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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Archive for tag: wall-street-journal

Muting the alarm on climate change

Even with exaggerated assumptions of sensitivity, the IPCC has to down-grade alarm

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will shortly publish the second part of its latest report, on the likely impact of climate change. Government representatives are meeting with scientists in Japan to sex up—sorry, rewrite—a summary of the scientists' accounts of storms, droughts and diseases to come. But the actual report, known as AR5-WGII, is less frightening than its predecessor seven years ago.

The 2007 report was riddled with errors about Himalayan glaciers, the Amazon rain forest, African agriculture, water shortages and other matters, all of which erred in the direction of alarm. This led to a critical appraisal of the report-writing process from a council of national science academies, some of whose recommendations were simply ignored.

Others, however, hit home. According to leaks, this time the full report is much more cautious and vague about worsening cyclones, changes in rainfall, climate-change refugees, and the overall cost of global warming.

Dialling back the alarm on climate change

Global warming could be a net benefit during this century

My article in the Review section of the Wall Street Journal:

Later this month, a long-awaited event that last happened in 2007 will recur. Like a returning comet, it will be taken to portend ominous happenings. I refer to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) "fifth assessment report," part of which will be published on Sept. 27.

There have already been leaks from this 31-page document, which summarizes 1,914 pages of scientific discussion, but thanks to a senior climate scientist, I have had a glimpse of the key prediction at the heart of the document. The big news is that, for the first time since these reports started coming out in 1990, the new one dials back the alarm. It states that the temperature rise we can expect as a result of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide is lower than the IPPC thought in 2007.

I may follow the crowd, but not because it's a crowd

Evidence, not consensus, is what counts

My latest (and last) Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Last week a friend chided me for not agreeing with the scientific consensus that climate change is likely to be dangerous. I responded that, according to polls, the "consensus" about climate change only extends to the propositions that it has been happening and is partly man-made, both of which I readily agree with. Forecasts show huge uncertainty.

Besides, science does not respect consensus. There was once widespread agreement about phlogiston (a nonexistent element said to be a crucial part of combustion), eugenics, the impossibility of continental drift, the idea that genes were made of protein (not DNA) and stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and so forth—all of which proved false. Science, Richard Feyman once said, is "the belief in the ignorance of experts.

The Tabarrok curve

Striking a balance between intellectual property and freedom to innovate

The economist Arthur Laffer is reputed to have drawn his famous curve—showing that beyond a certain point higher taxes generate lower revenue—on a paper napkin at a dinner with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in the Washington Hotel in 1974.

Another economist, Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University, last year drew a similar curve on a virtual napkin to argue that, beyond a certain point, greater protection for intellectual property causes less innovation. He thinks that U.S. patent law is well beyond that optimal point.

Last week the Supreme Court came out against the patenting of genes, on the grounds that they are discoveries, not inventions, though it did allow that edited copies of the DNA of a breast cancer gene should be seen as invented diagnostic tools. Dr. Tabarrok thinks that decision and other recent rulings are nudging patent law back in the right direction after a protectionist drift in the 1980s and '90s.

Non-fossil fuels

Abiogenic methane made in the mantle from carbonate?

My Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on abiogenic methane

Coal, oil and gas are "fossil" fuels, right? They are derived from ancient life-forms and are nonrenewable, stored energy, extracted from prehistoric sunlight. In the case of coal and most oil, this is obviously true: You can find fossil tree trunks and leaves in coal seams and chemicals in oil that come from plankton.

But there's increasing doubt about whether all natural gas (which is 90% methane) comes from fermented fossil microbes. Some of it may be made by chemical processes deep within the earth. If so, the implications could be profound for the climate and energy debates.

TRIM21 turns immunity upside down

Unexpectedly, antibodies work inside cells to defeat pathogens

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on a surprising discovery about antibodies and the immune system:

It isn't often that an entire field of medical science gets turned on its head. But it is becoming clear that immunology is undergoing a big rethink thanks to the discovery that antibodies, which combat viruses, work not just outside cells but inside them as well. The star of this new view is a protein molecule called TRIM21.

Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that the body fights off infection in two separate ways. First is the adaptive immune system, which works outside the cell. It generates antibodies to intercept specific invaders, locking onto them like a tracking missile and preventing them from entering the cell. A second line of defense, the innate immune system, operates within the cell; it is like an expansive air-defense network, blasting away at all invaders.

Too virulent to spread

Why influenza keeps failing to live up to pessimistic forecasts

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on infleunza:

Here we go again. A new bird-flu virus in China, the H7N9 strain, is spreading alarm. It has infected about 130 people and killed more than 30. Every time this happens, some journalists compete to foment fear, ably assisted by cautious but worried scientists, and then tell the world to keep calm. We need a new way to talk about the risk of a flu pandemic, because the overwhelming probability is that this virus will kill people, yes, but not in vast numbers.

Did life arrive on earth as microbes?

A speculative idea that we could be the history of life's second chapter

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on life in space:

A provocative calculation by two biologists suggests that life might have arrived on Earth fully formed—at least in microbe form.

Alexei Sharov of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore and Richard Gordon of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea, Fla., plotted the genome size of different kinds of organisms against their presumed date of origin. Armed with just five data points they concluded that genome complexity doubles every 376 million years in a sort of geological version of Moore's Law of progress in computers.

Junk DNA and HeLa cells

Two fierce arguments about DNA

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on junk DNA and on the messed up genome of the HeLa cell.

The usually placid world of molecular biology has been riven with two fierce disputes recently. Although apparently separate, the two conflagrations are converging.

The first row concerns the phrase "junk DNA." Coined in 1972 by the geneticist Susumu Ohno, it is an attempt to explain why vast stretches of animal genomes, far more in some species than in others, seem to serve no purpose. Genes of all kinds and their control sequences make up maybe 9% of the human genome at the very most. The rest may be nonfunctional "junk," mainly there because it is good at getting itself duplicated. Yet the phrase has always caused a surprising amount of offense. Reports of the discrediting of junk-DNA theory have been frequent.

Nice or nasty by nature?

Under some conditions co-operation evolves

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

A new study by Dirk Helbing at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and colleagues has modeled the emergence of “nice” behavior in idealized human beings. It’s done by computer, using the famous “prisoner’s dilemma” game, in which a prisoner has to decide between cooperating with a comrade to get a mutual reward or avoiding a punishment by being the first of the two to defect to the other side. The Zurich team found that so long as players in the game stay near their (modeled) parents, the birth of a nice guy predisposed to cooperate can trigger “a cascade” of generous acts.

Obsidian chronicles ancient trade

The collapse of the Akkadian empire laid bare by isotopes

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Obsidian was once one of humankind's most sought-after materials, the "rich man's flint" of the stone-age world. This black volcanic glass fragments into lethally sharp, tough blades that, even after the invention of bronze, made it literally a cutting-edge technology.

Because sources of obsidian are few and far between, obsidian artifacts are considered some of the earliest evidence of commerce: Long-distance movement of obsidian, even hundreds of thousands of years ago, suggests the early stirring of true trade.

Jurassic pigeon- the drive to revive extinct species

De-extinction is much closer than it was

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the prospect of de-extinction, especially the passenger pigeon.

