Heliophage


Reviews of The Planet Remade
November 3, 2015, 1:50 pm
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As of today, November 3rd, The Planet Remade is available in America, from Princeton University Press, as well as the UK, where it’s published by Granta (Amazon UK|US, Google Books for other sellers). Here’s a tally of reviews so far.

Kirkus gave it a starred review:

Once dismissed as the province of cranks, geoengineering approaches to climate change have gained new respectability…An important account of cutting-edge research that will fascinate serious readers and demand the attention of policymakers.

Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times (£) found it:

Ambitious, enthralling and slightly strange.

(He locates the strangeness partly in an avoidance of gosh-wow science about mirrors in space)

Jane Long in Nature (which I thought was paywalled, but seems not to be) says:

If you are going to read one book on climate engineering, it should be The Planet RemadeThe Planet Remade is as much an exploration of science and engineering as it is of people and attitudes… [with] insight gleaned from knowledge of the natural world, social thought, literature and science fiction, science and politics, scientific history and the scientists making that history…For a potentially harrowing topic, serendipity and fun abound.

Robert Mayhew in The Literary Review is thoughtful and positive, but not unreservedly so in that he thinks I avoid “the deeper political and moral questions” (I differ on this):

Morton is a cautious cornucopian about the potential of geoengineering. From his perspective, we have over the past century made massive strides in our understanding of the earthsystem. Indeed, one of the most interesting elements of The Planet Remade is that it offers fragments towards a history of our understanding of how the earth’s climate functions, which hopefully Morton may consolidate in future writing. Emerging from this historical approach is the most arresting and interesting claim in the book: rather than imagining geoengineering as something new, hubristic and Promethean being devised in the face of impending climatic Armageddon, we ought to recognise that humankind has been geoengineering for decades and that over the longer term it has been a normal part of modern societies. The main distinction of today’s geoengineering is that it offers the potential to make interventions in the biogeochemistry of the planet in ways that are more sensitive to the functioning of the earthsystem than ever before.

To make good on these claims, Morton shows us in the second part of the book that we have made huge adjustments to the carbon, sulphur and nitrogen cycles of the planet.

And here’s Robin McKie in The Observer, combining his review with one of “Atmosphere of Hope” by Tim Flannery (Amazon US|UK), using the frame of the Paris conference to get to the heart of the matter:

Only by actively limiting solar radiation and by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere can we hope to curtail temperature rises, [Morton] argues. This is the science of geo-engineering and it is controversial because such projects – which include spraying sulphur particles in the upper atmosphere to cut out sunlight – risk worsening, rather than improving our world. Morton is no zealot, however, and his arguments are intriguing and persuasive.

My thanks to all the reviewers for engaging with the book so thoughtfully. As more reviews come in I will either lengthen this post or do some separate ones to which I will link here.



Talking about The Planet Remade online
November 3, 2015, 1:48 pm
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I’ve done various interviews and discussions related to The Planet Remade (Amazon UK|US, Google Books for other sellers) : this post collects the links, should anyone wish to listen.

Here’s an interview that went out on Newshour from the BBC World Service. If you want a sense of what it’s all about in less than five minutes, this is probably your link.

Here’s a discussion of uncertainty in various guises on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week that features me, Matthew Syed (author of Black Box Thinking), Helga Nowotny (author of The Cunning of Uncertainty) and David Willetts (author of The Pinch), very thoughtfully brought together by Tom Sutcliffe.

Here’s a Guardian podcast. As well as me, reading an extract and chatting with Richard Lee (starts at 14:00) there’s also Gaia Vince winning the Royal Society’s Winton Prize for Science Books for her excellent Adventures in the Anthropocene (and bemoaning the horrors of sitting at a desk that was opposite mine at the time!) and a review of Morissey’s novel.

Here’s an Economist podcast in which I talk about the book with my colleague Lane Greene.

And here’s an episode of Radio 4’s Inside Science that was recorded at the very delightful Write on Kew literary festival in Kew Gardens. As well as me there’s Kew’s Director of Science, Kathy Willis; Ilia Leitch, who works on the absurdly large genomes that some plants contrive to maintain, and Aaron Davis, who looks at how coffee is going to fare in a hotter world, all under the watchful eye of Adam Rutherford.

Many thanks to all the hosts, interviewers and producers involved. I’ll probably update this post as and when.



Nobel prize winners: one for my fellow hacks
April 1, 2015, 8:46 am
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This isn’t really apropos of anything, but I got to thinking about the use I make or allow of “Nobel prize winning” in things I write and edit. Sometimes it is obviously relevant; when I wrote about Paul Crutzen’s intervention in the geoengineering debate in my book, the meaning the prize had for his stature made it germane; when I wrote about Haber and Bosch the irony, especially in the context of Alfred Nobel’s business, seemed worth pointing up. But are other mentions worthwhile, or fair. Or are they thumbs on the scale? For example, if one says that Hans Bethe was a Nobel prize winner and nearby have cause to mention John von Neumann without such an accolade, will the reader take it that Bethe was a bigger deal in some way? When I mention Sydney Chapman close to where I mention Crutzen, do readers take the fact that I can’t say Chapman got a Nobel as evidence that he wasn’t a scientist of like stature (which he surely was; I would love to learn why his amazing work wasn’t honoured*).

