Randall Munroe answers some absurd questions; Danielle George reveals what’s in store for this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures; Jim Al-Khalili explores the strange world of quantum biology
This month, Focus celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, we’re taking a look at some classic issues from our archives. For more on our very first issue, published in 1992, check out the December 2012 issue of Focus.
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The Science of Fear issue was one of the first magazines to incorporate the then cutting-edge technology of augmented reality.
Readers who bought the magazine could download software from the Focus website and then hold the magazine up to their webcam to see certain pages come to life. If you held up the cover, you’d be greeted by a 3D spider creeping out of one of the mask’s eyes and scuttling across the page. Nice.
Today, smartphone cameras and apps have made augmented reality mainstream – the recent Rolling Stones compilation album GRRR! featured an animated gorilla who would climb famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. Click here to watch a video of former Focus editor Jheni Osman demonstrating the technology in 2010.
Noteworthy for its stunning-looking cover celebrating a new exhibition of the treasures of Egypt’s King Tutankhamun, this issue of Focus was notable in another way too. It was the first time the magazine had appeared without the distinctive bar at the top – a change that wouldn’t be made permanent until the October 2012 issue.
Elsewhere in the magazine, we investigated reported sightings of great white sharks around UK shores, chatted to geneticist Craig Venter about his plans to build synthetic life forms, and examined whether it was really possible to judge someone’s personality from their handwriting.
The legendary green issue of Focus was exactly that – not only turning the magazine’s famous red bar green but also running with an environmental cover story.
The shock tactics of “stop eating organic, trash your fridge and use the car more” weren’t quite what they seemed, though. Inside, the article was full of pearls of wisdom about how to live a greener life. Advice included: get rid of your fridge (if it’s one of the old, CFC-ridden models), go easy on the organic food (it often requires more energy to cultivate and harvest than non-organic food), and travel by car if you’re going on a family holiday – it’s a lot better for the environment than flying, and you won’t have to put up with that in-flight grub.
What If… was one of the best-selling issues of Focus ever, thanks in no small part to science fiction author Stephen Baxter. Baxter’s article examined what the world might be like today if key historic events had gone another way.
If the Nazis had won World War II, for example, Germany might have landed the first men on the Moon, perhaps even building a lunar missile platform from which to strike at America. And if the doomsday impact that killed the dinosaurs had never happened, intelligent creatures similar to modern humans might eventually have evolved to live amongst the dinosaurs. Now there’s a sobering thought.
Stephen Baxter continues to write for Focus today – his Into The Future column appears on the back page every month.
Our Dark Future cover certainly caught the eye – in a manner of speaking. The completely matt black finish had the coverline ‘Dark Future’ picked out in gloss.
The story was about global dimming – the downward trend in sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface over the past few decades. This is thought to have been caused by humans releasing increased amounts of aerosols into the atmosphere. These scatter and absorb sunlight, as well as making clouds brighter and longer lasting. However, air quality regulations have since halted this trend in some areas of the world, particularly over Europe. So, things are at least looking a little bit brighter.
Focus celebrated its 10th anniversary in style by asking 10 scientists to look to the future and predict life in 2012. Some of the predictions were rather prescient. Sir David Attenborough, Steven Pinker, and Sir Ian Wilmut all foresaw the rapid advances in genetics, while James Lovelock correctly suggested that we’d be even more worried about global warming.
Other predictions haven’t quite come to pass, though. Sir Patrick Moore, for example, predicted that we’d have sent men back to the Moon by 2012 (there still hasn’t been a human on the Moon since 1972), whilst Trevor Baylis, inventor of the wind-up radio, suggested that we’d all be carrying around roll-up computer screens to use with our high-tech mobile phone-cum-computers.
Back in the mid-1990s, The X-Files was essential TV viewing and its actors, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, the hottest stars on the planet. Capitalising on the science behind the series’ weird tales, Focus examined the plausibility of various X-Files characters, such as a serial killer who could squeeze through his victims’ letterboxes and a scientist who had discovered a way to halt ageing.
Various experts were on hand to discuss the science behind the show, concluding that the homicidal contortionist would be unlikely (“there are horrendous problems in pushing a person through a letterbox”) and that a cure for ageing was unfortunately still a long way off.
Other predictions were uncannily accurate. Focus wrote about the possibility of terrorists attacking London, though al-Qaeda wasn’t among the potential culprits listed in the article. Digital money in the form of smart credit cards (Mondex) and ‘cyber cash’ was also covered, though it took a few years for the idea to progress beyond BT Phonecards to systems like PayPal. Finally, a report on ‘Expedition Earth 2000’ asked for volunteers to travel the world in zebra-striped 4x4s to assess the state of the environment at the turn of the century. Does anybody know how they got on?
What was issue 1 like? Well, it was 100 pages long and contained plenty of science. Articles on gene therapy and doomsday asteroids wouldn’t be out of place in the magazine today and there was even a Q&A section, albeit only two pages long.
But as editor Mick Hurrell pointed out in his Welcome letter, “Focus is a unique general interest magazine.” Hence articles on stunt kites and the Dead Sea Scrolls took their place alongside stories on underground caves and saving the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Back then, a general interest magazine made perfect sense. Incredible as it seems now, Focus was launched a year before the World Wide Web. But not everything was different – the familiar face of Nigel Henbest wrote a guide to observing the night sky, and still does today.
For more about the science in issue 1, read our article in the December issue of Focus, out now.