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Prime Time: ThreeScore and Ten -- Biology periodical recommendations for general readers

Last November, I promised pointers on secondary literature that concerns "things biological," which is a really tall order.

We'll omit the many primary journals that have secondary review articles, book reviews and such. Many of them have websites that you can visit if interested. And no books today, just examples of printed secondary periodicals.

"Secondary" doesn't mean "easy." A top example of a professional level secondary journal is Quarterly Review of Biology. It typically has a few long review articles, with thorough citations of the primary lit, plus many book reviews. It is aimed at professionals, and many articles may be accessible only to certain specialists. It is a great source for keeping up to date and for teaching examples. If I can find my notes, I may someday write on the history of color vision based on a QRB article.

A step easier, and a favorite journal of mine is American Scientist (don't confuse it with Scientific American, below). Originally it was sent only to members of a scientific honorary, Sigma Xi. Some decades back, Sigma Xi opened subscriptions to the public. Anyone with some scientific background can handle most of its articles. It covers all the natural sciences, plus engineering. Most issues contain an article on bridge construction or architectural engineering. Mark Fulton, Bemidji State University's current plant ecologist (and pirate king in the recent "Pirates of Penzance") and I both enjoy those. In addition to well cited solid articles on everything from paleontology and particle physics to lunar craters and cosmology, it has excellent book reviews.

Scientific American first appeared as a single sheet in 1845. It was mostly about inventions until 1945, when it morphed into an excellent lay-level monthly about current science. Now it is probably the best single choice for science and some social sciences for anyone who can read at 12th grade level. In addition to short items on recent developments, biological articles in three recent issues treat anti-malarial vaccines, the origin of Mesozoic birds from dinosaurs and their replacement by "modern" birds in the early Cenozoic, how pre-verbal babies think and continued natural genetic change in human populations. Rather than specific citations, general suggested readings follow most articles.

American Biology Teacher is intended for high school and college teachers, and most of its articles concern teaching ideas and strategies (e.g., Hazard, E.B., 1998, "Teaching about intermediate forms," volume 60, no. 5, pp. 359-361). Also, every issue (10 per year) has a column, "Biology Today," by Dr. Maura Flannery of St. John's University in Queens, N.Y. It is usually on some topic that Maura has read about lately, and Maura is a prodigious reader. Years ago, her column mentioned Jerry Schur, my Stuyvesant High School biology teacher (see my Oct. 3, 1999 Pioneer article), so I wrote her. We've been friends (sort of pen pals) since, but have also met three times - twice over lunch in Manhattan, and once at a meeting in Madison, Wis.

Since before I was born, Natural History (also 10 per year) was published by New York's American Museum of Natural History, but then went independent. It is currently in limbo of sorts, having missed most its 2010 issues. It was an excellent, reliable source of articles on things biological, astronomical, and anthropological. It comes with my membership in the AMNH, and I hope it survives. These are rough times for print media.

Smithsonian (12 issues) is still published by a subsidiary of the Smithsonian Institution, and is only 41 years old. But the Smithsonian comprises several museums, most of them in and near Washington, D.C., but one in Manhattan. So the articles cover not just science subjects but also arts, popular culture, history and whatnot. It is a splendid magazine and seems to be doing well. The cover story of the current issue is about the critically endangered orangutan.

The subject matter of National Geographic, once more narrowly restricted to different places on Earth and their inhabitants, human and otherwise, has broadened to include most of the areas you'd see in Smithsonian. Some letters to the editor complain about that, but it's a high quality magazine, and its biological material is solid.

There are too many others to mention all, but I must recognize the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. Six issues a year, good sound info on the state's flora, fauna and natural areas, well edited, and they answer their mail. And of course, Sky & Telescope, which is not biological per se, but is partly about other places where things biological might arise or have arisen. Maybe someday we'll know.


Evan Hazard, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes "Northland Stargazing" the fourth Friday of each month.