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.
Update: The `hungry time' was even later in the year than I said. See below.
A meditation on the English spring I wrote for yesterday's Times:
I live on the 55th degree north parallel. If I had gone round the world along that line last week, through Denmark, Lithuania, Russia, Kamchatka, Alaska, Hudson's Bay and Labrador, I would be trudging through snow nearly all the way (there is a handy northern hemisphere weekly snow map on the website of Florida State University, whence I gleaned this fact). Yet instead I ate a picnic on a Northumbrian riverbank as a blizzard of orange-tip butterflies danced over a snowfield of wood anemones in the mild sunshine.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the regulation of genetic testing
I just took a detailed genetic test by sending some spit to a firm in California and looking up the results on the Net. It seems I'm probably descended from a peculiarly fecund fourth-century Irish king called Niall of the Nine Hostages and a slightly more unusual Mesopotamian Neolithic matriarch. Oh, and I have mostly average risk of most diseases: The medical part of the test gave me a bit of risk here, a bit of reassurance there, nothing very drastic.
In my experience, scientists often have a reflexive contempt for economics. Speaking as a scientist who came to understand economics after leaving academia, I find this attitude frustrating, because I see how they miss the fundamentally bottom-up, emergent, evolving nature of human society that the field of economics strives to understand (even as they often acknowledge the bottom-up, emergent nature of evolution and of ecosystems).
Peter Risdon writes to draw to my attention what Mark Twain wrote to Walt Whitman on this 70th birthday:
The BBC has plumbed new depths with its recent reporting on shale gas. Its reporter Richard Black wrote a story about the old Cornell University claim that shale gas production emits more greenhouse-warming gases than coal. I happen to know quite a bit about this study and I know that it is based on very extreme and highly implausible assumptions shared by nobody outside a narrow group of partisans. I also know that it is very, very easy for a journalist to find this out and then at least to mention that there are two sides to the story. Yet nowhere in the entire piece does Black even mention that this study is disputed. As reporting goes, that's truly disgraceful, and I for one will never trust a story from Black again.
So here are a few things he should have told you about the other side of the story, from Energy in Depth, a source that is about as partisan as the BBC.
Alan Carlin has a peer reviewed paper in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which concludes that climate policy is, in my terminology, a tourniquet for a nosebleed:
The economic benefits of reducing CO2 emissions may be about two orders of magnitude less than those estimated by most economists because the climate sensitivity factor (CSF) is much lower than assumed by the United Nations because feedback is negative rather than positive and the effects of CO2 emissions reductions on atmospheric CO2 appear to be short rather than long lasting.
The costs of CO2 emissions reductions are very much higher than usually estimated because of technological and implementation problems recently identified.
The Times has been serialising seven chapters of The Rational Optimist for a week each.
The last one is available now.
The discovery, announced this week, of several genetic mutations that predispose people toward Alzheimer's disease is intriguing, because the genes are associated with cholesterol metabolism and inflammation. The Alzheimer's jigsaw is a long way from being complete, but the pieces are emerging, and this new evidence fits quite nicely with the other pieces in suggesting a role for inflammation.
Piece 1 is the immediate cause of Alzheimer's disease: the appearance of insoluble "plaques" made of a small protein called amyloid beta (A-beta for short) inside brain cells. These plaques block the traffic of molecules in the cells. Eventually another small protein, called tau, also starts to crystallize in this way to form "tangles." Both symptoms are diagnostic of Alzheimer's, and similar ones characterize other neurological syndromes such as Parkinson's and Creutzfeldt-Jakob's.
Puzzle piece 2 is the APOE gene on chromosome 19, long known as a powerful influence on whether you will get Alzheimer's disease. Having two copies of the 4 version of the gene makes you 20 times more likely than average to get the symptoms before the age of 75. (Having at least one copy of the 2 version makes you less likely than average to get the symptoms.) One of APOE's jobs is to break down plaques, and the 4 version is inefficient at this task.
As I keep saying, shale gas is indeed revolutionising world energy supply.
The US Energy Information Administration officially uses the word `vast' for shale gas resources outside the US:
Although the shale gas resource estimates will likely change over time as additional information becomes available, the report shows that the international shale gas resource base is vast
I wrote this piece for The Times yesterday (original behind paywall)
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about trying to evolve, rather than ordain, solution to obesity
Sometimes we find it easy to identify a problem and impossible to think of a solution. Obesity is a good example. Almost everybody agrees that it is a growing burden on health systems and that it requires urgent attention from policy makers. But almost everybody also agrees that no policy for reducing obesity is working.
Some 32% of adult American men and 35% of women are clinically obese. The proportion hasn't swelled in recent years, but it hasn't shrunk either, a study of 2008 data suggests. School posters, virally marketed videos, healthy-eating classes, mandatory swimming lessons, minimum school-recess times, celebrity chefs in charge of school-meal recipes, bicycle lanes, junk-food ad bans, calorie-content labels, hectoring physicians, birthday-cake bans, monetary rewards for weight loss-they've all been tried, and they've all largely failed.
Correlation ain't causation.
But for some time I have been noticing that the correlations between certain aspects of solar activity and certain aspects of climate are getting really rather impressive -- far more so than anything relating to carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide certainly can affect climate, but so for sure can other things, and in explaining the ups and downs of past climate, before industrialisation, variations in the sun are looking better and better as an explanation. That does not mean the sun causes current climate change, but it certainly suggests that it is at least possible that forcings more powerful than carbon dioxide could be at work.
