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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 date: 09-2012

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.

Tobacco denial and pesticide alarm

Rachel Carson and Al Gore relied on a tobacco denier

I have an article in the Spectator drawing attention to the curious fact that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring owed much to a passionate tobacco denier. It's behind a paywall, but there it is with the sources as links. Hat tip Ron Bailey.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published 50 years ago this month, effectively marked the birth of the modern environmental movement. "Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history," wrote Al Gore in his introduction to the 1994 edition.

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.

Northumberlandia

A new work of art that is also public open space

The Times has published my article on Northumberlandia today.