Saturday, December 18, 2004


It doesn't appear that nanotechnology is going to bring an end to the world any time soon.

But for anyone interested in a more detailed analysis and in the results of my two months of pondering and researching this subject might want to look out for two things. First, there will be a survey of nanotechnology published in The Economist on January 1st... under the title "Small wonders". This will also be available online.

Secondly, I am also putting together a radio documentary with the BBC on nanotechnology, called 'Grey goo's sticky mess'. It is going to be broadcast in the UK on Radio 4 as part of their Analysis series. The first broadcast will be on Thursday 30th December, the second on Saturday 1st January at 9.30. Both times are pm. During the week of broadcast it will be possible to listen to a copy of the broadcast online.

Other recent news, in October of this year the agricultural organisation CGIAR gave me an award for a piece on fish farming I wrote a while ago. The blue revolution: the promise of fish farming, is available at

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Small world

This Thursday (tomorrow!) I start work on a survey of nanotechnology. I have to figure out what the fuss is really all about. Are we going to be eaten by grey goo and have our brains rotted out by nanoparticles? Or maybe nanotech will lead to another stock market boom and bust, shortly after it solves the world's energy problems and creates peace in the Middle East. OK, I lied about the last one.

In a timely fashion, the magazine Wired is about to publish a piece in its October issue saying that the idea of assembling matter from the ground up using molecular assembly is tosh and many scientists now think it is not possible. I may understand too little about all this but I think I discovered proof of principle of molecular assembly a little earlier today by eating a ham sandwich.

The tour starts in Oxford, England and I head for San Francisco on Sunday.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Two hot topics

1. Much excitement in the science department this week as NASA's Genesis probe crashed in Utah just as we were closing the section. We had to pull out an item at the last minute to create the room for something on the probe. A bit of high-speed reportage then followed...

An unflying saucer
Sep 9th 2004
From The Economist print edition
Genesis crashed. But can it be brought back to life?

THE Genesis capsule pictured above was supposed to have been returned to Earth by Hollywood stunt pilots. But the capsule, launched by America's space agency, NASA, suffered a distinctly unheroic fate when it plummeted to the ground in the Utah desert on September 8th. Although the proposal to catch it in mid-air was perfectly feasible, a fault with the probe's parachute system meant that the waiting helicopter pilots stood no chance of making the recovery... (full article here requires subscription)

2. The second piece I wrote this week was about radiation damage to the human germ line. It is a report I picked up from a conference in London on leukemia. Interesting and slightly depressing stuff.

Testing times
Sep 9th 2004
From The Economist print edition

There is now evidence that radiation damage can be passed down the generations

DURING the 1950s, one of the least inviting holiday destinations on the planet would have been Semipalatinsk, in Kazakhstan. It is a mere 150km (about 100 miles) from the Soviet Union's main atomic-bomb testing site and it was subjected to the fallout from 118 tests over 13 years. From this and other grim and inadvertent experiments, it is clear that nuclear radiation is a powerful cause of mutations in human DNA in the ordinary cells (those that are not concerned with reproduction) of the body. Such mutations can, in turn, cause cancers. But evidence supporting another oft-voiced fear—that radiation-induced mutations might affect human reproductive (or “germ-line”) cells—is weak and surprisingly controversial. (full article here requires subscription)

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Marrakesh in August 2004

After the heat of the day, Moroccans perk up and get lively. This is one of a series of photographs taken over a long weekend in Marrakesh in August 2004. Those of you who were there might want to see the other photographs that were taken here
Downtown Marrakesh, August '04

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

1. Twins 2. Scientific publishing

1. Two of a kind
This week's offering comes from the twins festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. I also took the cute picture of the sulky twins.

Second part is here (registration required).

2. Access all areas
The previous week I wrote a piece about scientific publishing

I've had a few letters about this article, most of them remarking that it was an omission not to mention all the wonderful work that many society publishers do on behalf of science using the profits they make from publishing academic journals. Although I recommended one of the shorter letters for publication, I don't think that not fretting about society publishers was a particulary terrible omission.

The article is about the so-called "serials crisis" in universities--in other words, that academic journals are becoming unaffordable. It is also about how governments are starting to wonder why the results of research are not available freely to all. What got a few letter writers upset was that I didn't delve into the benefits that science gets from the society publishers -- these are journal publishers that make money from university libraries but spend their profits on science.

My feeling is that the issue of what society publishers do is irrelevant to the question of affordability to university libraries--who have to pay for the journals. Certainly, they may suffer under a new model of publishing but so will commercial publishers. The problem is not that anyone is making a profit from publishing journals--this is actually a good thing. But that the way the market works is that some people are able to make far too much.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Attempt on the X-prize?

