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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Matt Ridley's latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT's Broad Institute, is now available in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
My article for The Telegraph:
Fusion energy is coming. Last week’s announcement of a significant energy yield from the Joint European Torus in Oxfordshire is just a milestone on the path but all the signs are that there’s probably going to be reliable fusion power on tap some time in the next decade thanks to breakthroughs in superconductivity.Also, private money is pouring into fusion, which has forced the public projects to speed up, as it did with genomics. It would be a foolish person who repeated Ernest Rutherford’s clanger of 1933 about nuclear fission: “Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine.”True, there is every chance we will make a mess of the opportunity by adopting an extreme precautionary approach to regulation. In the case of nuclear (fission) power, we bound it into such a straitjacket of cumbersome rules that we ended up making it a lot more expensive, slightly less safe and incapable of even trying new designs that might bring down the price and drive the safety even higher. Innovation should have rendered both Chernobyl and Fukushima redundant long before they blew up, and Hinkley is going to be grotesquely, needlessly costly. If we make a similar unforced error with fusion, forget it.
But fusion is very different from fission, producing vastly less radioactive material and almost no long-term waste. It cannot melt down or blow up. So regulating it is simpler: treat it like any other industrial facility and set up the regulation to give quick decisions, be flexible and focus on the safe outcome not the process of getting there. If we do that, we might have a great opportunity, because Britain is already a leader in fusion.So it’s worth casting our minds forward to how the world might look if small power stations start making huge quantities of energy from tiny quantities of water (the source of deuterium) and lithium (the source of tritium). We could heat our homes and power our cars with cheap electricity. We could synthesise fuel for planes and rockets. We could speed up productivity through automation. We could desalinate seawater. We could suck carbon dioxide out of the air, achieving net zero painlessly. We could rewild all wind and solar farms. Above all, we could tell the eco-killjoys who preach that our use of energy is not just a problem but a sin to get lost.And therein lies the problem, because they will fight us every step of the way, inventing ludicrous objections to fusion. Remember, for the eco-elite, hair-shirt asceticism is a feature not a bug. Giving ordinary people unlimited energy would horrify these high priests. What they love about climate change is the excuse it gives them to disapprove of people having fun. Imagine the scowl on Greta’s face when we tell her electricity is going to be abundant, cheap, reliable and low-carbon. It’s shooting their fox.Notice too how it would make a mockery of the urgent rush to net zero today. The BBC’s Jon Amos delivered a predictable sermon on this theme this week following the fusion announcement: “Fusion is not a solution to get us to 2050 net zero. This is a solution to power society in the second half of this century.”He’s got it backwards: if fusion does come after 2050, why spend trillions and force people into austerity in the rush to net zero by 2050 instead of say 2070? We are hurrying to shut down coal, gas and nuclear prematurely with no reliable replacement. Looking back that might prove to have been very foolish.
My blog for the Radix think tank:
I was pleased to speak at the recent Radix Big Tent Meet the Leaders session about innovation, a topic that is close to my heart and one of great importance.
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My article for the Telegraph:Back in the early 1950s scientists were baffled by one aspect of life itself. Our cells were full of proteins whose properties depended on their precise shapes, and the key feature of life was the ability to copy itself, but how on earth do you copy three-dimensional shapes? The unexpected answer was that you don’t: you copy a one-dimensional, linear sequence in a recipe book called DNA, which automatically determines how each protein folds into its shape.
Surprisingly, until last week, working out how this folding worked was beyond even big computers: tiny shifts in angles could result in wildly different shapes, and forecasting what shape would result from what sequence was as hard as predicting the weather. Now, thanks to the brilliant London AI firm DeepMind (which sold itself to Google a few years back), a learning algorithm has cracked the problem and has predicted hundreds of thousands of shapes from sequences. It did so as an encore after defeating the world champion at the fiendishly complicated game of Go: in neither case was it taught by experts but learned from examples.
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel prize for figuring out the structure of the ribosome (the machine that translates DNA into proteins), told me last week that he thinks the DeepMind breakthrough is huge: “we probably have not yet grasped its impact and all the ways it will change the way we do biology.”
I went on The Knowledge Project podcast with Shane Parrish to discuss "writing books about science, the age-old battle between viruses and humans, rational optimism, the difference between innovation and invention, the role of trial and error and the effects of social media on seeing others’ points of view."
It was a wonderful conversation, and good fun!
My article for Discourse:
Innovation is the “main event” of the modern age. It’s the reason why after millennia of comparative stagnation, the last several hundred years featured sudden, dramatic improvements in technology and therefore living standards: from steam engines to search engines, from vaccines to vaping.