I think most of the time when we are writing about science and a Nobel prize winner crops up we mention the accolade just to make our story stand a little taller — we think it will matter to the reader. But in a news story, as opposed to a feature that has time to get into who’s who and what’s what, are we not also adding a bit of bias, suggesting that this is the person to take seriously in the debate? And is mention of a Nobel prize that isn’t really germane to the story, just to the past accomplishments of one player in it, really just a way of puffing things up?

There’s an added wrinkle when you think across disciplines. It seems to me that it is in some ways easier to get a Nobel prize (or “Nobel prize”) in economics than in the natural sciences; the size of the pool is just smaller. And the rhetorical weight an economics prize adds to statements that are more likely to be policy-germane is as great or greater. So should Nobel prizes be mentioned for economists? After all, the prize isn’t for general stature, or for likeliness to say true things. It is for a specific piece of work that may have no relevance to the matter at hand.

Anyway, it seems a vaguely interesting ethical/standards-and-practices issue for people in my line of work to consider. I doubt anyone else cares all that much, and it’s quite possible most of my colleagues don’t, either. And it may be that this is mostly just to say “Sorry, Robert Shiller, I needed to cut a line…”

*When I say that I would love to know this I mean I would love someone to tell me, or to happen across the info while looking for something else, not that I would love it enough to go and , like, do some research…



If smart drug makers were serious about their stuff…
March 4, 2015, 7:35 pm
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Interesting article in Fusion about nootropics spurs the thought that if these companies think they are selling something that works, they should sell it in trial form. You’d get a blister pack with numbered wells, half containing the active product, half a placebo. You’d record — maybe through an associated app — whether you felt that day’s pill had worked or not. At the end of a month, or whatever, the company would unblind your blister pack for you and you’d get a sense of whether the days on which you had felt the drug had had an effect were days on which you had in fact taken it.

Best if you do it with a range of drugs — that way people can find the one that works for them (assuming individual responses vary). It’s all very citizen science rah-rah and win-win: the company ends up with a good rep among evidence-oriented types and knowing more about its product (maybe you get a discount if you share some genome data with the provider?); consumers get a product that they can have some faith in; sum of human knowledge is increased.



Music of Science: Thoughts on a fire
December 13, 2013, 3:14 pm
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My new vaguely seasonal Intelligent Life column is now online:

Because my father was born at Christmas time, his parents named him Noel. But that was not the name by which they came to know him. As a baby he would stare, rapt, into the fire in the grate of their house in a Welsh mining valley, off in a world of his own. His mother took to calling him “Joseph the dreamer”, and from then on his family always called him Joe.

A love of looking into a hearth is something I have inherited from him. As I write this in my own sitting room, a log is crackling on a bed of slower-burning coals in a fireplace not dissimilar to the one my dad grew up with. The house would be warm without it, but I find it one of the more enjoyable duties of winter, once a week or so, to walk up the road to the filling station, load a battered old rucksack with solid fuel, and lug it back home. It makes the northern hemisphere’s turning away from the sun a bit more palatable. And, in a simple, reassuringly domestic way, it celebrates what makes the planet quite so special.

Read on

And here’s the curated set of Music of Science columns



The Deeply Summery
August 18, 2013, 7:28 pm
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One and half shots of Pincer botanical vodka

Shot of fresh lime juice

Half shot of St Germain

Half shot of Gomme Syrup

Dash of pastis (I used Henri Bardouin)

Shake over ice, pour into a large wine glass with a few ice cubes, add prosecco.

I don’t often note down a cocktail I have busked, but this (obviously in the Southside Fizz/French 75 family) really wowed me.

In general, I heartily recommend Pincer. I’ve had it neat and in a variety of off-dry martinis where it has excelled. A sugar cube soaked with Peychaud’s bitters and a shot of Pincers is a very good basis for a champagne cocktail. My only problem with Pincers is that the bottle is sillily dark and stops me from seeing how much I have left.

Update: I always meant to call this cocktail the Deeply Summery, but for some reason this post originally called in merely Deep. It is actually fully adverbially Deeply



Joe Nocera doesn’t understand climate change
March 16, 2013, 2:20 pm
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Not that he is alone in this, but he did make it rather glaringly obvious in his NYT column this morning.

