A Natural Fit For Science Journal, Web Is 'Second Nature'

Nature, the world's best-known scientific publication, is now being transformed into a multimedia platform that includes include blogs, podcasts and even a Second Life presence.


Nature's presence on Second Life: As shocking as the Queen moving to Las Vegas

Nature's presence on Second Life: As shocking as the Queen moving to Las Vegas

Timo Twin wanders along a beach looking slightly confused, then zigzags up a nearby hill. "Finally! I knew it was here somewhere," he says. Across a vast square the logo of his company, Nature, is emblazoned in big white letters on a red background.

Twin has arrived in his new realm, on an island in the online role-playing game Second Life. The name of the island is fitting: Second Nature. The avatar bears only a vague resemblance to the real-life Timo, a tall man in his late 30s with a slightly round, Harry Potter-like face. His real name is Timo Hannay, and he is something like the representative of the scientific journal Nature in the virtual world.

It's odd enough that companies like Nissan and Coca-Cola develop virtual offices in the game world. But Nature? For many it is the scientific publication par excellence, and has been so for more than 130 years. The publication was founded in 1869 with the active participation of such heroes of science history as Tyndall, Spencer and Huxley. Each of them would have been a candidate for the Nobel Prize if it had existed at the time.

Nature and its American competitor Science form the double peak of a Mt. Olympus for the world of science. Einstein, Roentgen and Crick published in Nature. Only those who are convinced that what they have to say is truly momentous dare submit their work. And even then only one in 12 manuscripts is accepted.

And now this bastion of academic high culture is developing a presence in a bustling game world? It's about as shocking as the news would be if the Queen of England were to announce that she was packing up and moving to Las Vegas.

Adventures in the Online Gaming World

Hannay is familiar with these kinds of objections, and he loves one-upping his grumbling critics. "The core business of Nature is not to produce a magazine," he says, "but to facilitate the exchange of ideas among scientists." More and more nowadays, that exchange happens to be taking place electronically.

Many print media outlets feel threatened by the Internet, but the problem is especially serious for publications like Nature. Following the debut of free libraries like the Public Library of Science on the Internet, researchers are no longer as dependent on publishers. Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman, for example, was awarded the Fields Medal -- something on the order of the Nobel Prize for mathematicians -- in 2006. His legendary paper, which proved the so-called Poincaré conjecture for the first time, would have been the perfect scoop for Nature. But instead of publishing his findings in the magazine, Perelman simply posted his work on the Web journal Arxiv.org.

Part of the reason for Hannay's adventures in online gaming worlds is to prevent Perelman's example from becoming the standard. As the head of the Web publishing department at Nature, Hannay's job is to catapult the venerable magazine into the Internet age.

Hannay's current team of 25 works in offices on the second floor of a renovated warehouse. Here, in an unassuming side street directly behind the massive arches of the King's Cross railway station in London, are the offices of the Nature Publishing Group, an umbrella brand that includes more than 30 professional journals.

Once an institution in Britain, Nature is now in German hands. It is owned by Holtzbrinck, a Stuttgart-based publishing company, which also owns Die Zeit, Der Tagesspiegel, a handful of regional newspapers, the Rowohlt publishing company and, since January, studiVZ, a Facebook clone for the German student market.

Stefan von Holtzbrinck, the company's CEO, is constantly inquiring about the progress of Hannay's online experiments. Indeed, Hannay's work goes a lot further than simply designing the publication's Web presence: He's also investigating what the future of scientific communication will look like.

"Would you like some coffee?" Hannay asks, as he sits down at his computer and directs his digital representative, Timo Twin, to the Magic Molecule Model Maker, which looks vaguely like a gumball machine. "Let me make some caffeine," says Timo Twin, and soon brightly colored atoms begin bursting onto the screen, combining to form a coffee molecule. As big as scaffolding, the molecule floats in cyberspace in front of the Timo avatar, three-dimensional and easily rotated. All it takes is a mouse click and the virtual machine starts spitting out other molecules: adrenaline, Viagra, aspirin -- just as requested.

"The Magic Molecule Model Maker sounds like a game," says Hannay. "But chemists use it a lot when they need a three-dimensional image that can be rotated for a presentation or a discussion."

The team also developed, for biologists, a virtual cell that can be entered and, for astronomers, an interactive map of the heavens. Of course, Nature also offers a podcast, but it's only the test run for a far more ambitious project. In the future, authors will be able to post the details of their lab procedures by video on the Internet.

Nature has also expanded the Google Earth virtual globe for its own purposes. Now those who wish to monitor the spread of bird flu around the globe, for example, can download a small module from the publication's Web site and, using an interactive time bar, recreate the spread of the disease.

Nature has experienced its share of hiccups in the development of its online presence. For a short time, it was possible for anyone to manipulate the Web site that hosts the magazine's press releases. As a result, a number of press releases were simply deleted in 2006.

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