From the cover of OMNI's second best of sci-fi issue.
Over the course of 17 years, OMNI Magazine pushed the limits of what made a great science magazine. With its gonzo synthesis of science fiction, screwy Fortean inquiry, and hard-hitting science journalism, OMNI inspired a generation of geeks and future-dreamers. For those of us too young to have subscribed the first time around, here's a rundown of some of OMNI's greatest hits, available at our fingertips thanks to the heroic digitzation efforts of the Internet Archive.
Nothing like a little paleo-futurist speculation to put the present world into perspective. In this feature, fourteen great minds–from Timothy Leary and David Byrne to Bill Gates and astrophysicist David Schramm–try their hand at ten-year future predictions.
They don't always hit the mark; while Bill Gates imagines a world datatbase at our fingertips by 2007, and Byrne dismisses computers as "just big or small adding machines," adding that "if they can't think, that's all they'll ever be. They may help creative people with their bookkeeping, but they won't help in the creative process."
"In October, 1975, Luna, the 16-year-old daughter of science writer Robert Anton Wilson, was brutally beaten and killed in a grocery store robbery. Helpless in the face of death, Wilson took the only action he could. He had the child's brain set immediately in cryogenic suspension, frozen in liquid nitrogen at 420 degrees below zero…"
So begins Kathleen Stein's compelling opus on cryogenic preservation, which covers the kooky history of the then-nascent science and leaves a great deal of questions open about its future. Stein was the editrix of OMNI's legendary interview series, but was a gifted science journalist in her own right.
"There was never anything like the OMNI Interviews," says longtime OMNI editor Keith Ferrell: "leading scientists and thinkers being pushed by serious questions for thousands of words every issue…they’re one of things I hear about most often from readers who remember the magazine."
It's difficult to pick just one highlight from the magazine's mind-boggling list of illustrious interviewees–they even published a whole book of them, which I couldn't recommend more–but this Q&A with Ur-biologist E.O. Wilson, in which he argues for the biological hard-wiring of homosexuality, is representative of the whole series' caliber. Runners up: Freeman Dyson in 1978, space colony imagineer Gerard K. O'Neill in in July 1979, Terrence McKenna in 1993, and Arthur C. Clarke in March 1979.
This piece untangling Carl Sagan's personal brand is a fascinating palliative to the cult of Cosmos. Although Sagan was a frequent contributor to OMNI in the early days, "The Marketing of Dr. Carl Sagan" holds no illusions about the kind of man he was. Gentle genius or pop-science bossypants? "Most of his employees," the authors write,"consider him to be a latter-day Leonardo," but "editors at publishing houses, public-relations personnel, television producers variously characterize him as imperious, arrogant, boorish, and a stickler for unimportant detail."
This piece about Fermilab physicists smashing particles in hopes of discovering an elusive quark won the American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award and "was a reminder," says Keith Ferrell, OMNI's editor at the time, that "in the midst of our UFO coverage, OMNI was in fact a science magazine, and one of the very best."
OMNI published some serious science fiction in its time (see below: six "Omni Best of Science Fiction" special issues are testament), but one of its most innovative tactics was to commission its pantheon of science fiction writers to turn their imaginative lenses on real-life scientific research.
Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, David Brin, and George Zebrowski all contributed nonfiction pieces to the magazine, but it was Isaac Asimov, with his background in biochemistry and experience penning popular science books, who took the cake. Waxing poetic on the subject of neutrino research, he observed, "every writer knows nature imitates art."
John C. Lilly began his career as a scientist working for the National Institute of Health. Dedicated to tackling the puzzle of what might happen to the brain if it were deprived of external stimulation–the prevailing thought at the time was that an absence of stimulus would put the brain to sleep–Lilly invented the modern sensory deprivation tank.
Floating in his saltwater void, he discovered that reality was quite the opposite, describing the tank as "a black hole in psychophysical space." In 1964, he tossed LSD into the mix, and the rest is history. By the time Lilly penned this essay for OMNI's inagural issue, he was way obsessed with cetacean communication, and had begun devising a "two-faced" underwater computer called JANUS to work out a common dolphin-human language.
Best of OMNI Science Fiction:
According to Ben Bova, longtime OMNI editor and science-fiction lion, "the science fiction community was initially leery of a magazine that included science fiction in its pages but was published by the man who published Penthouse." That initial hesitation wore off fast, largely because OMNI could afford to pay writers handsomely—about ten times more handsomely than the industry standard—and was soon embraced by authors accustomed to scraping by on pulp rag pennies: Philip K. Dick! Orson Scott Card! Stanislaw Lem! Robert Silverberg! Ursula K. Le Guin! "Science" magazines would never be the same. After OMNI's money dried up, in the mid-'90s, no magazine would come close to its strange vision.
For more on the seminal future-science mag, check out Motherboard's investigation into OMNI's forgotten history.