Extinct species are gone forever. Or are they? For some time now the dream of re-creating something like a mammoth from its DNA has been floating about on the fringes of the scientific world (and in movies like "Jurassic Park") without being taken seriously.

After the asteroid impact

How North America got its plants and animals back

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about what happened to the cology of North America after the asteroid impact of 66 million years ago:

Last week, just as a meteorite exploded over Russia, I used this space for an email to Charles Darwin, wherever he is. I told him about the now overwhelming evidence for an asteroid impact having caused the extinction of dinosaurs. I thought he would be interested because it is a striking exception to his "uniformitarian" assumption that, in the past, evolution was shaped by the same forces still operating on Earth today.

Evolution, extinction and asteroids

The Chicxulub impact and the dinosaur extinction coincided

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal, published the day after a big asteroid missed the earth by 17,000 miles and a smaller one blew out windows in Russia, is about the huge one that extinguished the dinosaurs just over 66 million years ago:

The future has a richer past than the past did. By this I mean that one of the great benefits of modern science is that it enriches our knowledge of the past. Imagine how thrilled Charles Darwin would have been to learn this week that it's now all but certain that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid (much bigger than the one that missed us this week) slamming into Mexico about 66,038,000 years ago. In fact, I might send him an email to explain.

When species extinction is a good thing

Will Jimmy Carter exterminate Guinea worm soon?

It's not a race, exactly, but there's an intriguing uncertainty about whether a former U.S. president or a software magnate will cause the next deliberate extinction of a species in the wild. Will Jimmy Carter eradicate Guinea worm before Bill Gates eradicates polio?

It is more than a third of a century since a human disease was extinguished. The last case of smallpox was in 1977, and in those days health experts expected other diseases to follow smallpox quickly into oblivion. Polio has repeatedly disappointed campaigners by hanging on, though it now affects less than 1% as many people as at its peak in the 1950s.

The generosity of Bill Gates has done much to speed the decline of polio, and he and most experts now see its end within six years at most. India, 10 years ago the worst-affected country, has been polio-free since 2011, and only three countries still host the virus: Pakistan, Afghanistan and especially Nigeria. Though the murder of nine polio vaccinators in Pakistan by Islamists in December was a tragic setback, last year there were just 222 new polio cases world-wide.

Insects that put Google maps to shame

Dung beetles, monarch butterflies and the role of cryptochrome

My latest Mind and Matter column is on the esoteric topic of insect navigation:

A friend who once studied courtship in dung beetles alerted me last week to a discovery. On moonless nights, African scarab beetles, which roll balls of dung, can use the Milky Way to navigate in fairly straight lines away from dung piles, thus avoiding other dung beetles keen to steal their dung balls. "Now this is real science, simple, fascinating and completely wonderful," enthused my friend.

Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden and her colleagues put dung beetles inside a planetarium at Wits University in South Africa with a pile of dung, and with or without little caps over their eyes. The results of the beetles' peregrinations clearly showed that being able to see the stars keeps the beetles relatively straight, even if just the Milky Way is projected overhead without other stars. This is the first demonstration of star navigation by insects and of Milky Way navigation by any animal.

Farewell to the myth of the noble savage

Napoleon Chagnon was right about war in small-scale societies

Here's my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

A war within anthropology over the causes of war itself seems to be reaching resolution. The great ethnographer of the gardener-hunter Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, Napoleon Chagnon, has long been battling colleagues over whether men in prestate societies go to war over protein or women. Next month he'll publish a memoir, "Noble Savages," detailing (as the subtitle puts it) "My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes-the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists." This is a good time to look back at how his argument has fared.

Genes and social networks in monkeys and people

The heritability of having many friends

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Not only is the capacity for forming large social networks in monkeys partly genetic, but some of the genes that affect this ability may now be known. So suggests a new study of an isolated population of free-living macaques on an island off Puerto Rico.

Precision editing of DNA

Changing one letter in the genetic code at a precise location now possible

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rockefeller and Harvard universities have found a new method of editing DNA with great precision. This and another new technique mean that scientists can now go into a cell, find a particular sequence in the genome and change that sequence by a single letter.

Just to get your mind around this feat, imagine taking about 5,000 different novels and reprinting them in normal font size on 23 very long cotton ribbons. Since each word takes up about half an inch, the ribbons, placed end to end, would stretch for roughly three million miles-120 times around the world. But to be a bit more realistic, twist and tangle the ribbons so much that they only go around the planet once.

One of the books written on your ribbons is "A Tale of Two Cities," but you don't even know which ribbon it is on, let alone where on that ribbon. Your task is to find the clauses "It was the beast of times, it was the worst of times" and correct the misprint.

The greening of the planet

Satellites confirm that green vegetation is increasing

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the greening of the planet:

Did you know that the Earth is getting greener, quite literally? Satellites are now confirming that the amount of green vegetation on the planet has been increasing for three decades. This will be news to those accustomed to alarming tales about deforestation, overdevelopment and ecosystem destruction.

The origin of life

Electrochemical echoes of life's membranes at alkaline vents

What better subject for the origin of a new year than the origin of life itself? A new paper claims to have nailed down at last the conditions, location and path by which life started, slicing through two Gordian knots.

Knot No. 1 is the chick-and-egg problem of energy. Living things burn energy at a furious rate to stay alive. Every time a bacterium divides, it uses up 50 times its own mass of energy-currency molecules (called ATP)-and that's with efficient and specialized modern protein machinery to do the job. When starting out, life would have been a far more wasteful process, needing more energy, yet would have had none of its modern machinery to harness or store energy.

Knot No. 2 is entropy. Life uses energy to make order out of chaos. So the putative location preferred by previous evolutionists-Alexander Oparin's primordial soup in Charles Darwin's "warm little pond" with a little lightning-is just too unconstrained: Life would just keep dissolving away before it got started.

Peak farmland is here

Less land will be needed to feed the world

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on peak farmland, a more plausible prediction than peak oil.

It's a brave scientist who dares to announce the turning point of a trend, the top of a graph. A paper published this week does just that, persuasively arguing that a centurieslong trend is about to reverse: the use of land for farming. The authors write: "We are confident that we stand on the peak of cropland use, gazing at a wide expanse of land that will be spared for Nature."

Low climate sensitivity

New data on aerosols and ocean heat suggest slow, mild warming

I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the subject of climate sensitivity.

Here are:

1. The article

Raymond Gosling, the forgotten man of the double helix

He took the two key X-ray photographs

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Last week saw a 50th-anniversary celebration in Stockholm of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA's structure. That structure instantly revealed a key secret of life: that an infinitely recombinable sequence of four chemical bases, pairing with each other in two ways, explains life's ability to grow and copy itself. Appropriately, two pairs of people made the discovery: James Watson and Francis Crick in Cambridge, England; and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in London.

But there was a fifth person, who's often forgotten in the telling of the tale: Raymond Gosling. He at last tells part of his own tale in some of the sidebar annotations of a remarkable new book, "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix," edited by Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski. The book's text is Dr. Watson's original and brilliant novelistic account of how the discovery was made, but Drs. Gann and Witkowski have added photos, extracts of letters and footnotes to fill out the picture, in the process vindicating almost all of Watson's characterizations.

