Playing in the road

Road sign, Park Road, Radlett
Yesterday the suburban street outside our house was closed all day. It’s a busy road so the contrast with an ordinary day was pronounced – the silence lovely. We all rushed out into the street to enjoy the calm. Olly brought his scooter and raced down the hill (achieving some kind of scary, wobbly land speed record in the process), we tight-roped along the white line, played chicken with the absent trucks and 4x4s (we’ve done this before, actually) A holiday atmosphere arose.

After a while, as people realised what was going on, others sent their kids out with bikes and skates and footballs (and Heelys, natch). I crossed the road for no reason. And then back again. I chatted with neighbours I hardly ever talk to. Children I’ve never even seen emerged from houses only a few doors down. Gorblimey guv, it was like the 1950s.

I’ve said this before but I’m going to say it again anyway: the dominion of the car has made our streets and communities miserable, inward-looking places. Take the cars away, even if only for a day, and life returns. Yesterday, when the cars came back, all in a disappointing rush at about 5 O’Clock, the kids disappeared into their houses like mice into the skirting – in a blink they were gone, exiled from the street again. It was genuinely sad.

Jane Jacobs, humane urbanist, recorded variations in the rates of interaction amongst neighbours on opposite sides of the same street. Simplifying: the faster the traffic in your street, the less likely you are to cross the road to talk to the people who live there. Above a certain speed you’ll never bother. Slowing traffic, logically, increases interaction and, below a certain speed, you’ll be as friendly with opposite neighbours as you are with the ones on either side (your sociability may vary).

Here’s an article about shared streets, a successful Dutch way of making streets more friendly by, paradoxically, mixing up the cars and the people. Here are some more pics from our quiet day.

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Excellent New Scientist podcast

If you’re interested in this evolutionary biology stuff you’re going to want to get over to New Scientist and subscribe to their excellent podcast. This week’s double issue is devoted to a brilliant interview (by podcast anchor Ivan Semeniuk) with E.O. Wilson who’s got a new book out. In The Creation he bravely reaches out to American evangelicals to save the planet’s natural diversity. Wilson’s range is awesome and his humanity obvious. Inspiring.

Scientific curiosity in action

Space scientists have been preoccupied for a while with the tantalising prospect of life in the ultra-cold oceans and ice-sheets and deserts of the solar system’s rockier lumps. Their readiness to believe that organic life might thrive even in these nasty, inhospitable places has got earth’s biologists thinking about life here. If there could be life on Titan or Mars what about the sub-zero environments here on Earth?

Well, it turns out that at least one organism, bacterium Colwellia 34H, metabolises quite happily inside solid ice at -20°C and keeps on working all the way down to the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196°C), at which scientists had long assumed life was impossible. You’ll need a New Scientist subscription for this quite mind-blowing story.

The curiosity and readiness to challenge received wisdom shown by scientists never ceases to amaze me.

It’s planetary correctness gone mad

Michael Hanlon on Planet Pluto in The Daily Mail

The Mail‘s Science Editor Michael Hanlon can be relied upon to recruit even the most obscure and disinterested branch of science to the cause of rampant political correctness. Today he takes on the ‘loony’ planetary scientists who want to ‘demote’ poor Pluto, removing the plucky planetoid from the list of proper planets all together. He provides a reasonable summary of the science but manages to sign off: “There are few enough certainties in life. Please, let’s keep little Pluto as one of them.” Brilliant. Quite brilliant.

New York & India

Rush out and buy these special issues before they disappear from the shelves at the end of the week: The Economist’s terrific Survey of New York and New Scientist’s comprehensive special on science in India. Both are outstanding – the best specialist journalism in Britain and lots of clever, exclusive content. Both mags are really on form, if you ask me.

The Economist’s survey seems to be available for nothing at the web site and quite a lot of the New Scientist’s special is also free online.


I defy you to find a better layman’s summary of Nanotech (science and business) than The Economist‘s terrific survey from last week (The Economist’s well-researched monthly surveys are probably the best reason to sort out a subscription to the magazine sharpish, if you ask me).

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Oh shit

MRSA – the hospital super-bug – is well-and-truly out of the hospitals (and getting more super by the day – it kills between 25 and 43% of its victims). Species-level ecological trends like this really sort out the optimists from the pessimists. If you’re a classical anti-growth green or an eco-warrior there’s really only one possible response to MRSA: lots of apocalyptic “woe is me” hand wringing and misery. We’re doomed. We’re on the wrong path and the only option is a giant developmental U-turn, some kind of low intensity economics, low tech medicine, population caps, reduction in consumption. Blah blah.

