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 review of Nick Lane's book The Vital Question in The Times:
Nick Lane is not just a writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in the universe: the meaning of the word “life”. In this, his third book about energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind. He can now tell a story of how, when and where life started, and what happened to it in its early days. Most of that story looks as if it is true.
Life uses information (stored in DNA) to capture energy (which it stores in a chemical called ATP) to create order. Humans burn prodigious amounts of energy — we generate about 10,000 times as much energy per gram as the sun. The sun is hotter only because it is much bigger. We use energy to create and maintain intricate cellular and bodily complexity, the opposite of entropy, just as we do in the economy, where the harnessing of power from burning fuel enables us to build skyscrapers and aeroplanes. But we — and here “we” means all living creatures, including bacteria — have an idiosyncratic way of trapping energy to make it useful. We pump protons across lipid membranes.
My Times column on Britain's remarkable and unexpected plunge in unemployment and what lies behind it:
Five years ago, almost nobody expected that inflation would vanish, as tomorrow’s figures are expected to show, or that unemployment would plummet, as Friday’s numbers will confirm. Whatever else you think about this government, there is no doubt it has presided over an astonishing boom in job creation like nowhere else in the developed world.
The milestones are impressive: an average of a thousand new jobs a day over five years; unemployment down by almost half a million in a year; a jobless rate half the eurozone’s; more jobs created than in the rest of Europe put together; more people in work, more women in work, more disabled people in work than ever; the highest percentage of the population in work since records began. All this while the public sector has been shedding 300 jobs a day.
My Times column on what might happen if the British election prouces a messy result:
had a bad dream. It was April 2016. The country was tumbling into a constitutional crisis, dragging the Queen into a gathering storm in the week of her 90th birthday. The financial markets were hammering the pound and threatening a bond strike as the deficit rose and growth faltered. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said he feared that Britain had become ungovernable.
It had begun with the election. The Conservatives had won the most seats, 290 to Labour’s 260. But with only 26 Lib Dems in the Commons, the Tories were unable to form a workable coalition, and with Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander gone there was no appetite for it anyway, not when David Cameron would have to rely also on Ukip or the Ulster Unionists to get bills through parliament. So Mr Cameron had formed a minority government, but could not carry a Queen’s speech and lost a vote of confidence.
My column in The Times on British transport priorities:
By the time HS2 is fully operational in 2033, more than a quarter of all cars on our roads will be fully autonomous, according to a forecast by the consultants KPMG. That may well make fast trains less urgent, and decongested motorways more so. The economic case for HS2 is fragile enough before taking future driverless cars into account.
Last week on the very same day that a House of Lords committee savaged the economic case for the HS2 railway — costing £50 billion with contingency — another report by KPMG, for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, estimated the potential benefits to Britain of driverless cars at £51 billion. Per year.
My Times column on carbon capture:
Carbon dioxide is not the most urgent problem facing humanity, compared with war, extremism, poverty and disease. But most presidents, popes and film stars think it is, so I must be wrong. For the purposes of this article let’s assume they are right. What’s the best way of solving the problem?
Whichever party wins the election will be legally committed to cutting our carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. About 90 per cent of Britain’s total energy still comes from fossil fuels and bio-energy, both of which produce carbon dioxide. The expansion of nuclear, wind and solar is not going nearly fast enough, because electricity comprises just one third of our energy use. If we are to decarbonise transport and heating too, we will have to switch to electric cars, and electric radiators, which means generating three times as much electricity. Only aeroplanes would be left using fossil fuels.
The environmental movement has advanced three arguments in recent years for giving up fossil fuels: (1) that we will soon run out of them anyway; (2) that alternative sources of energy will price them out of the marketplace; and (3) that we cannot afford the climate consequences of burning them.
These days, not one of the three arguments is looking very healthy. In fact, a more realistic assessment of our energy and environmental situation suggests that, for decades to come, we will continue to rely overwhelmingly on the fossil fuels that have contributed so dramatically to the world’s prosperity and progress.
In 2013, about 87% of the energy that the world consumed came from fossil fuels, a figure that—remarkably—was unchanged from 10 years before. This roughly divides into three categories of fuel and three categories of use: oil used mainly for transport, gas used mainly for heating, and coal used mainly for electricity.
My Times column on farm yields and land sparing:
If something drops out of the news, it usually means it is going well. Mad cow disease killed nobody last year; Mozambique and Angola are growing their economies at a furious lick; the Somerset levels are not flooded this winter. There were only two localised famines last year — in South Sudan and the Central African Republic — both caused by conflict, rather than drought or population pressure. That’s because the feeding of the world is going so well it’s not news.
New figures from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation show that the world’s cereal harvest, which provides more than half of the calories that humans eat, broke a new record last year at 2.54 billion tonnes — an astonishing 20 per cent higher than ten years ago. Thanks to better techniques and seeds, the world’s farmers (of which I declare I am one, in a mostly hands-off way) have provided a growing population with more food per head, year after year, largely without cultivating extra land or using extra water or chemicals.