Seismic risks depend on location, not technology

A hydro dam created the largest man-made earthquake

The Times published the following article by me last week. I have inserted updates to clarify one issue.

On 1 June this year a Mr Andrew Noakes was having lunch in Shropshire when "I thought I heard something. The sound only went on for a few seconds and then it stopped. There was no shaking cutlery or furniture." It was a natural earthquake, bigger than the ones caused by fracking in Lancashire last year. Worldwide there are a million a year of a similar size. Very few are even noticed. A magnitude 2.3 tremor is to a dangerous earthquake as a tiny stream is to the Amazon: the same sort of thing but much less likely to drown you.

By contrast, an earthquake that was 180 million times more energetic killed 80,000 people in 2008 in Sichuan. We now know it was almost certainly man-made, or at least man-triggered. The Zipingpu reservoir, designed to generate hydro-electric power, had been filled with water shortly before the fault beneath it failed.

Induced pluripotent stem cells change the ethical debate

Stem cells from blood could be used to test drugs

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on stem cells:

The chief medical ambition of those who study stem cells has always been that the cells would be used to repair and regenerate damaged tissue. That's still a long way off, despite rapid progress exemplified by the presentation of the Nobel Prize next week to Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University for a key stem-cell breakthrough. But there's another, less well known application of stem cells that is already delivering results: disease modeling.

Dr. Yamanaka used a retrovirus to insert four genes into a mouse cell to return it to a "pluripotent" state-capable of turning into almost any kind of cell. Last month a team at Johns Hopkins University and the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, using a version of Dr. Yamanaka's technique, successfully grew nerve cells from a patient suffering from a rare disease called Riley-Day syndrome, which is linked to early mortality, seizures and other symptoms and caused by a fault in one gene.

The mystery of why we yawn

It's contagious and seems to serve no physiological purpose

Synthetic brains by 2030

Ray Kurzweil's new book

My latest Mind and Matter column is on Ray Kurzweil's new book:

When an IBM computer program called Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, wise folk opined that since chess was just a game of logic, this was neither significant nor surprising. Mastering the subtleties of human language, including similes, puns and humor, would remain far beyond the reach of a computer.

Last year another IBM program, Watson, triumphed at just these challenges by winning "Jeopardy!" (Sample achievement: Watson worked out that a long, tiresome speech delivered by a frothy pie topping was a "meringue harangue.") So is it time to take seriously the prospect of artificial intelligence emulating human abilities?


Taleb on emergence and trial and error

My review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's new book in the Wall Street Journal:

You don't need a physics degree to ride a bicycle. Nor, Nassim Nicholas Taleb realized one day, do traders need to understand the mathematical theorems of options trading to trade options. Instead traders discover "heuristics," or rules of thumb, by trial and error. These are then formalized by academics into theorems and taught to new generations of traders, who become slaves to theory, ignore their own common sense and end by blowing up the system. In a neat echo of its own thesis, Mr. Taleb's paper making this point sat unpublished for seven years while academic reviewers tried to alter it to fit their prejudices.

Does sexual selection explain dislike of inequality?

It is not the peacock with big-enough tail that gets to mate, but the one with the biggest tail

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the connection between our interest in relative inequality and the theory of sexual selection:

Evolution by sexual selection is an idea that goes back to Charles Darwin. He had little doubt that it explained much about human beings, and modern biologists generally agree. One of them has even put a figure on it, concluding that some 54.8% of selection in human beings is effectively caused by reproduction of the sexiest rather than survival of the fittest.

Some years ago, the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his book "The Mating Mind" explored the notion that since human males woo their mates with art, poetry, music and humor, as well as with brawn, much of the expansion of our brain may have been sexually selected.

The Medieval Warm Period

More and more evidence that it was warm and global

Single Vision

All animal vision derives from one common ancestor

My latest Mind and Matter column is on the origin of vision in animals and a vindication for Darwin:

Until recently it was possible, even plausible, to think that the faculty of vision had originated several times during the course of animal evolution. New research suggests not: vision arose only once and earlier than expected, before 700 million years ago.

Davide Pisani and colleagues from the National University of Ireland have traced the ancestry of the three kinds of "opsin" protein that animals use, in combination with a pigment, to detect light. By comparing the genome sequences of sponges, jellyfish and other animals, they tracked the origin of opsins back to the common ancestor of all animals except sponges, but including a flat, shapeless thing called a placozoan. Some time after 755 million years ago, the common ancestor of ourselves and the placozoa duplicated a gene and changed one of the copies into a recognizable opsin.

Wolves versus lesser predators

The return of top predators is good for prey eaten by "mesopredators"

My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street Journal is on wolves and "mesopredators":

The return of the wolf is one of the unexpected ecological bonuses of the modern era. So numerous are wolves that this fall Wisconsin and Wyoming have joined Idaho and Montana in opening wolf-hunting seasons for the first time in years. Minnesota follows suit next month; Michigan may do so next year. The reintroduced wolves of Yellowstone National Park have expanded to meet the expanding packs of Canada and northern Montana.

The same is happening in Europe. Wolf populations are rising in Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe, while in recent years wolves have recolonized France, Germany, Sweden and Norway, and have even been seen in Belgium and the Netherlands. Nor are wolves the only "apex predators" to boom in this way. In the U.S., bears and mountain lions are spreading, to joggers' dismay. Coyotes are reappearing even within cities like Chicago and Denver.

Why Can't Things Get Better Faster (or Slower)?

The surprising regularity of technological progress

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

In 1965, the computer expert Gordon Moore published his famous little graph showing that the number of "components per integrated function" on a silicon chip-a measure of computing power-seemed to be doubling every year and a half. He had only five data points, but Moore's Law has settled into an almost iron rule of innovation. Why is it so regular?

Epigenetic inheritance is a wild goose chase

Epigenetics matters, but not between generations

This week's award of the Nobel Prize for medicine to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka effectively recognizes the science of epigenetics. Dr. Gurdon showed that almost any cell (in a frog) contains all the genetic information to become an adult. What makes the cell develop a certain way is a pattern of "epigenetic" modifications to the DNA specific to each tissue-turning genes on and off. Dr. Yamanaka showed that if you can remove that epigenetic modification (in a mouse) you can reprogram a cell to be an embryo.

Yet to most people the word "epigenetics" has come to mean something quite different: the inheritance of nongenetic features acquired by a parent. Most scientists now think the latter effect is rare, unimportant and hugely overhyped.

There are several mechanisms of modifying DNA without altering the genetic code itself. The key point is that these modifications survive the division of cells.

The benefits of GM crops

After 15 years, the ecological and economic dividends are big

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on genetically modified crops:

Generally, technologies are judged on their net benefits, not on the claim that they are harmless: The good effects of, say, the automobile and aspirin outweigh their dangers. Today, arguably, adopting certain new technologies is harder not just because of a policy of precaution but because of a bias in much of the media against reporting the benefits.