The column is on CCS, and in particular the new Summit energy plant outside Odessa, the Texas Clean Energy Project. Like Mr Nocera, I quite like the TCEP. Unlike Mr Nocera, I don’t think that in and of itself it provides a reason for thinking that CCS is going to be a big part of emissions reduction.

That, though, was not the part of the article which stood out. The part which stood out was:

A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

For some people the naffness of that “dare I say it” will be the unacceptable part of that sentence, and for others it will indeed be the slight on the importance of the issue that a great many American greens seem to have decided is the most important battle to be fighting. To me, though, the problem is that Mr Nocera seems to believe that reducing emissions would mean reversing climate change. It wouldn’t. Emissions increase the carbon dioxide level. Higher carbon dioxide levels lead to more warming (people of good will, and others, can disagree about how much more). Reduce emissions appreciably and you slow the rise in the carbon dioxide level, which should reduce the rate of warming. But to reverse climate change you have to either bring the carbon dioxide level down or cut the amount of sunlight warming the earth in the first place. If you don’t understand the difference between reducing and reversing I don’t think you should be writing about this subject. Or for that matter driving a car.

The main point of Mr Nocera’s column seems to be to pick a fight with Bill McKibben. Fair enough. I have wanted to do so, on different grounds, many times. Who knows — maybe one day I will. But when I do I will try and show a slightly better grasp of the basics.



Glory of leaves
November 18, 2012, 4:42 pm
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National Geographic has a nice, evocative piece about leaves by Rob Dunn (@RobDunn) along with a typically beautiful gallery. This particular image is by Carsten Peter (@carsten_peter)



Neil Armstrong RIP
August 29, 2012, 10:03 pm
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I don’t have much to add to various wise and lovely things that have already been said about the great man by friends and others. My colleague Tim Cross’s obituary struck me as warm and perceptive

As the first man to walk on another world, Armstrong received the lion’s share of the adulation. All the while, he quietly insisted that the popular image of the hard-charging astronaut braving mortal danger the way other men might brave a trip to the dentist was exaggerated. “For heaven’s sake, I loathe danger,” he told one interviewer before his fateful flight. Done properly, he opined, spaceflight ought to be no more dangerous than mixing a milkshake.

Indeed, the popular image of the “right stuff” possessed by the astronaut corps—the bravery, the competitiveness, the swaggering machismo—was never the full story. The symbol of the test-pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert, where Armstrong spent years testing military jets, is a slide rule over a stylised fighter jet. In an address to America’s National Press Club in 2000, Armstrong offered the following self-portrait: “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.

Particularly grateful for the nuance he brings to the notion of “The right stuff”, which many others failed to bring out. It’s a complex and layered book, and far from a simple paean.

Clive Crook’s response struck, unusually for Clive, a personal tone. In general, I was struck by how many memories people were blogging and tweeting were about their fathers.

When it came to what NASA accomplished, [my father’s] admiration turned to awe. It makes me chuckle even now to think back to it. This reverence was so unlike him. He wanted me to understand just how difficult a thing it was–and how daring. “I know you think it’s incredibly hard, but it’s so much harder than that.” He followed the engineering as closely as he could and explained a lot of it to me. He persuaded me so well that I secretly decided it couldn’t actually be done. The margins for error were just too small. I was sure something would go wrong and they’d fail. Of course we stayed up all night and watched the video of the first walk on the surface. We were both moved to tears.

Neil Gaiman posted this picture, which is not just great fun but also seems to capture a particular happiness on Mr Armstrong’s part.

Three Neils

And Roz Kaveney was, as always, inimitable

Endymion – for Neil Armstrong

In her white silent place, the hangings dust,
grey pebbles stretching to the edge of black
so far away. The goddess feels a lack
somewhere elsewhere, an ache deep as her crust

and weeps dry tears. The gentleman is gone
the first who ever called. His feet were light
as he danced on her. Went into the night
quite soon, his calling and his mission done

yet still his marks remain. Footfalls and flag.
The others she forgets. He was the first
to slake her ages long and lonely thirst
for suitors. Now she feels the years drag

as they did not before he came to call.
Our grief compared to hers weighs naught at all.

I have little to add. He was clearly a magnificent man, and, as Tim notes, one who would never have dreamed of trying to take credit for the remarkable political and technological instrumentality that took him so high into the sky. Many mourning his passing mourn the passing of  that instrumentality, too, and would wish it revived. It is a feeling that I understand, though less well than once I did, but cannot share. It does no disservice to Mr Armstrong’s memory to believe, as I have come to, that now is not the time to try and recapitulate those achievements, nor to try and surpass them with similar feats of human space exploration.

And if you feel worried about giving up the honour that goes with the next landing on the moon to the Chinese, remember that their envoy has already been there. The process that sent him there might have been deeply rooted in the cold war: but Neil Armstrong really did come in peace for all mankind.



A crappy thing about Nature (the journal, not the concept)
August 15, 2012, 5:55 pm
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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.