublished, to assemble a posthumous interview." It was a clever idea, and it works. (The references are supplied in a separate link.)

That's part of "Chapter 1: The Science," which also includes a piece by--and a brief profile of--Peter Ward, who has built a career studying the nautilus. In "Chapter 2: The Myth," we get a lovely animation that plays out over a reading of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.'s poem, "The Chambered Nautilus." We also get a reflection on the Nautilus, the submarine in Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," and some myth-busting about the nautilus and the golden ratio

Issue 001, released this week, is entitled "What Makes You So Special." Its chapters are "Less Than You Think," "More Than You Imagine," and "Beyond Measure." (Because this is the first issue, all three chapters were released simultaneously. Beginning next month, the chapters will be released weekly, as Nautilus explained in its announcement.) As an example of Nautilus's take on things, a video interview with the astronomer Caleb Scharf, director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center, sits beside a video interview with the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, also of Columbia.

Segal and publisher John Steele have taken considerable care with Nautilus. It's easy to navigate, the journalism and the other pieces are interesting and well written, and the multimedia mix seems natural--not the kind of forced marriage that sometimes results when designers, artists, and reporters try to work together. Steele has assembled a staff of more than a dozen editors, art directors, and business people, including digital editor Amos Zeeberg, who was highly regarded by bloggers who worked with him at Discover, where he was managing editor-online.  (See Matt Shipman's interview with Zeeberg for more about the future of Nautilus.)

Nautilus also plans to publish a quarterly print magazine, beginning in September.

Steele told me in response to an email query that the Templeton grant was enough to keep Nautilus in operation for two years, though he wouldn't tell me the amount. (I've asked Templeton.) That's far more than many start-ups can count on. I worry a bit about Templeton's agenda. Among its recent grants are $2.6 million for "Towards Medicine as a Spiritual Practice," and $1.9 million for "Celebrating the Harmony between Mainstream Science and the Christian Faith."

I'm happy to read about Buddhism and astronomy on the same page of a magazine, but I wouldn't be happy if I thought that Nautilus's science stories were written or edited to reflect religion, or even to avoid antagonizing religion.

Nautilus will have the opportunity in each issue, each "chapter," to persuade us that that is not the case. And I hope it does.

-Paul Raeburn

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