Shale gas is one example, genetically modified food another, where the good news is deemed less newsworthy than the bad. A recent French study claimed that both pesticides and GM corn fed to cancer-susceptible strains of rats produced an increase in tumors. The study has come in for withering criticism from mainstream scientists for its opaque data, small samples, unsatisfactory experimental design and unconventional statistical analysis, yet it has still gained headlines world-wide. (In published responses, the authors have stood by their results.)

Thinkers, not feelers

The psychology of libertarian views

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal finds that just as liberals and conservatives have predictable personalities, so do libertarians:

An individual's personality shapes his or her political ideology at least as much as circumstances, background and influences. That is the gist of a recent strand of psychological research identified especially with the work of Jonathan Haidt. The baffling (to liberals) fact that a large minority of working-class white people vote for conservative candidates is explained by psychological dispositions that override their narrow economic interests.

The retreat of Arctic sea ice

It's happened before

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about the retreat of Arctic Sea Ice and what it means:

This week probably saw the Arctic Ocean's sea ice reach its minimum extent for the year and begin to expand again, as it usually does in mid-September. Given that the retreat of Arctic ice has become a key piece of evidence for those who take a more alarmed view of global warming, it's newsworthy that 2012's melt was the greatest since records began in 1979, with sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere shrinking to about 1.3 million square miles, or about half the 1979-2008 average.

As this column has sometimes pointed out ways in which the effects of global warming are happening more slowly than predicted, it is fair to record that this rate of decline in Arctic sea ice is faster than many predicted. Although an entirely ice-free Arctic Ocean during at least one week a year is still several decades away at this rate, we are halfway there after just three decades.

Don't Look for Inventions Before Their Time

Innovation as an evolutionary process

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Bill Moggridge, who invented the laptop computer in 1982, died last week. His idea of using a hinge to attach a screen to a keyboard certainly caught on big, even if the first model was heavy, pricey and equipped with just 340 kilobytes of memory. But if Mr. Moggridge had never lived, there is little doubt that somebody else would have come up with the idea.

The phenomenon of multiple discovery is well known in science. Innovations famously occur to different people in different places at the same time. Whether it is calculus (Newton and Leibniz), or the planet Neptune (Adams and Le Verrier), or the theory of natural selection (Darwin and Wallace), or the light bulb (Edison, Swan and others), the history of science is littered with disputes over bragging rights caused by acts of simultaneous discovery.

An epidemic of absence

Modern disease is often caused by a lack of parasites

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is a review of a remarkable new science book:

Your great-grandparents faced infectious diseases that hardly threaten you today: tuberculosis, polio, cholera, malaria, yellow fever, measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, typhoid, typhus, tapeworm, hookworm…. But there's also a long list of modern illnesses that your great-grandparents barely knew: asthma, eczema, hay fever, food allergies, Crohn's disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis. The coincidence of the rise in these "inflammation" diseases, characterized by an overactive immune system, with the decline of infection is almost certainly not a coincidence.

Copernican demotion

Science keeps reminding us that we are not special

My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street Journal:

The astronomer Martin Rees recently coined the neat phrase "Copernican demotion" for science's habit of delivering humiliating disappointment to those who think that our planet is special. Copernicus told us the Earth was not at the center of the solar system; later astronomers found billions of solar systems in each of the billions of galaxies, demoting our home to a cosmic speck.

Mr. Rees says further Copernican demotion may loom ahead. "The entire panorama that astronomers can observe could be a tiny part of the aftermath of 'our' big bang, which is itself just one bang among a perhaps-infinite ensemble." Indeed, even our physics could be a parochial custom: Mr. Rees says that different universes could be governed by different rules and our "laws of nature" may be local bylaws.

When genes look out for themselves

The antics of selfish DNA in worms and plants

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on selfish DNA:

The theory of selfish DNA was born as a throwaway remark in the book "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, when he pondered why there is so much surplus DNA in the genomes of some animals and plants.

Did your ancestor date a Neanderthal?

And if so where and when?

My latest Mind and Matter column discusses the debate about how non-Africans got their 1-4% Neanderthal DNA:

So did we or didn't we? Last week saw the publication of two new papers with diametrically opposed conclusions about whether non-African people have Neanderthal-human hybrids among their ancestors-a result of at least some interspecies dalliance in the distant past.

That non-Africans share 1% to 4% of their genomes with Neanderthals is not in doubt, thanks to the pioneering work of paleo-geneticists led by the Max Planck Institute's Svante Paabo. At issue is how to interpret that fact. Dr. Paabo originally recognized that there are two possible explanations, hybridization (which got all the press) or "population substructure."

Human uniqueness versus anthropomorphism

Rats rescuing rats looks like empathy, but what about ants?

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

Identifying unique features of human beings is a cottage industry in psychology. In his book "Stumbling on Happiness," the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert jokes that every member of his profession lives under the obligation at some time in his career to complete a sentence which begins: "The human being is the only animal that..." Those who have completed the sentence with phrases like "makes tools," "is conscious" or "can imitate" have generally now conceded that some other animals also have these traits.

Plenty of human uniqueness remains. After all, uniqueness is everywhere in the biological world: Elephants and worms also have unique features. As fast as one scientist demotes human beings from being unique in one trait, another scientist comes up with a new unique trait: grandparental care, for instance, or extra spines on the pyramidal cells of our prefrontal cortex.

The perils of confirmation bias - part 3

Climate science needs gadflies

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is the third in the series on confirmation bias.

I argued last week that the way to combat confirmation bias-the tendency to behave like a defense attorney rather than a judge when assessing a theory in science-is to avoid monopoly. So long as there are competing scientific centers, some will prick the bubbles of theory reinforcement in which other scientists live.

The perils of confirmation bias - part 2

What keeps scientists accurate is rivals' scepticism, not their own

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

If, as I argued last week, scientists are just as prone as everybody else to confirmation bias ­ to looking for evidence to support rather than test their ideas ­ then how is it that science, unlike cults and superstitions, does change its mind and find new things?

The answer was spelled out by the psychologist Raymond Nickerson of Tufts University in a paper written in 1998: "It is not so much the critical attitude that individual scientists have taken with respect to their own ideas that has given science the success it has enjoyed... but more the fact that individual scientists have been highly motivated to demonstrate that hypotheses that are held by some other scientist(s) are false."

The perils of confirmation bias - part 1

How scientists collect positive evidence rather than test theories

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

There's a myth out there that has gained the status of a cliché: that scientists love proving themselves wrong, that the first thing they do after constructing a hypothesis is to try to falsify it. Professors tell students that this is the essence of science.

Yet most scientists behave very differently in practice. They not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges their theories. Like defense attorneys building a case, they collect confirming evidence.

Who's in charge if we find life on Mars?

Apart from the Martians, that is

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

If all goes well next month, Curiosity, NASA's latest mission to Mars, will land in the Gale crater, a 3.5-billion-year-old, 96-mile-wide depression near the planet's equator. Out will roll a car-size rover to search for signs of life, among other things. It will drill into rocks and sample the contents, using a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer.

In the unlikely event that the project finds evidence of life, then what? In particular, who is in charge of deciding what we should do if we encounter living Martian creatures?