My latest column in The Times:
The latest report into Jimmy Savile’s astonishing freedom to roam the wards of Stoke Mandeville hospital will not lead to the end of the National Health Service. Nor will the forthcoming report that apparently finds a “systemic cover-up” of the unnecessary deaths of babies and mothers at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust between 2004 and 2013. The NHS itself will survive these scandals, as it survived the Mid Staffordshire hospitals scandal of 2005-2008. The immortality of large public-sector monopolies is a given.
Likewise, although the Jimmy Savile affair has caused crises and resignations at the BBC, nobody for a moment believed that the BBC itself would close. But why not exactly? Private firms that get into this much trouble generally do vanish, by takeover or bankruptcy. Castlebeck, the company that ran the Winterbourne View care home where scandalous treatment was exposed in 2011, went into administration two years later. Pollypeck, Enron and Barings no longer exist.
My Times column on free trade:
An American friend recently sent me a gift as a thank you for a weekend’s hospitality. It arrived in the form of a card from the Post Office telling me to pay a hefty sum of tax before the item itself (a wooden bowl) could be delivered. Had my friend been Scottish or French or from the next village there would have been no charge. What business has government putting a tariff barrier between two friends?
Last week the Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps delivered a passionate defence of free trade of the kind that used to come from the radicals in the days of the Corn Laws but these days is rarely heard from any part of the political spectrum. Crucially, he took the perspective of the consumer, not the producer.
My Times column on Britain's impending decision to allow mitochondrial donation:
Tomorrow’s vote in the House of Commons on whether to allow mitochondrial donation has at least flushed out the churches. Both the Catholic and Anglican churches have decided that it is not acceptable to let a handful of desperate families apply to the authorities to be allowed to have their own children free of the risk of rare mitochondrial conditions that, in the words of one parent, “strip our children of the skills they have learnt and tire their organs one by one until they fail”.
What conceivable greater moral good overrides the need of such families? I suspect some clerics have gone no further into the science behind this than the headline “Three-parent children”, and said “Yuk!” If so, they have been horribly misled. There has rarely been a more inaccurate phrase.
My review of the book Cryptocurrency appeared in the Times:
When the internet started, few guessed how it would develop. I remember reviewing a string of books in the early 1990s arguing that it would lead to atomised and isolated lives, cut off from social contact. Social media put paid to that.
So it is rash to suggest just what the internet has in store for us next. But it is also rash to think we can expect merely more of what we have now. The internet is young and it is now evolving in a virtually autonomous fashion with startling surprises in store. If forced to make a (rash) guess, I would hazard that the next big thing is going to be spawned by bitcoin, or rather the “blockchain” technology behind bitcoin: cutting out the middleman in all forms of commerce.
My recent column in The Times is on wildlife conservation:
On the day last week that the House of Commons was debating a private member’s bill dealing with bats in churches, conservationists were starting to eliminate rats from the island of South Georgia by dropping poisoned bait from helicopters. Two very different facets of wildlife conservation: the bats stand for preservation of pristine nature from human interference; the rats for active intervention to manage nature in the interests of other wildlife. Which is better value for money?
Bats love roosting in churches, but those who love bats and those who love churches are increasingly at loggerheads. Bat pee has damaged many of the brasses in British churches, and stained or eroded precious medieval monuments and paintings. Expensive restoration work is often undone in a matter of months by micturating bats.
Edge.org has an annual question to which 190 people are invited to respond. This year it is "What do you think of machines that think?" and the answer I gave is below:
What I think about machines that think is that we are all missing the point still. The true transforming genius of human intelligence is not individual thinking at all but collective, collaborative and distributed intelligence—the fact that (as Leonard Reed pointed out) it takes thousands of different people to make a pencil, not one of whom knows how to make a pencil. What transformed the human race into a world-dominating technium was not some change in human heads, but a change between them: the invention of exchange and specialisation. It was a network effect.
My Times column on genetic modification of crops:
The European Parliament votes tomorrow on whether to let countries decide their own policies on growing genetically modified crops. The vote would allow countries such as Britain to press ahead because of hard evidence that such crops are good for the environment, good for consumers and good for farmers; and let countries such as Austria continue to ban the things despite such evidence. It’s an alliance of the rational with the superstitious against the bureaucratic.
Indeed, the untold story is that it was a triumph of subtle diplomacy by Owen Paterson — the Eurosceptic former environment minister who knows how to work the Brussels system. Having gone out on a limb to support GM crops in two hard-hitting speeches in 2013, he was approached by his Spanish counterpart who was desperate to unclog the interminable Brussels approval process for new crops.
My Times column on cancer, luck and good deaths:
If we could prevent or cure all cancer, what would we die of? The new year has begun with a war of words over whether cancer is mostly bad luck, as suggested by a new study from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and over whether it’s a good way to die, compared with the alternatives, as suggested by Dr Richard Smith, a former editor of the BMJ.