It’s also a strangely localized and temporary phenomenon. At any one time, there is usually one part of the world where innovation flourishes best, attracting talent from all over: California in 1960, the U.S. East Coast in 1920, Britain in 1800, Holland in 1650, Renaissance Italy in 1500, Song China in 1000, Abbasid Arabia in 800, ancient Greece in 500 B.C., the Ganges Valley before that. These were places that were relatively wealthy, free and open to trade at the time.
The second half of my much-anticipated interview with Silicon Valley legend Naval Ravikant in May is now available. We discussed my new book How Innovation Works and more.
It was a wonderful discussion, and I appreciated hearing the perspective of a true entrepreneur and innovator.
You can listen to it via his YouTube page below, or download it on Apple Podcasts, or download it elsewhere or read the transcript on his website.
The first half of my much-anticipated interview with Silicon Valley legend Naval Ravikant in May is now available. We discussed my new book How Innovation Works and more.It was a wonderful discussion, and I appreciated hearing the perspective of a true entrepreneur and innovator.
You can listen to it on his YouTube page below, download it on Apple Podcasts, or download it elsewhere or read the transcript on his website.
I have taken a break from media appearances since Thursday—I needed a rest, and I'd say I like birds even more than innovation—but it was a wonderful first two weeks for me and for the book, thanks to you.
Here's an update on the launch, and what's planned for the coming weeks.
What Did You Think?
My blog post for Human Progress:
When you think about it, what has happened to human society in the last 300 years is pretty weird. After trundling along with horses and sailboats, slaves and swords, for millennia, we suddenly got steam engines and search engines, and planes and cars and electricity and computers and social media and DNA sequences. We gave ourselves a perpetual motion machine called innovation. The more we innovated, the more innovation became possible.
It’s by far the biggest story of the last three centuries—the main cause of the decline of extreme poverty to unprecedented levels—yet we know curiously little about why it happened, let alone when and where and how it can be made to continue. It certainly did not start as a result of deliberate policy. Even today, beyond throwing money at scientists in the hope they might start businesses, and subsidies at businesses in the hope they might deliver products, we don’t have much of an idea how to encourage innovation at the political level.
I am delighted to be launching my new book How Innovation Works this week, which has officially arrived in the United States and Canada.
If you want to read it now, you can get the Kindle or audiobook (read by myself!) instantly.
But hardcover orders are even better! More on that below.
My article for the Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay, adapted from How Innovation Works which is available Tuesday, the 19th of May:
The Covid-19 pandemic reveals that far from living in an age of incessant technological change, we have been neglecting innovation in exactly the areas where we most need it. Faced with a 17th-century plague, we are left to fall back mainly on the 17th-century response of quarantine and closing the theaters.
My article for the Telegraph:
At the start of the pandemic, China built a hospital in double-quick time and we all thought, “that’s why they are so good at economic growth”. Then Britain did the same, proving we can do it too. Medical devices have been rushed through the approval process in days. Vaccine development is being brilliantly accelerated. We have shown we can do things quickly. Why can’t we do the same in ordinary times?Like every small business owner, I find that quangos always take far, far longer than they need over decisions.A local river trust cleaning out an old fish-pass on a river took several months to get approval from the Environment Agency; the work took one day. An attempt to turn derelict farm buildings into shops has so far taken local planning officials seven years to (not yet) decide.Getting permission to extend a track by a hundred yards took Natural England many months of hesitation and several site visits.The problem that faces firms up and down the country is not that regulators say no, but that they take an age to say yes. A local firm has been trying to start a project that would bring 200 good jobs and millions of pounds of tax revenue. It has been through planning permission, an inquiry, an appeal and a court case – winning at every stage. It was promised a ministerial decision last June and is still waiting, five years after applying.From Heathrow Airport’s new runway to notifying you of a medical test result, everything seems to take far longer than necessary.For private enterprise, time is money; delay can be lethal. Companies like Amazon, for all their faults, recognise this and promise you rapid delivery. For the public sector, there is no urgency. If the rules state that you must receive a reply within three weeks, then lo and behold, the reply arrives after three weeks, never two.It can take up to six years to get a medical device – a new and faster diagnostic test for viruses, say – licensed in most European countries, including this one. Entrepreneurs cannot wait that long; their money runs out. We will never know how many innovations such delays have deterred, but they are surely one of the main reasons we were not better prepared for this pandemic.
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Last week, I did an AMA with a community called whatshouldireadnext.com and the answers are now available on their blog.