Two rival kinds of plants and their future

Can rice match maize's yield?

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Two rival designs of plant biochemistry compete to dominate the globe. One, called C3 after the number of carbon atoms in the initial sugars it makes, is old, but still dominant. Rice is a C3 plant. The other, called C4, is newer in evolutionary history, and now has about 21% of the photosynthesis "market." Corn is a C4 plant. In hot weather, the C3 mechanism becomes inefficient at grabbing carbon dioxide from the air, but in cool weather C4 stops working altogether. So at first glance it seems as if global warming should benefit C4.

The zoo inside you

Microbes and worms that are necessary for the immune system to work

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

One of the delights of science is its capacity for showing us that the world is not as it seems. A good example is the startling statistic that there are at least 10 times as many bacterial cells (belonging to up to 1,000 species) in your gut as there are human cells in your entire body: that "you" are actually an entire microbial zoo as well as a person. You are 90% microbes by cell count, though not by volume-a handy reminder of just how small bacteria are.

This fact also provides a glimpse of the symbiotic nature of our relationship with these bugs. A recent study by Howard Ochman at Yale University and colleagues found that each of five great apes has a distinct set of microbes in its gut, wherever it lives. So chimpanzees can be distinguished from human beings by their gut bacteria, which have been co-evolving with their hosts for millions of years.

High IQ heritability would testify to environmental equality

How twin studies silenced their critics

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

These days the heritability of intelligence is not in doubt: Bright adults are more likely to have bright kids. The debate was not always this calm. In the 1970s, suggesting that IQ could be inherited at all was a heresy in academia, punishable by the equivalent of burning at the stake.

More than any other evidence, it was the study of twins that brought about this change. "Born Together-Reared Apart," a new book by Nancy L. Segal about the Minnesota study of Twins Reared Apart (Mistra), narrates the history of the shift. In 1979, Thomas Bouchard of the University of Minnesota came across a newspaper report about a set of Ohio twins, separated at birth, who had been reunited and proved to possess uncannily similar habits. Dr. Bouchard began to collect case histories of twins raised apart and to invite them to Minneapolis for study.

Planetary boundaries are in practice arbitrary

Technology leads people to live more lightly on the land

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

Part of the preamble to Agenda 21, the action plan that came out of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, reads: "We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being."

Do Human Beings Carry Expiration Dates?

Few people get past 115, though many live to 100

Update: a couple of small corrections inserted in square brackets below. Thanks to Stephen Coles of UCLA.

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

How Facebook captured capitalist "Kumbaya"

Free sharing on the net is not incompatible with markets

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Human beings love sharing. We swap, collaborate, care, support, donate, volunteer and generally work for each other. We tend to admire sharing when it's done for free but frown upon it-or consider it a necessary evil-when it's done for profit. Some think that online, we're at the dawn of a golden age of free sharing, the wiki world, in which commerce will be replaced by mass communal sharing-what the futurist John Perry Barlow called "dot communism."

Evolution ain't what it used to be

Novel rare genes and shrinking brains

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal.

If you write about genetics and evolution, one of the commonest questions you are likely to be asked at public events is whether human evolution has stopped. It is a surprisingly hard question to answer.

I'm tempted to give a flippant response, borrowed from the biologist Richard Dawkins: Since any human trait that increases the number of babies is likely to gain ground through natural selection, we can say with some confidence that incompetence in the use of contraceptives is probably on the rise (though only if those unintended babies themselves thrive enough to breed in turn).

Red tape hobbles a harvest of life-saving rice

Bio-engineered micronutrients may be the most cost-effective way to help the poor

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

This week saw the announcement of the latest conclusions of the Copenhagen Consensus, a project founded by Bjørn Lomborg in which expert economists write detailed papers every four years and then gather to vote on the answer to a simple question: Imagine you had $75 billion to donate to worthwhile causes. What would you do, and where should we start?

How Dickensian childhoods leave genetic scars

Epigenetics and childhood maltreatment

Latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

Being maltreated as a child can perhaps affect you for life. It now seems the harm might reach into your very DNA. Two recently published studies found evidence of changes to the genetic material in people with experience of maltreatment. These are the tip of an iceberg of discoveries in the still largely mysterious field of "epigenetic" epidemiology-the alteration of gene expression in ways that affect later health.

The economic defeat of tuberculosis

TB was not cured so much as prevented by better housing conditions

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

Peter Pringle's new book "Experiment Eleven" documents a shocking scandal in the history of medicine, when Albert Schatz, the discoverer of streptomycin, was deprived of the credit and the Nobel Prize by his ambitious boss, Selman Waksman. Streptomycin was and is a miraculous cure for tuberculosis.

Yet the near disappearance of tuberculosis from the Western world, where it was once the greatest killer of all, owes little to streptomycin. Mortality from TB had already fallen by 75% in most Western countries by 1950, when streptomycin became available, and the rate of fall was little different before and after. Scarlet fever, pneumonia and diphtheria all declined rapidly long before their cures were introduced.

High tech runs through it: the new science of fly fishing

Silicon nano matrix fishing rods

My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the technology of fly fishing rods

Moore's Law is the leitmotif of the modern age: Incessant improvements in communication and computing are accompanied by incessant drops in price. Yet some quite low-tech devices are also experiencing Moore's Laws of their own, especially those that use new materials. Even something as mundane as fishing rods.

Games Primates Play

People behave just like the apes they are

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about how predictably "primate" we all are in the workplace:

Generally, junior professors write long and unsolicited emails to senior professors, who reply with short ones after a delay; the juniors then reply quickly and at length. This is not because the seniors are busier, for they, too, write longer and more punctually when addressing their deans and funders, who reply more briefly and tardily. The asymmetry in length and speed of reply correlates with dominance.

Is eventual eradication of malaria possible?

A new technique for sterilising certain mosquitoes looks promising

After a break of two weeks, here is my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

April 25 is World Malaria Day, designed to draw attention to the planet's biggest infectious killer. The news is generally good. Never has malaria, which is carried by the Anopheles mosquito, been in more rapid retreat. Deaths are down by a third in Africa over the past decade alone, and malaria has vanished from much of the world, including the U.S.

As so often happens in the battle against disease, however, evolution aids the enemy. The selection pressure on pathogens to develop resistance to new drugs is huge. In recent weeks, the emergence on the Thai-Myanmar border of malaria strains resistant to artemisin, a plant-derived drug, have led to pessimistic headlines and reminders of the setback caused by resistance to the drug chloroquine, which began in the 1950s.

Nature's dynamic non-balance

Emma Marris's fine new book on ecology

Belatedly, here is my Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal on 24 March 2012.

In her remarkable new book "The Rambunctious Garden," Emma Marris explores a paradox that is increasingly vexing the science of ecology, namely that the only way to have a pristine wilderness is to manage it intensively. Left unmanaged, a natural habitat will become dominated by certain species, often invasive aliens introduced by human beings. "A historically faithful ecosystem is necessarily a heavily managed ecosystem," she writes. "The ecosystems that look the most pristine are perhaps the least likely to be truly wild."

Rival theories for a global cooling

Did a cosmic impact cause the Younger Dryas cooling?