There are rumours, likely to be true, that the Ansari X-Prize organisation are soon to announce an attempt at the X-prize. This is a $10m prize for a ship capable of taking 3 people just into space twice in a fortnight. Burt Rutan, the designer of SpaceShipOne (pictured) is likely to announce his attempt.
The picture shown reminds us that none of this stuff is risk free. It is a rare picture, taken in the hanger of Scaled Composites (the company that built the ship) immediately after the flight into space. It shows how a bit of faring was torn off during the flight. This was the loud "bang" that pilot Mike Melville heard during the trip.
It isn't, actually, a very important bit of the craft. It was mainly put there for the purpose of appearance and to give slightly improved aerodynamics.

Damage to SpaceShipOne

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Horses in sneakers

This week’s issue of The Economist contains a fun little item I picked up from the ongoing science exhibition at London’s Royal Society. It is about what this season’s fashionably shod horse is wearing. It talks a bit about the natural balance shoe which is a sort of Birkenstock for horses (at Manolo Blahnik prices).

Unfortunately, the best thing about the piece is not its written content but the picture we found to go with it--of a horse in sneakers. The Economist item this week is subscription only, but you can find bizarre pictures of horses in sneakers here.

It is the website of the Guidehorse Foundation of America. Yes, really. They train miniature horses as guide animals for the blind. The photo pages are full of strange pictures of horses: wearing sneakers down the mall, in the shower, and having a snooze under the duvet of a bed.

On the hoof
Jul 8th 2004
New designs are being trotted out for horseshoes. Square toes are in
IF TIRED and aching feet are ever a problem for you, imagine how bad things could get with four feet to look after instead of just two. Read on… (Subscription required)

Sunday, July 04, 2004

"I didn't see this, this isn't my problem"

For those of you who were lucky enough to join VJ at the Groucho for his leaving London party, here are the photographs. The group photograph in VJ's room is particularly splendid. When one of the Groucho staff dropped by the room and saw us all she said "I didn't see this, this isn't my problem". For more photographsclick here.

A night at the Groucho... Posted by Hello

Economist coverage of SpaceShipOne

The first two articles were written in Mojave, California on the 21st of June at the historic launch of SpaceShipOne. About 30,000 people turned up to watch what they hoped was the birth of private space travel. The third article was intially written as a preview article on the 17th for The Economist's website Global Agenda, and updated after the launch. When Burt Rutan, designer of SpaceShipOne, read it he said it was the best article he had seen on the subject.

I spoke Mr Rutan for the first time only after I had filed these pieces. A difficult man to get hold of. He told me that the problems that SpaceShipOne faced on the last test flight, while serious, did not look as though they would be too difficult to fix. I asked him about the future of SpaceShipOne after the Ansari X-Prize attempt and he basically said this would be in the hands of the company, owned by Paul Allen, that owns it. Ultimately, it is likely to end up in a museum. But what might happen to the craft before then is anyone's guess at the moment. Mr Rutan did not think it would ever operate as a commercial space tourism vehicle, but he did say it might do a bit of "barnstorming" for millionaires.

The Starship Free Enterprise
A milestone in the birth of a new kind of space age
(From The Economist print edition) Jun 24th 2004

Up, up and away
Private enterprise has launched a man into space—inspiringly cheaply
(From The Economist print edition) Jun 24th 2004

Lift-off for enterprise
A rocket backed by a high-tech entrepreneur has successfully completed the first commercial manned flight beyond the earth’s atmosphere—days after a commission set up by President Bush called for NASA to hand over many space-exploration activities to the private sector
(Web only: From The Economist Global Agenda) Jun 21st 2004

Other space articles
Old, unsafe and costly
It is time to admit that the shuttle has failed, and move on
(From The Economist print edition) Aug 28th 2003

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Breakfast with Venus

Venus crossed the surface of the Sun on Tuesday June 8th this year. A group of journalists and science writers got up at dawn to go and watch it happen at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. A few pictures here.

General Venus transit info here.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Collected articles 2: animals, evolution and sex

This article about the chemistry of love was published (unsurprisingly) in February of 2004. It inspired the Economist staff so much that a leader (op-ed) was written to go along with it (not by me) in the form of a sonnet.

  • I get a kick out of you
    Scientists are finding that, after all, love really is down to a chemical addiction between people
    (From The Economist print edition) Feb 12th 2004

    Scientists are finding that, after all, love really is down to a chemical addiction between people

    OVER the course of history it has been artists, poets and playwrights who have made the greatest progress in humanity's understanding of love. Romance has seemed as inexplicable as the beauty of a rainbow. But these days scientists are challenging that notion, and they have rather a lot to say about how and why people love each other.

