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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My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal is on Dunbar's number.
I was on BBC Radio 4's programme A Good Read (the link allows you to listen again) this week, where I recommended the book that was my favourite as a child, and probably still is: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. The others chose A Game of Hide and Seek and Great Expectations.
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."
I took part in a debate on whether we can feed the world on Al Jazeera television with Dvaid Frost. Video here.
Simon Singh and James Delingpole, both of whom I know, like and respect as fine writers, have been disagreeing about climate change.
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, 1997).
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 public-access requirement.
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 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.
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 was
What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?
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 starvation loom?
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 been lower.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about parabolas, the evolution of throwing and angry birds:
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 its allure.
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 scenarios...
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 asserted.
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.
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.
Rachel Carson, in her hugely influential book Silent Spring, wrote that she expected an
epidemic of cancer caused by chemicals in the environment,
especially DDT, indeed she thought it had already begun in the
``No longer are exposures to dangerous
chemicals occupational alone; they have entered the environment of
everyone-even of children as yet unborn. It is hardly surprising,
therefore, that we are now aware of an alarming increase in
The increase itself is no mere matter
of subjective impressions. The monthly report of the Office of
Vital Statistics for July 1959 states that malignant growths,
including those of the lymphatic and blood-forming tissues,
accounted for 15 per cent of the deaths in 1958 compared with only
4 per cent in 1900. Judging by the present incidence of the
disease, the American Cancer Society estimates that 45,000,000
Americans now living will eventually develop cancer. This means
that malignant disease will strike two out of three families. The
situation with respect to children is even more deeply disturbing.
A quarter century ago, cancer in children was considered a medical
rarity. Today, more American school children die of cancer than
from any other disease. So serious has this situation become that
Boston has established the first hospital in the United States
devoted exclusively to the treatment of children with cancer.
Twelve per cent of all deaths in children between the ages of one
and fourteen are caused by cancer. Large numbers of malignant
tumors are discovered clinically in children under the age of five,
but it is an even grimmer fact that significant numbers of such
growths are present at or before birth. Dr. W. C. Hueper of the
National Cancer Institute, a foremost authority on environmental
cancer, has suggested that congenital cancers and cancers in
infants may be related to the action of cancer-producing agents to
which the mother has been exposed during pregnancy and which
penetrate the placenta to act on the rapidly developing fetal
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
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
Bishop Hill has a review of Tim Worstall's book Chasing Rainbows, which reminds me that I
meant to write about this book. I wrote a cover quote for it that
described it `fearless, fresh, forensic and funny'.
What is particularly clever about the book is the way that
Worstall makes economic theory so digestible, even delicious. He
refutes the dreary cliche so popular among environmentalists that
economics just `does not get' the environment (by which they
usually mean that they would like to do the equivalent of repeal
the laws of gravity and make things to happen even if they make no
sense for people: like getting people to give up cheap forms of
energy to take up expensive ones). Quite the reverse is true:
environmentalists all too often just don't get what economists are
trying to tell them.
I especially liked this little section which so neatly
eviscerates the Stern Report:
(picture from Eden's Path)
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