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

Scientists, it's said, behave more like lawyers than philosophers. They do not so much test their theories as prosecute their cases, seeking supportive evidence and ignoring data that do not fit-a failing known as confirmation bias. They then accuse their opponents of doing the same thing. This is what makes debates over nature and nurture, dietary fat and climate change so polarized.

But just because the prosecutor is biased in favor of his case does not mean the defendant is innocent. Sometimes biased advocates are right. An example of this phenomenon is now being played out in geology over the controversial idea that a meteorite or comet hit the earth 12,900 years ago and cooled the climate.

Blurring the line between genetic and infectious disease

Wired for culture

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

The island of Gaua, part of Vanuatu in the Pacific, is just 13 miles across, yet it has five distinct native languages. Papua New Guinea, an area only slightly bigger than Texas, has 800 languages, some spoken by just a few thousand people. "Wired for Culture," a remarkable new book by Mark Pagel, an American evolutionary biologist based in England, sets out to explain this peculiar human property of fragmenting into mutually uncomprehending cultural groups. His explanation is unsettling.

Evolutionary biologists have long gotten used to the idea that bodies are just genes' ways of making more genes, survival machines that carry genes to the next generation. Think of a salmon struggling upstream just to expend its body (now expendable) in spawning. Dr. Pagel's idea is that cultures are an extension of this: that the way we use culture is to promote the long-term interests of our genes.

When the crowd solves problems

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on citizen science:

The more specialized and sophisticated scientific research becomes, the farther it recedes from everyday experience. The clergymen-amateurs who made 19th-century scientific breakthroughs are a distant memory. Or are they? Paradoxically, in an increasing variety of fields, computers are coming to the rescue of the amateur, through crowd-sourced science.

Last month, computer gamers working from home redesigned an enzyme. Last year, a gene-testing company used its customers to find mutations that increase or decrease the risk of Parkinson's disease. Astronomers are drawing amateurs into searching for galaxies and signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The modern equivalent of the Victorian scientific vicar is an ordinary person who volunteers his or her time to solving a small piece of a big scientific puzzle.

Out of Africa, but when?

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is about the exodus from Africa, either 125,000 years ago or 65,000 years ago.

Everybody is African in origin. Barring a smattering of genes from Neanderthals and other archaic Asian forms, all our ancestors lived in the continent of Africa until 150,000 years ago. Some time after that, say the genes, one group of Africans somehow became so good at exploiting their environment that they (we!) expanded across all of Africa and began to spill out of the continent into Asia and Europe, invading new ecological niches and driving their competitors extinct.

There is plenty of dispute about what gave these people such an advantage-language, some other form of mental ingenuity, or the collective knowledge that comes from exchange and specialization-but there is also disagreement about when the exodus began. For a long time, scientists had assumed a gradual expansion of African people through Sinai into both Europe and Asia. Then, bizarrely, it became clear from both genetics and archaeology that Europe was peopled later (after 40,000 years ago) than Australia (before 50,000 years ago).

Why do diseases cause species decline?

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about the role of disease in species conservation:

Some beekeepers, worried by the collapse of their bee colonies in recent years, are pointing a finger this month at a class of insecticide (neo-nicotinoids) that they think is responsible for lowering the insects' resistance to disease. They may be right, but I'm cautious. History shows that, again and again, blaming chemicals for the decline of a species has prematurely exonerated the real culprit, which is often disease alone.

The role of parasites in causing species to decline is often overlooked. Native European red squirrels, for example, have long been retreating in Britain at the hands of the American gray squirrel, which menagerie-owning aristocrats introduced in the 19th century. For years it was thought to be the competition for food that prevented the squirrels' co-existence, but now scientists place most of the blame on a parapox virus that causes a mild illness to the grays but kills the reds.

Where blue eyes came from

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on gene-culture co-evolution:

Human beings, we tend to think, are at the mercy of their genes. You either have blue eyes or you do not (barring contact lenses); no amount of therapy can change it. But genes are at the mercy of us, too. From minute to minute, they switch on and off (i.e., are actively used as recipes to make proteins) in the brain, the immune system or the skin in response to experience. Sunbathing, for example, triggers the expression of genes for the pigment melanin.

As a recent study confirms, on a much longer time scale, genes are even at the mercy of culture. The paradigmatic example is lactose tolerance. All mammals can digest lactose sugars in milk as babies, but the lactase gene switches off at weaning when no longer needed. In much of Europe and parts of Africa, by contrast, most people can digest lactose even as adults, because the lactase gene remains switched on. (About 90% of East Asians and 70% of South Indians are lactose-intolerant to some degree.)

After carbon

I have a book review in the Wall Street Journal of Robert Laughlin's book Powering the Future.

These are the first two paragraphs:

Many environmentalists believe that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels will cause a climate crisis toward the end of this century. Environmentalists also raise the alarm that we have reached "peak oil" and that fossil fuels will run out by the middle of the century. That both views cannot be true rarely seems to bother those who hold them. Either consequence, we're told, makes the world's conversion to a low-carbon energy system an urgent matter.

Where do carbon dioxide emissions come from?

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

The nature and nurture sport: talent versus effort

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

"It's strange that I could become a professional athlete," said the Australian winner of this summer's Tour de France, Cadel Evans. "Physically, I was completely unsuitable for almost all Australian school sports. Nearly all Australian school sports require speed and/or size."

Ancient cousins

The new Siberian hominids and the family tree

Belatedly, here is last week's Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal.

I once had a soft spot for the yeti, known in my youth as the "abominable snowman." As a teenager I avidly devoured stories of hairy bipeds glimpsed through snowstorms, strange cries echoing across glaciers, or enigmatic footprints in the snow. Slowly it dawned on me that the testimony was unreliable, the ecology implausible, the demography impossible and the lack of specimens conclusive.

Print your own organs?

3D printing may one day work for stem-cell-derived kidneys and concrete building parts

My l atest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on 3D printing:

Serendipity works in curious ways. Earlier this month, on the day before I read news of the successful implanting of a synthetic windpipe grown with a patient's own cells, I happened to have lunch with a civil engineer who told me about the first use of a 3-D printer to print structures in concrete. The two technologies are very different, but as I read more about each, I soon found an eerie convergence.

Eating your greenery -- and having it too

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Driving home the other day it occurred to me that almost none of the greenery I could see-trees, garden shrubs, grass shoulders on the highway-was going to be used by humans for food, fuel, clothing or shelter.

Evolving cures cancer

Tumours evolve -- so must cancer cures

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on cancer and evolution by natural selection:

Last week the American Cancer Society reported that death rates from cancer are falling steadily, at an annual rate of about 1.9% in men and 1.5% in women. A study published this week by the University of Colorado found that most seniors who died after being diagnosed with breast cancer actually lived long enough to have died of something else.

Prevention explains much of the decline in cancer fatalities, especially the drop in smoking. As for treatment, the most promising new options harness the very force that makes cancer so stubbornly virulent in the first place: evolution.

The precautionary principle does not take into account the deaths caused by NOT adopting a new technology

Were E coli deaths preventable with food irradiation?

