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Simon Singh and James Delingpole, both of whom I know, like
and respect as fine writers, have been disagreeing about climate
Beneath Simon's latest blog on the subject there is a
debate in which several very sensible and non-inflammatory things
are said by Bishop Hill and Paul Dennis. Do read it.
An especially good comment came from Climate Resistance, who
spoke for me and I suspect many others when he asked:
Prospect magazine has published my review of Hugh-Aldersey-Williams's
delightful chemistry book,
Periodic Tales. Here is an extract in which I was struck by the
parallels between finding specialised jobs for the metals and
finding specialised roles for individuals in society:
The best science writing emulates fiction,
creating plots, surprises and characters out of its esoteric
material. The science writer's trick is to transmute the dull
tinplate of fact and theory into the precious gold of truthful
entertainment. Thus James Watson turned the discovery of the
structure of DNA into a charming farce (The Double Helix, 1968);
Richard Dawkins turned gene-based evolution into a gripping
detective story (The Selfish Gene, 1976); and Simon Singh turned
the history of mathematics into an epic (Fermat's Last Theorem,
Since its plans to sell off much of the Forestry Commission's
land were leaked the press last October, the government has found
itself subject to a sustained lobbying campaign. The commission has
wheeled out its friends to tell the press what an irreplaceable
paragon of environmental virtue it is, and specifically how much
access to the countryside will be lost if its land is sold.
I have learned that when the government's proposals are put to
public consultation next week, this particular charge will be found
to be simply wrong. All sales of land will be subject to the same
access provisions as now. So the hyperventilating lobbyists, from
ramblers to baronesses, can calm down: the Forest of Dean will not
suddenly be closed. It was the Labour government that was quietly
selling Forestry Commission land in recent years with no such
The access row is a smokescreen to cover old-fashioned
bureaucratic self-preservation. The Forestry Commission is keen to
remain a cosy nationalised monopoly. With more than two million
acres (600,000 in England) and over 50% of timber production, plus
100% untrammelled power to set the rules of the industry it
competes in and dominates, the Forestry Commission is a walking
conflict of interest. It is like the Bank of England running a huge
high-street bank, or the BBC owning Ofcom.
George Monbiot is advertising a speaking tour with a poster of
himself as a boxer about to hit somebody.
And yet he
says in the Guardian:
From the Wall Street Journal, my latest Mind and Matter on stability, the moon and
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.
Some people think I am obsessed by the shale gas revolution and
that I might be exaggerating its significance.
Well, if anything I'm underplaying it.
The International Energy Agency says so. Here's what it says (from UPI):
The Edge's Annual Question is a great compilation of brief
effusions from science groupies like me. This year the question
What scientific concept would improve everybody's
My answer was this:
I had this article in the Times on 14 January:
The person who tips the world population over seven billion may
be born this year. The world food price index hit a record high
last month, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Bad
harvests in Russia and Australia, combined with rising oil prices,
have begun to cause shortages, export bans and even riots. Does
No. Never has the world looked less likely to starve, or our
grandchildren more likely to feed well. Never has famine been less
widespread. Never has the estimated future peak of world population
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about parabolas, the evolution of throwing and
The spectacular trajectory of the Angry Birds computer game,
from obscure Finnish iPhone app to global ubiquity-there are board
games, maybe even movies in the works-is probably inexplicable. Of
course it's cheap and charming, but such catapulting success must
owe a lot to serendipitous, word-of-mouth luck. Yet, prompted by my
friend Trey Ratcliff, who created the gaming-camera app 100 Cameras
in 1, I've been musing on whether there's an evolutionary aspect to
To play Angry Birds, you must use a catapult to lob little birds
at structures in the hope of knocking them down on pigs. It's the
verb "lob" that intrigues me. There is something much more
satisfactory about an object tracing a parabolic ballistic
trajectory through space towards its target than either following a
straight line or propelling itself.
David Middleton has an interesting essay on ocean pH here.
Like me he finds the literature replete with data suggesting
that a realistic reduction in alkalinity caused by CO2 increases
will do no net harm to marine ecosystems. For example:
A recent paper in Geology
(Ries et al., 2009) found an unexpected
relationship between CO2 and marine calcifers. 18 benthic species
were selected to represent a wide variety of taxa: "crustacea,
cnidaria, echinoidea, rhodophyta, chlorophyta, gastropoda,
bivalvia, annelida." They were tested under four CO2/Ωaragonite
The always perceptive Brendan O'Neill raises an important point
about the Brisbane floods, which just may have been exacerbated by
a collective institutional obsession with preparing for droughts
caused by global warming (hat tip Bishop Hill).
It is worth looking at
a document called ClimateSmart 2050, which was published in
2007 by the Queensland government. It outlines Queensland's
priorities for the next four decades (up to 2050) and promises to
reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent during
that timeframe. The most striking thing about the document is its
assumption that the main problem facing this part of Australia,
along with most of the rest of the world, is essentially dryness
brought about by global warming. It argues that "the world is
experiencing accelerating climate change as a result of human
activities", which is giving rise to "worse droughts, hotter
temperatures and rising sea levels". We are witnessing "a tendency
for less rainfall with more droughts", the document confidently
As a consequence the government went on warning of water
shortages even as the Wivenhoe dam got close to full, apparently
forgetting that one of the dam's jobs was to act as a flood shock
absorber. As with British snow, the concern seems to have
asymmetric, suggesting that climate change is causing officials to
forget that weather noise may still be far more important than
climate signal even in a slowly warming world.
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.
Fox News has dug up some remarkable botched
predictions about the environment. Most are familar but three were
new to me:
Happy New Year.
I mean it. 2011 will see horrible things, no doubt, but it will
also see a continuing incremental reduction in poverty, hunger,
illness and suffering, plus a continuing incremental rise in most
measures of human and planetary wellbeing.
Here's a fine blast of optimism from John Tierney in the New
York Times. He took a bet with a peak-oiler and won hands down.