Every June, the editors at Popular Science gather for the first Best of What’s New meeting. BOWN, as we affectionately call it, has run as our December cover story for more than a quarter century, and in many respects it represents the best of what we do. It is an unabashed celebration of the year’s greatest innovations, a glimpse of the future as it’s unfolding.
Over the decades, we have made some good calls. We covered the Toyota Prius before it reached the U.S., Web browsers before the rise (and fall) of Internet Explorer, protease inhibitors just as they hit the market, and the first-ever digital SLR camera (it was the size of a shoe box and cost $20,000). Pick a recent and monumental innovation and chances are we flagged it in one December issue or another.
That kind of track record is great for readers, but truth be told, it’s kind of terrifying for editors. I mean, when you nail something for 27 years straight, you kind of have to ask, Can we pull it off again? More to the point: Can we do it even better?
To allay that very particular kind of pressure, we do exactly what science-minded folks do. We plan. We road-map. We set milestones and deadlines—oh, the deadlines—and then we dive in. For those of you who are curious individuals (so, pretty much everyone who reads Popular Science), here’s how BOWN works: Every editor manages a section or two, aided by an independent researcher. Together the teams of two spend about eight weeks assembling a long list of candidates. Prospects may come from company submissions, from past coverage, or from simple boots-on-the-ground reporting.
Sometime around early August, we start to winnow down the list. We debate and agonize. We vet items with industry experts to better understand their functions and implications. We debate and agonize some more. And then, in early September, we finalize our awardees and begin making a magazine around them.
The process is sort of like a marathon—just with less wheezing. But it’s no less an accomplishment. BOWN has always been a collection of revolutionary stuff. And this year, I’m happy to report, is no different. Our Innovation of the Year, AirCarbon, is plastic fabricated from waste methane gas, not barrels of petroleum. It acts as a carbon sink, not a source. It costs less than standard plastic, and with comparable performance. And it can be produced anywhere with significant methane emissions: landfills, coal mines, and dairy farms. In short, it could completely change how we think about one of the most ubiquitous materials on the planet.
At the end of the day, that’s exactly what Best of What’s New is all about. In bringing together the 100 greatest innovations of this year, we’re doing more than just producing a great magazine. We’re painting a picture of a better world.
Enjoy the December issue.