My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street Journal is about the precautionary principle as exemplified by the German e coli outbreak, which has now killed 29. Less precaution about new technology might have meant fewer deaths:

A technology that might have prevented contaminated produce from infecting thousands of Germans with E. coli was vetoed-by Germany-11 years ago for use in the European Union. Irradiating food with high-voltage electrons is a process that can kill bacteria on or in solid objects, just as pasteurization can kill them in liquid foods.

In denial about denial

Owning up to a hoax does not always work

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about what happens when hoaxers own up and nobody believes them. In the interest of space, I had to leave on the cutting room floor my favourite, though fictional, example. In The Life of Brian, Brian insists he is not the Messiah. A woman in the crowd then shouts: ``Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!''

Here's the column:

The surprising resilience of continental species

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

A recent paper in the journal Nature concluded that species extinction caused by habitat loss is happening less than half as fast as usually estimated. The normal method for calculating rates of extinction assumes that doomed species merely cling temporarily to a shrunken patch of habitat, on their way to disappearing (an idea called "extinction debt"). Apparently, this isn't the case: Although a larger patch of habitat has more species in it, shrinking a patch does not lead to a proportional rate of species loss.

According to the authors of the study, the biologists Stephen Hubbell and Fangliang He, estimates of extinction rates based on the usual method are "almost always much higher than those actually observed." Though you need a big patch of forest to attract a rare species, you do not need such a big patch to retain it once it is there. Mr. Hubbell added: "The method has got to be revised. It is not right."

Evil, empathy and the evolution of morality

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal, with added links:

It's presumably neither ethical nor practical, but supposing that somebody could sequence Osama bin Laden's genome, which genes would you want to examine to try to understand his violent desires?

I put this question to the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of a new book called "The Science of Evil" (and a cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen). He replied that there is no evidence that bin Laden's crimes came from his nature, rather than from his experiences, so you might find nothing.

Credit for cost-cutters

New technologies raise living standards, not when they are invented but when their cost falls within most people's range

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is about the innovation that leads to the cheapening of technologies, as opposed to the invention that leads to new technologies.

Cheapeners deserve as much credit as inventors.

Last week a Minneapolis firm called TenKsolar announced that it reckons it can soon cut the cost of rooftop solar power in sunny locations to as little as eight cents a kilowatt-hour-which is almost competitive with conventional electricity. It borrows an idea from computer memory technology to wire up solar panels in a new pattern so that the current can take many different paths through the cells in the array. The result is that the output of the panel is no longer limited to the output of the worst-performing cell. Until now, a shadow passing over one cell would cut the output of the whole panel.

Perishability and democracy

Food that can be stored can be traded and trade leads to democracy

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on grain, fruit and the economic underpinnings of democracy.

When I was young, I had a mug on a shelf in my bedroom, and on it was a poem about a farmer-a simple hymn to self-sufficiency. Here's a bit of it:

I eat my own lamb, My own chickens and ham I shear my own fleece and I wear it. I have lawns, I have bowers I have fruits, I have flowers The lark is my morning alarmer.

My genes are my own

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the regulation of genetic testing

I just took a detailed genetic test by sending some spit to a firm in California and looking up the results on the Net. It seems I'm probably descended from a peculiarly fecund fourth-century Irish king called Niall of the Nine Hostages and a slightly more unusual Mesopotamian Neolithic matriarch. Oh, and I have mostly average risk of most diseases: The medical part of the test gave me a bit of risk here, a bit of reassurance there, nothing very drastic.

Effect and cause

Getting cause and consequence confused is a surprisingly common error in science

Thinning vouchers

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about trying to evolve, rather than ordain, solution to obesity

Sometimes we find it easy to identify a problem and impossible to think of a solution. Obesity is a good example. Almost everybody agrees that it is a growing burden on health systems and that it requires urgent attention from policy makers. But almost everybody also agrees that no policy for reducing obesity is working.

Some 32% of adult American men and 35% of women are clinically obese. The proportion hasn't swelled in recent years, but it hasn't shrunk either, a study of 2008 data suggests. School posters, virally marketed videos, healthy-eating classes, mandatory swimming lessons, minimum school-recess times, celebrity chefs in charge of school-meal recipes, bicycle lanes, junk-food ad bans, calorie-content labels, hectoring physicians, birthday-cake bans, monetary rewards for weight loss-they've all been tried, and they've all largely failed.

The Cartesian Spectator

My latest Wall Street Journal article is on Nick Humphrey's theory of consciousness, as set out in his fine new book Soul Dust

In 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments," published in 1759, Adam Smith boldly recast the question of virtue in terms of what we now call empathy (but which he called sympathy). Smith argued that we are good to each other because empathy allows us to imagine both the pleasure and the suffering experienced by our fellow beings. Even when alone, he suggested, our morality comes from adopting the perspective of an imagined "impartial spectator."

Nuclear's future

Time for a re-boot to find a cheaper design?

I have written two articles in the past few days on the implications of the Fukushima nuclear crisis (accident?, incident? drama? -- not sure what the right word is).

This was for The Times on 16th March:

Maritime Man

Did the ancestors of modern humans beings spend a lot of time by the seaside?

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Photo: Jon Erlandson

Closing the black box

atest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

When did you last read an account of how microchips actually work? You know, replete with all that stuff about electrons and holes and "p-doping" and "n-doping" and the delights of gallium arsenide. The golden age of such articles, when you could read about them in the mainstream press, was the early 1980s. Today nobody writes about semiconductors, at least not about how they work.

My point? That when a technology is new, everybody wants to understand how it works. When it is mature, nobody is interested in such details. The fascination with how things work fades, and the technology becomes a black box.

Speaking in hands before tongues?

he intriguing theory that language evolved for gesture first and speech later

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Three years ago Queen Elizabeth II asked a group of speech therapists if her father's stutter had been caused by his being forced to write with his right hand despite being a natural left-hander. Though it's a more plausible theory than movie psychobabble about conflict with a domineering father (a theme of Oscar front-runner "The King's Speech"), the experts told the queen that this commonly held explanation for stuttering remains unproven. It may be just an urban legend, based on the fact that stuttering is more common among the left-handed.

The connection between handedness and speech runs deep. Speech is controlled by the left side of the brain and so is motor control of the usually dominant right hand. It is possible that this connection says something about the evolutionary origin of language, if language was first expressed through gestures rather than speech.

A time of magnetic flux

Are the magnetic poles about the flip? Unlikely.

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about the weakening of the magnetic field and, more generally, the question of how we scare ourselves by knowing more:

The earth's magnetic field is weakening at an accelerating rate. It is 15% weaker than it was at the time the north magnetic pole was "discovered"-and claimed for King William IV-by a British explorer in 1831. Should we be worried?

How to unlearn pessimism

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, on `unlearning':

For adults, one of the most important lessons to learn in life is the necessity of unlearning. We all think that we know certain things to be true beyond doubt, but these things often turn out to be false and, until we unlearn them, they get in the way of new understanding. Among the scientific certainties I have had to unlearn: that upbringing strongly shapes your personality; that nurture is the opposite of nature; that dietary fat causes obesity more than dietary carbohydrate; that carbon dioxide has been the main driver of climate change in the past.

