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