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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: 12-2012

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.

Shale gas could cut energy bills

Countries that turn their backs on cheap energy lose out

And if cutting carbon emissions is what floats your boat, you will like shale gas even more. The advent of cheap gas, by displacing coal from electricity generation, has drastically cut America's carbon dioxide emissions back to levels last seen in the early 1990s; per capita emissions are now lower than in the 1960s. (See charts here and here.) Britain's subsidised dash for renewable energy has had no such result: wind power is still making a trivial contribution to total energy use (0.4 per cent) while most renewable energy comes from wood, the highest-carbon fuel of all.

The mystery of why we yawn

It's contagious and seems to serve no physiological purpose