I answered 23 questions in total from their community and staff as well as a few from social media, discussing the usual topics of innovation and the pandemic, but also some new ones like time management, murder hornets, and what the Earth might be like in one hundred or a thousand years. Here are some highlights:
The thing that most surprised me about this episode was realising how slow vaccine development still is. The big prize would be much faster and more oven-ready vaccines for viruses. But I suspect antiviral drugs will make big strides during this pandemic too as they did during ebola. And hand-held, instant DNA PCR testing kits will surely become a big part of the world's preparedness.
With the North America release of How Innovation Works just one week away, I am unable to travel to the US to promote the book as I would normally do. So my team and I are trying to come up with creative ways to promote the book while also sharing free content and prizes with you.When books are released, those who have helped me write the book as well as press and other insiders get free, often signed copies. We thought regular readers should have a chance to get one themselves, especially with live events being impossible right now.So we decided to give away at least ten free signed copies of How Innovation Works to fans in the US and Canada.
In fact, I recently signed over one hundred labels to mail to the US publisher to put on review copies and other copies for media and influencers. So this year, these ten fans will be among the very few to get a directly signed copy!There are three ways to enter the drawing:
I spent an hour talking to philosophy expert, business expert and Ayn Rand Institute Chairman Yaron Brook about my upcoming book, and the painful yet important lessons that the epidemic is teaching us about innovation.
Please check it out, and consider sharing and subscribing:
Because of the global coronavirus crisis, I have agreed with my publisher's request to delay publication of the UK edition of my new book How Innovation Works from 14 May till 25 June.
The US edition will be published on 19 May as planned, because printing has already begun.
The book already includes a chapter on public health and the role of innovation in the battle against epidemics of smallpox, polio, typhoid, whooping cough, malaria and cholera. But I will now add a short section for the end of the book about this year's pandemic and its implications for our attitude towards innovation. (Spoiler: we need more, not less.)
In the 19th century Ignaz Semmelweis was vilified and ostracised when he tried to make doctors wash their hands after doing autopsies on women who had died from childbirth fever before going straight upstairs to deliver more babies. We have come a long way since then in public health, but we can go much further still.
My next book How Innovation Works will be published on 14th May in the United Kingdom and 19th May in the United States and Canada. It’s available for pre-order now. While it has been searchable on booksellers’ websites for a few months, and teased here and there on social media, I am glad to be introducing it officially and directly to you, my friends and fans, for the first time.
At some point in the year or two after The Evolution of Everything came out – I remember the moment, but not when it was exactly – the idea hit me rather abruptly that innovation is both one of the most significant human habits and one of the least well understood. I had touched on a lot of aspects of innovation in my previous books, but I have never tackled it head on.
My blog post for Free Market Conservatives:
I visited reddit's r/IAmA community Wednesday to answer your questions. Here are some highlights.
Can you briefly summarise your position on climate change?
While, as I said, it's not an issue I am focusing on much, I was happy to remind everyone of my position.
From the Kirkus review of How Innovation Works:
Kirkus is an "advance reviewer" that primarily servers publishers and other reviewers, but feel free to reach out if you're in media and would like to request your own review copy, publish an article, do an interview, etc.
How Innovation Works will be released in the UK on May 14th and in the US on May 19th, but is available to pre-order now.
My article from The Spectator:
What was Brexit for? After finally taking Britain out of the European Union, the Prime Minister can now start to give us his answer — and the opportunity in front of him is pretty clear. He could speed up, perhaps double, the rate of economic growth by unleashing innovation. After leaving the slow steaming European convoy, Britain must not chug along but go full speed ahead. That means rediscovering trial and error, serendipity and swiftness — the mechanisms by which the market finds out what the consumer wants next.
The stifling of innovation by vested interests in the corridors of Brussels has held Britain back for too long — but it is not the only reason for our sluggish innovation capacity. We can also blame creaky infrastructure, neglect of the north, a glacial-speed planning system, the temptations of a speculative property market, low research and development spending, and a chronic inability to turn good ideas into big businesses.
My article from The Times:
With tariffs announced against Brazil and Argentina, and a threat against France, Donald Trump is dragging the world deeper into a damaging trade war. Largely unnoticed, the European Union is also in trouble at the World Trade Organisation for its continuing and worsening record as a protectionist bloc.
Last month, at the WTO meeting in Geneva, India joined a list of countries including Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Malaysia that have lodged formal complaints against the EU over barriers to agricultural imports. Not only does the EU raise hefty tariffs against crops such as rice and oranges to protect subsidised European farmers; it also uses health and safety rules to block imports. The irony is that these are often dressed up as precautionary measures against health and environmental threats, when in fact they are sometimes preventing Europeans from gaining health and environmental benefits.
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