    Is this useful? The scientists think so. For a start, understanding the neurochemical pathways that regulate social attachments may help to deal with defects in people's ability to form relationships. All relationships, whether they are those of parents with their children, spouses with their partners, or workers with their colleagues, rely on an ability to create and maintain social ties. Defects can be disabling, and become apparent as disorders such as autism and schizophrenia—and, indeed, as the serious depression that can result from rejection in love. Research is also shedding light on some of the more extreme forms of sexual behaviour. And, controversially, some utopian fringe groups see such work as the doorway to a future where love is guaranteed because it will be provided chemically, or even genetically engineered from conception. .... (read on)

  • Love makes voles of us all
    A Shakespearian reaction to this week's science section (see article)
    (From The Economist print edition) Feb 12th 2004
    (Subscription required)

    The following article is a lighthearted look at hair for our Christmas issue 2003. The core of the article is about evolutionary biology, and why humans might have become nearly hairless. I entered this for a science-writing award last year. It didn't win but I was surprised to get feedback on the article. One judge described the introduction as gratuitous, while another loved it. Most of our readers seemed to enjoy it, too. One, however, did say that it put it off his supper.

  • The bare truth
    Why are humans nearly hairless? And why do some wish to become more so?
    Dec 18th 2003

    AT THE back of a hairdresser's shop, just off Piccadilly in London, an Irish beautician called Genevieve is explaining what a “Brazilian” is as she practises her art on your correspondent. A Brazilian strip, some are surprised to learn, is nothing to do with Latin American football. Between each excruciating rip, she explains that she is going to remove nearly all my pubic hair, except for a narrow vertical strip of hairs the width of a couple of fingers. This is known colloquially as the “landing strip”.... (read on)

    Finally, another Christmas piece from 2000 looking at invading foreign animals and plants.
  • New flora and fauna for old
    Animals, plants and microbes can now migrate across the planet to new homes with unprecedented ease. Ought they to be stopped? Some, no doubt. But the arrival of new species is no novelty, and many have been harmless, some highly beneficial
    (From The Economist print edition) Dec 21st 2000

    Animals, plants and microbes can now migrate across the planet to new homes with unprecedented ease. Ought they to be stopped? Some, no doubt. But the arrival of new species is no novelty, and many have been harmless, some highly beneficial

    FAR off in the South Atlantic, 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) from the nearest landmass, Africa, a war is being waged on a lonely spot called Gough Island. One side has suffered heavy casualties: over 1,000 dead this year, 63 alone on one particularly bloody night. The outcome of this interspecies warfare is a foregone conclusion, however: battered but unbowed, the mice are defeating the humans.

    Out in its isolation, Gough is home to animals found nowhere else. The mice, however, arrived quite recently on sealing vessels. They now over-run the island, the base camp and the food store of the other newly arrived species: the currently ten intrepid scientists and meteorologists who live there for year-long stretches. The humans face long evenings, with limited scope for entertainment. In some ways, here is a microcosm of human attitudes towards new alien species. It’s a grudge match.... (read on)

  • Thursday, July 01, 2004

    Collected articles 1: marine biology, fish and fishing

    Fish farming package
    The promise of a blue revolution
    How aquaculture might meet most of the world's demand for fish without ruining the environment
    (From The Economist print edition) Aug 7th 2003
    A long feature describing how technology is changing fish farming, and suggesting that while there are many things that are wrong with aquaculture it holds a lot of promise for the future.

    The blue revolution
    A new way to feed the world
    (From The Economist print edition) Aug 7th 2003 Opinion piece alongside the feature arguing the case for aquaculture and saying it is a good thing, despite environmental concerns. (Requires subscription)

    Cover image (Worldwide except UK)

    Other subjects: coral, marine reserves, salmon genetics

    Ocean's eleventh hour?
    Fish stocks are dropping rapidly. Predators are falling fastest
    (From The Economist print edition) May 15th 2003

    Turtle power
    “Bycatch” from fishing is a bigger problem than was realised
    (From The Economist print edition) Feb 20th 2003

    Out of the blue
    This year's CITES meeting to regulate trade in endangered species will focus on fish—and see a clash between different flavours of conservationist
    (From The Economist print edition) Oct 31st 2002

    Fishy figures
    The world's fish catch may be much smaller than previously thought
    (From The Economist print edition) Nov 29th 2001

    Something fishy
    There are more salmon in the Columbia River. Not everybody is happy
    (From The Economist print edition) May 24th 2001

    Net benefits
    Surprisingly, banning fishing in certain areas can increase the total quantity of fish available to be caught
    (From The Economist print edition) Feb 22nd 2001

    Reporting from Bali at an international meeting of coral reef scientists

    What price coral?
    The world’s coral reefs are in a parlous condition. A little hard-headed economics would help
    (From The Economist print edition) Nov 2nd 2000

    Life’s a bleach, and then you die
    Researchers have worked out the cause of coral bleaching. The answer is not encouraging
    (From The Economist print edition) Nov 2nd 2000