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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

19.04.2018
Hans Rosling’s name is not one that is widely known, but it should be. He died last year at what today is a young age – just 68 – but his last book (Factfulness) has recently been published (with his son and daughter as co-authors). He was a physician and statistician and professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute. Bill Gates is quoted by the publishers as saying: “One of the most important books I've ever read - an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” Reviews have been almost universally positive (eg, from the FT, Why the world isn’t nearly as bad as...
13.04.2018
Undeniably we live in interesting times. Whether you consider that a curse or a blessing is probably down to your world view but, in any case, we all have to cope with it. Nearly every change lies somewhere on the grey scale between being beneficial or detrimental. Every development, however well intentioned, has some downside, while even technologies primarily developed for military use have some really useful spinoffs (satellite navigation, for example). What we now call social media is a prime case in point. Facebook allows people to keep in touch and let each other know what they are...
06.04.2018
At one time, many people could be neatly pigeon-holed according to their beliefs. In the 1990s, the great majority of those categorising themselves as environmentalists could reliably be assumed to oppose the use of pesticides, air- and water-pollution from industrial processing, nuclear power and genetically modified crops, with (anthropogenic) climate change rapidly reaching the top of the list. But in the early 21st Century, things are often less clear-cut. But in some circles, if you don’t subscribe to this basket of beliefs, you become persona non gratis in the green movement. Older...
16.03.2018
The number of electric cars sold in Britain has fallen by a third since the start of the year, amid concerns that motorists are being put off by high prices, limited battery range and a lack of roadside charging points. These are the opening words of an article in the Times this week (Electric car sales tumble over price and plugs). The question is, are these just inevitable teething problems or are the plans for a grand phase out of internal combustion engines fatally flawed at this stage of technology development? This is a young market and doubtless prone to hiccups, and a key factor in...
23.02.2018
Last week, I mentioned Elon Musk’s deep pessimism about the impact of artificial intelligence on the human race. I don’t share that pessimism, but it seems to be one of the key motivators of this driven, innovative and (so-far) very successful individual. Musk is one or a kind, combining analysis of problems from first principles (so deciding that space travel should be cheaper and easier than it seemed, for example) with creativity, showmanship plus the essential quality of being able to convince investors to take a chance. He also mixes the ability to take a broad view of complex issues and...
15.02.2018
For decades, writers and film makers have imagined a world in which computers and robots have advanced to the stage where they are, at least in some respects, more capable than their creators. Science fiction allows us to explore both the practical and moral implications of such changes, but we are now perhaps on the cusp of science fiction becoming science fact, when potential problems will become of more than just theoretical importance. Many of the imagined worlds are dystopian and serve as a warning and we should certainly always be aware of the unintended consequences of what we do. But...
09.02.2018
Certainty is usually thought of as a virtue, and we often regard those who lack firm views on an issue as indecisive or weak. In fact, it can be a mixed blessing, with a refusal to change position sometimes leading to far more harm than good. At the extreme, the certainty that a particular ideology is right can have appalling consequences; Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot’s ostensible attempts to build perfect socialist societies resulted in terrible suffering and millions of deaths. On a more mundane level, a failure to recognise a change of public mood can mark the end of the road for democratically...
25.01.2018
Anyone who experienced the oil crises of the ‘70s and ‘80s will remember Sheikh Yamani, Saudi oil minister and leader of the then dominant OPEC cartel (in the days when oil was cheap and America hadn’t started exploiting its shale deposits). He is credited with saying that the Stone Age didn’t end because of the lack of stone, and the Oil Age wouldn’t end because of the lack of oil. You can read many things into that, but it encapsulates an essential truth: in the energy sector, one source is likely to dominate for a particular purpose until something better comes along. ‘Better’ also means...
19.01.2018
In today’s world of blacks and whites, plastic waste is becoming a major target both of environmentalists and policymakers, and the benefits are being forgotten. This is an unfortunate trend, but typical of the highly precautionary mind-set that has put so much pressure on synthetic chemicals in general and crop protection and agricultural biotechnology in particular. Without a balanced view of risks and benefits, there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But it wasn’t always like that. As synthetic polymers became commercially available in large quantities from the mid-...
12.01.2018
Early civilizations evolved after the development of arable farming about 10,000 years ago. This enabled settled communities to grow and some people to specialise in skills other than hunting and foraging. Life was still unbelievably hard by today’s standards, but the basis for development of modern societies was established. During the 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution transformed the lives of vast numbers of people. Families moved from the land as cities grew further and factory jobs rocketed. Not all the change was for the better initially, but this phase of development was another...

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