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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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)
Here's a letter I sent to the editor of The Economist:
Last winter, we were told by scientists that it was `stupid' to
take the cold weather as evidence against global warming. Yet this
winter you are quite happy to speculate, entirely against the
consensus view, that the cold weather is evidence for global
warming (`A Cold Warming', Dec 4th). In
support of this fancy, you cite `some' evidence that summer heat
`may' induce shifts in atmospheric circulation that `might'
encourage seasonal patterns that would `probably' mean more cold
winters in Britain. Spare us the astrology, please.
There is a big new report on shale gas from the No
Hot Air website. It is far too expensive for me, but here is a
summary of what it supposedly concludes:
The key issue going forward for natural gas
is not managing supply, but creating demand.
The US success in shale gas technology can be
replicated in multiple locations world-wide.
My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the work of Sugata Mitra, who is
turning education upside down with the help of the internet:
For some time now I have been aware of environmentalists who
dislike the way their agendas have been hijacked by climate change.
The orthodox view is that climate change is raising the profile of
all environmental issues, but is it?
Can it really be easier to raise money for a wildlife
conservation project in Madagascar or Galapagos when everybody is
saying that the major threat is not habitat loss or invasive
species, but slow warming?
Can it really be helpful for bird conservation when green groups
take money from wind companies which kill golden eagles?
Update: I have misled the reader about the
quantity of neodymium in a wind turbine magnet. The magnet is not
pure neodymium, but an alloy of Nd, iron and Boron. So there's a
lot less than 2.5 tonnes of Nd itself in a 2.5MW turbine magnet.
There's still plenty of it, though. Hat tip Tim Worstall.
2nd Update: I am told 270kg of Nd per megawatt
is about right, though it will vary with different kinds of magnet.
That means about 675kg of Nd in a 2.5MW turbine. Hat tip Alan
"The broad generalisations that label Africa a continent of failure and business losses are plain wrong. They are part of that same pessimism that insists the only products worth investing in are misery and minerals."
We are getting somewhere. There is a long response to my Times
article from ocean acidification scientists
here. This makes me rather happy. The response confirms the
accuracy of my main points. I have sent the following response
to Nature's website, which carried a report on
I am glad to have my main point confirmed by
the reply: that there is in fact no evidence for net biological
harm likely as a result of realistic changes in ocean pH. This is a
huge and welcome change from the exaggerated rhetoric that has been
used on this topic.
The reply also confirms the accuracy of
virtually all of my factual assertions about the likely change in
pH, the natural variation in pH and other issues, including the
involvement of a Greenpeace ship in a research project. Only my
interpretation is challenged.
On his blog, A Very Remote Period Indeed, Julien
Riel-Salvatore discusses his recent paper about Neanderthals and
I'm quoted [in the press release] as saying,
among other things, that this study helps 'rehabilitate'
Neanderthals by showing that they were able to develop some of the
accoutrements of behavioral modernity independent of any contact
with modern humans. While I've caught a bit of flak from some
friends and colleagues for that turn of phrase, I stand by my
statement -this study helps to cast Neanderthals in a much more
positive light than they have been for a long while now.
In my book, I argue that Neanderthals --though highly
intelligent -- did not show a tendency to innovate, because they
did not show a tendency to exchange (their artefacts never come
from far away), and this kept their toolkit much the same till the
end. The discovery of Neanderthals innovating would therefore be a
blow to my argument.
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