I came across a rather good word for this kind of unlearning-"disenthrall"-in Mark Stevenson's book "An Optimist's Tour of the Future," published just this week. Mr. Stevenson borrows it from Abraham Lincoln, whose 1862 message to Congress speaks of disenthralling ourselves of "the dogmas of the quiet past" in order to "think anew."

Why aliens are silent

From the Wall Street Journal, my latest Mind and Matter on stability, the moon and aliens

This month saw the discovery of the first small and "rocky" planet like ours outside the solar system, Kepler 10b, orbiting a star more than 500 light years away. This month also saw terrible floods in part of Australia. Here I intend to link these two news stories. But don't worry-I have not gone astrological on you. The link is not a causal one.

The new versus the new-new

Latest Mind and Matter column is on why there is nothing so old as the recently new:

Watching friends learn kite-surfing last week, equipped not only with new designs of inflatable kites shaped like pterodactyls but new kinds of harnesses shaped like medieval chastity belts and even new helmets shaped like Elizabethan sleeping caps, it occurred to me that nothing becomes obsolete so fast as something new. For it is pretty clear that the rise of kite-surfing, invented in the late 1990s, is slowly killing wind-surfing.

How new words and new genes are coined

In the evolution of a language, the same principles apply to DNA as to English

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, with added links:

Don't look for the soul in the language of DNA

Back in the genomic bronze age-the 1990s-scientists used to think that there would prove to be lots of unique human genes found in no other animal. They assumed that different species would have many different genes. One of the big shocks of sequencing genomes was not just the humiliating news that human beings have the same number of genes as a mouse, but that we have the same genes, give or take a handful.

Mental time travel

The longer your past, the longer your future

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about how the human brain deals with the future. Here it is with added links.

I recently came across the phrase "remembering the future." Rather than some empty poetic paradox, it appeared in an article about a neuroscientific experiment that tested a hypothesis of Karl Friston of University College, London, that the brain is more active when it is surprised.

In the study, volunteers watched patterns of moving dots while having their brains scanned. Occasionally, a dot would appear out of step. Although there was the same number of dots, the visual part of the subjects' brains was more active when the dots broke step. According to Arjen Alink of the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, who did the experiment, the brains were predicting what would happen next and having to work harder when their predictions failed. They were "remembering the future."

Bottom-up education

How to guide children to use the internet in groups to educate themselves

My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the work of Sugata Mitra, who is turning education upside down with the help of the internet:

Arm-wrestling with Bill Gates

A debate in the Wall Street Journal

On the meaning of the word optimism

This is not the best of all possible worlds

Here is my latest Wall Street Journal column. It led me into the etymology of the word `optimism' and the realisation that at first it meant almost the opposite of what we now mean by it, namely that the world was at its `optimum' and could not improve.

A Haitian who survived the January earthquake and has so far escaped cholera recently told a reporter that this month's Hurricane Tomas wasn't as bad as he thought it would be, "thank God." I know it's often just a verbal tic, but it has always struck me as odd that people who survive natural disasters thank God for saving them but rarely blame Him for the disaster.

It has been quite a decade for natural disasters: the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Burma's cyclone, Pakistan's floods, China's quake. Only once to my knowledge has there been much media debate about whether these disasters were "acts of God"-after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, perhaps because it happened on the day after Christmas. In any case, I always felt the phrase applied better to 9/11, considering the motivation of the terrorists.

The tyranny of causation

Here (a bit late) is my latest Wall Street Journal column, on epigenetic inheritance

In the debate over whether our fates as individuals are ruled by nature or nurture-that is, by innate qualities or personal experience-one of the most baffling features is the way the nurture advocates manage to cast themselves as the great foes of determinism. "Genes don't determine who we are," they insist-all the while positing that environmental causes often do. Remember how some Freudians tried to blame autism, schizophrenia and even homosexuality on the way parents treated their children? True, they claimed these effects were treatable, but so are many genetic problems. I wear glasses to correct a partly genetic tendency to myopia.

Nor has environmental determinism escaped moral stain. When Soviet agriculture was forced to obey crank theories that environmental conditioning rather than breeding could determine the frost-resistance of wheat-not coincidentally echoing the notion that human nature could be remade by communism-the result was famine.

Quis custodiet?

How to regulate the psychology of regulators

My latest column in the Wall Street Journal is about the psychology of bureaucracy. just as we need to understand the human proclivities that give rise to booms and busts in markets, so we need to understand the human proclivities that motivate officials. Here are five identified by Slavisa Tasic, starting with `illusions of competence':

Psychologists have shown that we systematically overestimate how much we understand about the causes and mechanisms of things we half understand. The Swedish health economist Hans Rosling once gave students a list of five pairs of countries and asked which nation in each pair had the higher infant-mortality rate. The students got 1.8 right out of 5. Mr. Rosling noted that if he gave the test to chimpanzees they would get 2.5 right. So his students' problem was not ignorance, but that they knew with confidence things that were false.

The issue of action bias is better known in England as the "dangerous dogs act," after a previous government, confronted with a couple of cases in which dogs injured or killed people, felt the need to bring in a major piece of clumsy and bureaucratic legislation that worked poorly. Undoubtedly the rash of legislation following the current financial crisis will include some equivalents of dangerous dogs acts. It takes unusual courage for a regulator to stand up and say "something must not be done," lest "something" makes the problem worse.

Where are the genes?

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

On the failed promise of genomics.

Is it because common ailments are caused by many different rare genetic variants?

Connecting human islands

Pacific fishing technology and the catallaxy

My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

An odd thing about people, compared with other animals, is that the more of us there are, the more we thrive. World population has doubled in my lifetime, but the world's income has octupled. The richest places on Earth are among the most densely populated.

By contrast, it's a fair bet that if you took a few million rabbits and let them loose on Manhattan island, they would starve, fight, sicken and generally peter out. Whether you like it or not, whether you think it can continue forever or not, you cannot deny that when people come together in dense swarms, they often get richer.

Peculiar human sex differences

I am now writing a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal called Mind and Matter. Here's the first one.

Recently, the psychologist David Buss's team at the University of Texas at Austin reported that men, when looking for one-night stands, check out women's bodies. Or as they put it, "men, but not women, have a condition-dependent adaptive proclivity to prioritize facial cues in long-term mating contexts, but shift their priorities toward bodily cues in short-term mating contexts."

Like many results in evolutionary psychology, this may seem blindingly obvious, but that does not stop it from being controversial. Earlier this month a neuroscientist in Britain, Gina Rippon, lambasted what she called the "neurohype" about sex differences: "There may be some very small differences between the genders, but the similarities are far, far greater."

No golden age of air travel

Whenever somebody gets nostalgic about the past, I get suspicious. In the eigth century BC, Hesiod was already moaning about how things aint like they used to be.

The Wall Street Journal has a great article about how nostalgic people get for the way air travel used to be in the 1950s -- with more leg room, less hassle and more romance.

Piffle. Compard with today, it was expensive, dangerous and slow:

The Rational Optimist in the Wall Street Journal

Human take-off after 45,000 years ago followed the invention of exchange