In December, I omitted to post my Times column on government IT and digital policy:
The travel chaos last Friday was a reminder of just how much life depends on Big Software doing its job. The air-traffic control centre at Swanwick was six years late and hundreds of millions over budget when it opened in 2002 in shiny new offices, but with software still based on an upgraded, old system. Unnoticed and unsung, however, this government may actually have found a way to bring the horrid history of big, public IT projects to an end.
My Times column is on the UK's high standard of living and social freedoms:
Years ending in 15 (or 65) have often been good ones to be British. In January, we celebrate 750 years since Simon de Montfort first summoned Parliament to Westminster. In June, we mark the 800th anniversary of making kings subject to the law in Magna Carta. Three days later it’s off to Waterloo for the 200th birthday of the battle.
There’s more. In October, we cry God for Harry, England and St George, and beat the French again at the 600th anniversary of Agincourt. November, for those with any fireworks left, marks the 300th anniversary of arguably the last battle fought on English soil — at Preston, where the Old Pretender’s last hopes died.
I have had enquiries about my interest in coal mining, and am happy to make the following statement:
The following has been on my website since its inception:
“I have a financial interest in coal mining on my family's land. The details are commercially confidential, but I have always been careful to disclose that I have this interest in my writing when it is relevant; I am proud that the coal mining on my land contributes to the local and national economy; and that my income from coal is not subsidized and not a drain on the economy through raising energy prices. I deliberately do not argue directly for the interests of the modern coal industry and I consistently champion the development of gas reserves, which is a far bigger threat to the coal-mining industry than renewable energy can ever be. So I consistently argue against my own financial interest.”
My column in the Times, with post-scripts:
As somebody who has championed science all his career, carrying a lot of water for the profession against its critics on many issues, I am losing faith. Recent examples of bias and corruption in science are bad enough. What’s worse is the reluctance of scientific leaders to criticise the bad apples. Science as a philosophy is in good health; science as an institution increasingly stinks.
My column in The Times:
The Civil Aviation Authority is concerned that pilots are becoming too reliant on automation and are increasingly out of practice in what to do when the autopilot cannot cope. We now know that a fatal Air France crash in the Atlantic in 2009 was caused by confused co-pilots reacting wrongly when the autopilot disengaged during turbulence. They put the nose of the plane up instead of down.
But there is another way to see that incident: the pilot was asleep at the time, having spent his time in Rio sightseeing with his girlfriend instead of sleeping. When roused as the plane stalled, he woke slowly and reacted too groggily to correct the co-pilots’ mistakes. Human frailty crashed the plane, not mistakes of automation.
My column in the Times:
My Times column on the little-changed political institutions of London:
Two hundred and ninety years ago a novelist, spy, tradesman and bankrupt named Daniel Defoe began publishing his account of A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain. A book out this week by the distinguished sociologist WG Runciman imagines what Defoe would make of the island if he were to take his tour again today. His title gives away the conclusion: Very Different, But Much the Same.
For all the astonishing changes that would boggle Defoe’s mind — aeroplanes, toilets, motorways, telephones, cameras, pensions, the internet, religious diversity, vaccines, working women, electricity and vastly higher living standards especially for the poor — he would be just as amazed at the things that have not changed.
My Times column is on a disagreement between Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins about evolution:
I find it magnificent that a difference of opinion about the origin of ants between two retired evolutionary biologists, one in his eighties and one in his seventies, has made the news. On television, the Harvard biologist EO Wilson called the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins a “journalist”, this being apparently the lowest of insults in the world of science; it was taken as such.
My Times column:
A confession: I voted for the Green Party in 1979 – one of less than 40,000 people in the whole country who did so. It was then called the Ecology Party and I knew the local candidate in Oxford, which is some excuse. But mainly I wanted to save the planet, and thought the greater good should trump self interest. I was definitely on the moral high ground. Or was I? Hold that thought.
The latest opinion polls show that the Green Party is doing to the Liberal Democrats what UKIP is doing to the Conservatives, and could even relegate the LibDems to fifth place in next year’s general election in terms of vote share. Peter Kellner of Yougov has analysed today’s typical Green voter and found that she is almost a mirror image of the UKIP voter. Where UKIP voters are older, maler, more working class, less educated and more religious than the average voter, Green voters are younger, femaler, posher, much better educated and less religious than the average voter.
My Times column is on the World Health Organisation's odd priorities: its early complacency about ebola, while it attacks a new technology that saves the lives of smokers by getting them off tobacco, and obsesses about climate change:
Is there a connection between ebola and e-cigarettes?I don’t mean to imply that vaping has caused the epidemic in west Africa. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) now has serious questions to answer about its months of complacency over ebola. WHO’s director-general, Margaret Chan, made a speech only two weeks ago implying that tobacco control and the fight against e-cigarettes is a more important issue.
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