Filed under: Uncategorized
I’m very happy to have worked for Nature. I’m proud of some of the stuff I did in my time as Chief News and Features Editor there and — even more so — of the stuff I helped my excellent colleagues there to do. I have huge affection for many of the people who work there, and I think it is a great magazine and journal. I think that by and large it navigates the difficult territory that comes from being a profit-making organisation providing a public good and a cultural necessity reasonably well. I think it has served science faithfully for 143 years, and that the world would be a much worse place without it it.
However the fact that a personal subscription to Nature does not allow you access to its archive is simply crappy.
Yes, you get access to articles back to 1997, which is better than nothing. But science didn’t start in 1997. Nature didn’t start in 1997. Ideas that are important today are not all rooted in the very shallow post-1997 horizon of intellectual history. The random selection of articles I just looked at in a recent issue all had references to pre-1997 work, some of it published in Nature.
Sometimes pre-1997 observations are as current as they come. Today I was looking into various aspects of the Pinatubo eruption of 1991. Around the world scientists looked into the eruption and sent their observations and ideas to Nature. The best of them got published. Have there been any better observations since? No – there haven’t been any comparable eruptions to observe since. So I can’t read the most recent relevant observations on a topic of current interest in a journal to which I have paid to subscribe.
Not an isolated instance. A friend recently asked me about the origin of a fundamental concept in molecular biology. With a little work, I tracked it down to a Nature paper from the 1960s. That was helpful to him — but I couldn’t get the full context because I couldn’t get the bloody paper. (The friend could – irony of ironies, he works for Nature.)
I admit that I’m probably unusual in the amount of pre-1997 stuff that I want to read. I have a greater interest in the roots of scientific discussions than most. I am interested in the continuities and lack of same between science now and science in its past. I like the day before yesterday.
But a) I think, all other things being equal, it would be better if more people moved a little way towards my approach to these things. Too many people read only the most recent publications in their field, and lack a long perspective.
And b) I BOUGHT A SUBSCRIPTION. I should be able to read the archive.
Now, I should note that this policy, while stupid, is not sneaky. The subscription page makes it clear that you don’t get the archive. And I should also note that the subscription is worth it anyway for a beautifully produced magazine that never fails to inform and fascinate.
But it is still a bad policy. And not just because it inconveniences me and leaves me feeling ripped off by an institution I esteem so highly. Because Nature should be about all of Nature. It should be about making you a part of the process of which it is, and has been, a great exemplar. And it shouldn’t salami slice that process in search of a quick buck.
I remember speaking with quite fierce pride at my leaving party about the experience of being at the head of a spear with a haft centuries long behind it. But if you want to appreciate the haft, it will cost you £22 quid a glimpse, even if you’re a paid up member of the spearhead. That’s wrong. If you’re part of Nature‘s wonderful ongoing conversation you should be part of all of Nature‘s wonderful ongoing conversation.
Filed under: Uncategorized
In honour of MSL/Curiosity, which descends towards the surface of Mars at breakneck speed tomorrow morning with about a five in seven chance of ending up in one functional piece, I’ve put a couple of relevant pieces up at the mostly defunct MainlyMartian. If you want to try and hold your breath through the “seven minutes of terror” they start at 05.31 UT
Sunday Monday morning.
Filed under: Uncategorized
I’ve been reading a bit of ecological history for a column, and I was struck by some dichotomies. Here’s Ron Doel, in 2003
By the 1960s, two distinct ‘environmental sciences’ had emerged: one biology-centered, focused on the problems in ecology and population studies, and funded in part on the problems in ecology and population studies, and funded in part by agencies and managers concerned about human threats to the environment; the other geophysics-centered, focused on the physical environment, and responsive to the operational needs of the military services that support it.
I can see that, and I can see how it would map in part on to a distinction between critical and industrialised science of the sort that Ravetz discusses.
But here’s a different dichotomy, in a different context, as ascribed to G. Evelyn Hutchinson by Joel Hagen in “An Entangled Bank”
Population biologists tended to take a merological perspective, focusing upon independent individuals and assuming that population phenomena determined higher level community properties. In contrast to this bottom up approach, other ecologists, particularly those who later studied ecosystems, took a holological approach by studying the flow of materials and energy through food webs without considering the individuals that made up the web. Hutchinson, an eclectic biologist, seemed capable of making the transition from one perspective to the other effortlessly. Most other ecologists have not been so adept.
And this, it seems to me, also bears on the Clements/Tansley dispute, as to whether there was a sort of teleological holism in ecology (the notion of the climax ecosystem), or simply sets of relations between populations and their physical environments which could be studied rather as those in physics could be.
Now it’s pretty clear to me that these aren’t all the same cut and dried dichotomy. You can be a military-linked energy-flow kind of guy and believe in climax systems (I think the Odums did this). But elements of it do seem to be consistent. I wonder if anyone can guide me to deeper thought on this?
Filed under: Geoengineering, Global change, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis
I recently had the great pleasure of attending this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue at Cavallo Point, an event at which the Breakthrough Institute brought together kindred spirits of disparate views to hash out some of the many issues that that Institute takes an interest in. On the basis of this Economist special report I was invited to talk about nuclear power, but in the many fruitful interstices of the meeting found myself talking about geoengineering quite a lot, because this is the sort of crowd where that sort of discussion makes sense, and because I am working on a book on the subject.