To mark today's UK publication of The Rational Optimist in paperback, I have written an article for The Sun newspaper:
FOR the past month, the news has been all bad - war, recession, riot, tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, inflation, cuts... and the cricket.
Guest post by Andrew Mayne
"Too much choice can be a bad thing-not just for the individual, but for society."
Tim Worstall riffs on William Baumol to fascinating effect:
One way of putting which is that increasing labour productivity in services is more difficult than improving it in manufacturing. Canonically, we cannot get a symphony orchestra to be more productive by playing at twice the speed. So, ally this with wages being determined by average productivity, we'll see the amount we need to spend on labour to get services to rise against the amount we need to spend on labour to get manufactures. Services will become more expensive relative to manufactures over time.
However, this is not certain. A tendency, yes, but not a certainty. For it is possible, through innovation, to turn a service into, if not a manufacture, at least an automated operation. Think replacing bank clerks with ATMs. Skilled typists with dictation software. We can record the symphony once and play it many times on a gramophone/Walkman/iPod.
As a general rule, if George Monbiot agrees with you, start worrying you may be wrong. The Fukushima nuclear crisis has made Monbiot a fan of nuclear power, at just the time when my doubts have been growing.
You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.
A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
My latest Wall Street Journal article is on Nick Humphrey's theory of consciousness, as set out in his fine new book Soul Dust
In 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments," published in 1759, Adam Smith boldly recast the question of virtue in terms of what we now call empathy (but which he called sympathy). Smith argued that we are good to each other because empathy allows us to imagine both the pleasure and the suffering experienced by our fellow beings. Even when alone, he suggested, our morality comes from adopting the perspective of an imagined "impartial spectator."
I have written two articles in the past few days on the implications of the Fukushima nuclear crisis (accident?, incident? drama? -- not sure what the right word is).
This was for The Times on 16th March:
James Delingpole is on fine form:
So wind farms don't just despoil countryside, frighten horses, chop up birds, spontaneously combust, drive down property prices, madden those who live nearby with their subsonic humming, drive up electricity prices, promote rentseeking, make rich landowners richer (and everyone else poorer), ruin views, buy more electric sports cars for that dreadful Dale Vince character, require rare earth minerals which cause enormous environmental damage, destroy 3.7 real jobs for every fake "green" job they "create", blight neighbourhoods, kill off tourism and ruin lives, but they also
Robert Hardman in the Daily Mail writes:
Of course, the modern world is better equipped than the ancients to survive these cataclysmic disasters. We have stronger buildings, better communications and international aid agencies to help the recovery process. But older societies had a more realistic sense of their place in the world.
Which would you rather have? A more realistic sense of your place in the world -- or your life? The remarkable thing about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami is how many more they would have killed if Japan had still been a poor country.
This is a draft of a piece that I wrote for The Times last week. The published version was slightly different. I strongly recommend Brian Moynahan's wonderful book on Tyndale:
This month, the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible reach a crescendo. Melvyn Bragg, James Naughtie and Adam Nicolson have all presented programmes on the subject. But I have an uneasy feeling that they are they are missing, or underplaying, a key point: that there is a single literary genius behind the authorized bible's wonderful English - William Tyndale.
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
Photo: Jon Erlandson
The Times ran this column by me last week:
When burglars broke into Vodafone's Basingstoke exchange early on Monday morning, they plunged half of southern England into the dark ages. Desolate and desperate figures shuffled through the drizzle wearing sack-cloth and mortifying their flesh in expiation of the sins that had brought this calamity upon them. It did no good and for several long hours the horror continued: blackberries were silent, mute, lifeless.
Is a mobile signal a luxury or a necessity? It would have been unwise to lecture one of Monday's deprived souls on the astonishing marvel of being able to communicate through the ether at all, let alone window-shop the world's information bazaar virtually for free at the speed of light. `Just be grateful that it sometimes works' is not a line that placates me when I lose a mobile signal.
Latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:
When did you last read an account of how microchips actually work? You know, replete with all that stuff about electrons and holes and "p-doping" and "n-doping" and the delights of gallium arsenide. The golden age of such articles, when you could read about them in the mainstream press, was the early 1980s. Today nobody writes about semiconductors, at least not about how they work.
My point? That when a technology is new, everybody wants to understand how it works. When it is mature, nobody is interested in such details. The fascination with how things work fades, and the technology becomes a black box.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
Three years ago Queen Elizabeth II asked a group of speech therapists if her father's stutter had been caused by his being forced to write with his right hand despite being a natural left-hander. Though it's a more plausible theory than movie psychobabble about conflict with a domineering father (a theme of Oscar front-runner "The King's Speech"), the experts told the queen that this commonly held explanation for stuttering remains unproven. It may be just an urban legend, based on the fact that stuttering is more common among the left-handed.
The connection between handedness and speech runs deep. Speech is controlled by the left side of the brain and so is motor control of the usually dominant right hand. It is possible that this connection says something about the evolutionary origin of language, if language was first expressed through gestures rather than speech.
The other day at a talk I was asked, as I often am, whether I agree that only putting the state in control can clean up the environment. I wish I had then read this, from the blog at Cafe Hayek: a letter sent to the Los Angeles Times:
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