Says another writer, “When he first came in, there was a big meeting where he introduced himself and said not to worry about changes at the magazine. That lasted about a week before the layoffs and the cuts started.” Within weeks, both Steve Petranek, the respected editor-in-chief, and Dave Grogan, the articles editor, decided to leave. (Petranek remains as a consultant.) The writer says, “Losing people like Petranek and Grogan, who know the turf, can be a disaster. You just can’t plug in another person like you might somewhere else.”
Perhaps more pressing is the deep shortfall of ad pages, a persistent problem during the Disney régime. Ads were off 16.5 percent in 2005 alone, and the magazine has taken to running cut-rate full pages of funky-looking spots peddling “historic” gold coins and home water-recycling devices. The see-through paper stock only calls attention to the Karen Carpenter feel of the book.
Gooch, ever upbeat, calls these “momentary problems.” Science readers “have to wash their hair and drink Chivas like everyone else.” And despite ripping up a recent issue at the last minute to insert a “timely” piece on terrorism, he discounts the notion that he really wants to put out an Omni redux, complete with interviews of kindly abductees like Betty and Barney Hill. “I’m not a moron, you know,” he says. “I am not about to crap on my own brand.” Even if he keeps regular appointments with a physics-professor friend who “explains the universe to me on my eighth-grade level,” Gooch contends, “my supposed lack of knowledge is irrelevant. In a way, it’s good, because, like the reader, I’m here to learn, be taught and astounded.
“Once I thought rock and roll would change the world. I loved that idea. I fought for that idea. But science really does change the world. Every day. The idea is to let as many people in on that fantastic adventure as possible—to make them feel the romance of the plunge of human intelligence into the unknown. That’s the mission here at Discover.”
That’s the Gooch. So what if he doesn’t understand relativity? He ran Spin for a dozen years and never, ever, listened to a Robert Johnson record. It is part of the Guccione family tao: the sense of mission, the messianic zeal for space exploration, better blow jobs, etc. Always captain of the ship (he’s never worked anywhere he wasn’t the boss), Gooch charges ahead armed with a somehow charming cut-throat trust in himself and his product, whatever it may be. It is easy to be swept away by the sheer enthusiasm of it all. As he once sat on his leather chair/throne at Spin’s mucky 18th Street office, extolling the planetary indispensability of Juliana Hatfield, some chick rocker on that issue’s cover mostly on account of being kinda hot, he now shakes his pom-pom for the unearthing of dinosaur soft tissue.
“It must be something in the Sicilian makeup, a kind of crusading quest exceeding even an undying need to be cool” that makes Gucciones long to possess science magazines, Gooch says. “There is an aspect of true belief in it.” Indeed, it is Gooch’s “capacity for faith” that has caused a stir amid the resolutely rationalist precincts of Discover. “It shocked the staff, that I’m a believer, that I go to church.” At one of his first editorial meetings, Gooch recalls “an audible gasp in the room” when he proposed a story on how the Vatican verifies the validity of the claims of stigmatics—those who display the wounds of Christ. “What are the criteria of their inquiry, the burden of proof?” Gooch wanted to know. “The idea was to investigate the scientific method of something thought of as totally unscientific. I want the magazine infused with a more philosophical vision of what is and what is not.”
For Gooch, an erstwhile altar boy who describes himself as “a lazy but devout Catholic,” science is incomplete without the contemplation of faith. “I have no trouble whatsoever accommodating, side by side, the ideas of multiple universes and the Immaculate Conception,” he declares. “There is a line where what can be proved and what cannot meet. The line is forever moving because science is pushing against it, forging out to the edge of what can be known. But the line is always there, and like Johnny Cash, this is the line we walk.
“What is science, after all, but one more belief system, another religion?” Gooch is fond of saying. Never to be confused with an easy mark, he contends the very act of believing makes him happy. And walking out of the planetarium after hearing Robert Redford explain how even if the moon might be billions of years old, it was likely formed in a matter of weeks (owing to colliding cosmic debris), Gooch is ebullient.