Towards the end of the meeting, a friend mentioned to me that perhaps I should be more careful in such conversations – people seemed to be getting the wrong idea about what I believed. This may be the case – I can’t really vouch for what message people were picking up, and I’ll admit that I sometimes run off at the mouth and that jet lag when drink has been taken doesn’t always help matters.
That said, I think there is a danger to being too careful in talking about geoengineering. If all the people who know about geoengineering are meticulous in the care that they take in talking about it, they will create no new misapprehensions – but they may do little to dispel old misapprehensions, and they may pass up the opportunity to carve out for geoengineering a more central place in our ongoing discussion on climate. I think it deserves that place; if I didn’t I wouldn’t be writing a book about it.
But while there may be good reason to be expansive in one’s talk, there’s no good reason for being careless, or even sloppy, in one’s reasoning. I have tried to be pretty careful in published stuff in the past, such as this 2007 piece in Nature and this 2010 piece in Prospect. Some time in the future I hope to provide all the clarity and nuance one could wish for in the book. But for the time being, here are a few key points in my current thinking, expressed with what I hope is appropriate care. (more…)
Filed under: Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis
Lord knows this shouldn’t need saying, but it does. Earlier this week I received a press release from a UK green electricity company claiming that for a couple of months last year wind power had provided 10% of the UK’s energy needs. Today, The Guardian prints a Reuters report saying that during the post-christmas gales it was 12.2%. The same report ended up at Scientific American and quite a lot of other places. In both cases the numbers came from the UK Renewable site (Reuters’ source here) with which I have no beef. But both had taken figures explicitly about electricity consumption and claimed that they reflected total energy use.
I really don’t understand how it is that people sitting in warm homes or offices with cars going past their windows think that electricity and energy are the same thing. But here are the numbers. Page 59 of the latest International Energy Agency figures (pdf) gives TPES (total primary energy supply) for the UK as 197mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent). Converting that into the sort of units electricity is measured in (the IEA provides a handy converter here) you get 2290TWh. In the same table on page 56 you will see that UK net electricity consumption given as 350TWh. So only about 15% of the UK TPES is consumed as electricity.
The two numbers are not quite equivalent. The share of TPES devoted to generating electricity is larger than the amount of electricity consumed, because more than half the energy content of coal and gas burned at power stations doesn’t actually get turned into electricity. So though I don’t have figures to hand on how much of the TPES is devoted to electricity generation, its probably around twice that much, which fits with my sense that about 30-40% of energy supply is used for generating electricity.
Anyway, everyone makes mistakes, but this one is both egregious, distressingly common and genuinely harmful. When people hear that Britain’s rather paltry wind fleet is generating 10% of its energy they are seriously misled about the scale of the decarbonisation challenge. In good months, as far as I can see, wind currently provides a bit less than half of the country’s renewable electricity, which means about 5% of its consumed electricity, which means less than 1% of its TPES.
The renewables company corrected its press release as soon as I pointed out the error. I trust that the Reuters and its subscribers will too.
Filed under: film
I’ve seen, and listened to via podcast a number of films-of-the-year lists, enjoyed them, agreed with them in parts, don’t see much reason to add another to them. But it was quite a filmish year for me, with my first visit to Sundance and over 50 cinema trips (dismal by professional standards, I know, or even real cinephile standards, but more than I think I’ve managed any other year), and a recap seems in order. So here are two lists, first of the ten films I most regret missing this year, then of moments in film that mattered to me.
What I missed that I regret most (in quasi chronological order)
- Benda Balili
- Meek’s Cutoff
- A Separation
- Tree of Life
- Project Nim
- Skin I live in
- Kill List
- Take Shelter
- Deep Blue Sea
Looks like my missed list would be a pretty good best of list in other parts. (I should say I have mostly only myself to blame — I think the excellent Greenwich Picturehouse showed all but two of those)
A similarly quasi-chronological list of moments that moved, mattered and stunned
- The girl in the car close to the end of Life in a Day, who hasn’t done anything special but wants to be in on what’s happening.
- The distraught shepherd phoning home from the high pasture near the end of Sweetgrass
- The doping/seduction/murder in Animal Kingdom. (Also the remarkable painterly scenes of the boy alone in the house at night; also the cut to the gallery scene; also…In dramatic terms, this was pretty much my film of the year)
- The bullet-time-ish moment where he finally gets it right in Source Code (quite ambivalent about the double coda after this, though I appreciate some of why it was needed). It’s like Ecclestone’s “Just this one time, everybody gets to live” moment in The Doctor Dances, one of the Moff’s great moments
- The God’s presence at Monaco sequence in Senna
- The bit where Elle Fanning acts at the boys in Super 8
- The amends made in the barber’s shop in The Interrupters
- The lift scene in Drive
- The automaton starts to draw in Hugo (actually, pretty much all of Hugo…)
- The Burj Khalifa exterior sequence in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
- The Siberian shore lingered on, repeatedly, through rippled panes of glass in How I Ended This Summer
- “Allow it” in Attack the Block; way to define a hero..
- The death/goat on the table in Il Quattro Volte
- The final stairway sequence of Russian Ark (yes, I know — but it was new *to me* this year…)
- “Rhinoceros“: Midnight in Paris (more generally, Corey Stoll; but for a moment, Brody…)
- “Loser loser loser” at the end of Moneyball
Filed under: Uncategorized
It’s not saying much to say that there might be more blogging here this year than there was last year. It may also have more film stuff than was its original intention, though I might get some planetary anthropoceney geoengineeringish photosynthetic stuff up too. Let’s just see how it goes, shall we?