If you’re an optimistic pseudo-green (that’s me), MRSA is an opportunity (a grim one, I’ll admit) for us to think about our relationship to micro-organisms, to infection and pathogens in general and to innovate our way out of this crisis. We’re almost certainly coming to the end of the ‘antibiotic era’. The question is, what comes next – the revenge of the microbes or a new era of smart, adaptive anti-infection medicines? Thankfully, as this article from Business Week shows, there are plenty of optimistic pseudo-greens in the research community busy developing ecologically clever, unconventional responses to MRSA and its nasty cousins.

This week’s top cow meme

Journalists don’t know anything. That’s their job. If they knew anything they’d be doing something that paid better. Besides, knowledgable journos wouldn’t be better journos, they’d just be more opinionated and that would reduce their value as reporters. An exception to this rule seems to be Mars guru Oliver Morton. I don’t want to gush (for the second time in a week) but any reporter who can whip out his Texas Instruments Scientific Calculator and work out that the output of methane predicted by the latest spectrographic analysis of Mars is equivalent to 2,000 terrestrial cows is knowledgeable enough for me.

Update: Oliver points out (in a comment below) that his book about Mars is not out of print – have just spelt his name wrong. How annoying can that be?

Water everywhere

Mars from Mars Global Surveyor showing water ice clouds
My kids – before they’re my age – will know Mars better than I know, say, Tasmania or Patagonia. They won’t have been there but they’ll feel like they have. If they’re paying attention (unlikely), they’ll also have a pretty detailed mental image of two or three of our Sun’s other planets, submarine images from Europa’s salty ocean and – maybe – reasonable pictures of half a dozen small-ish, blue-ish planets orbiting other stars. I suspect they’ll also know that the solar system – and the universe beyond it – are greener and more hospitable to life than we could ever have imagined and that there’s as much water (liquid and otherwise) on distant planets as there is here on earth. They’ll also have a pretty good idea how it got there.

Leo Enright, the BBC’s Space Correspondent (now that’s a good job title) has made a wonderful series of programmes about the discovery of water elsewhere in the Universe. His amazement and pleasure at the rush of new discoveries he uncovers keep spilling over into infectious laughter. Joyful factual radio.

Warm white wine, peanuts, outer space, celebrities… Marvelous

Alex from Blur at the launch of Demos' space report, 3rd march 2004Colin Pillinger at the launch of Demos' space report, 3rd March 2004
The highlight of the week was on Wednesday. First, fantastic French Vietnamese lunch with parent and wife Juliet, baby Rosa, sarcastic artist Paul Murphy and noted author Yolanda Zappaterra (they don’t have a high-chair but Bam-Bou was probably the most baby-friendly restaurant we’ve ever been to), then to Carlton House Terrace to help Demos launch their latest genuinely cool report on space (which you can download in full here). Think Tanks are pretty dry places and they’re less influential than they think. ‘Evidence-based’ policy-making turns out to be third-way mumbo-jumbo – most public policy is inevitably still cobbled together in the corridors and smoke-filled rooms – usually in the hours before a really tight vote.

Politicians (especially jaded, second-term politicians) care less about the coherence and long-term value of their policies than about the next electoral test. When outsiders do exercise influence the legislative outcomes are usually so compromised and hedged as to barely resemble the original, crystaline thought (hence the messy, slightly desperate programme of ‘government by wheeze’ we’ve seen lately – lots of panicky, irrelevant, second-priority laws making it to the statute book because tougher, more realistic legislation would produce more unsupportable rebellion).

Your average Think Tank thrashes around in its own public policy thicket – housing, science, health. Not Demos. I’m trying to imagine the original meeting: “let’s do space”. “What, you mean like public parks and stuff”. “No. I mean space. Outer space. Beam me up, Scotty. Hubble. Beagle 2” “Bloody hell. Good idea. Bags the jet pack” “All right. But I’m wearing the Spock ears.”

Of course, the best part of the evening was chatting with completely undaunted Colin Pillinger, the man behind Beagle 2, and clever Alex from Blur. Pillinger was mobbed by his fans – mostly male, difident and forty-something. Some were actually asking for autographs. Alex was more-or-less ignored but hung around until he could politely leave. Space was top dog at least for this evening.