Science is a great career if you don’t mind waiting until age 87 to be recognized

The New York Times ran what seems intended to be an inspiring success story,“Myriam Sarachik Never Gave Up on Physics”:

The New York-based scientist overcame sexism and personal tragedy to make major contributions to the field, for which she received recognition this year.

The phenomenon is now known as the Kondo effect, after Jun Kondo, a Japanese physicist who successfully explained what was going on. The Kondo effect has turned out to be a central component needed to understand the behavior of electrons in solids.

But Dr. Kondo, as a theorist and not an experimentalist, was not the first to show that his supposition [that electrical resistance may increase as some metals are cooled] was correct.

That instead was Dr. Sarachik, 87, now retired after a career spanning more than a half-century as a professor of physics at the City College of New York.

The experiment was just one of the accomplishments for which Dr. Sarachik received this year’s Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research, a top honor of the American Physical Society.

The article closes with some gender binarism:

“Women are no better and no worse at doing physics than men are,” she said. “They are, however, at least if they’re my age, more persistent. It’s tenacity. It’s the will not to be pushed out.”

What about people with the other 48 gender IDs? Are they persistent when it comes to physics?

As with a lot of articles in publications controlled by those who took their last science course in high school, I think one theme is promoting to young people the greatness of careers in science. But how many people would want to wait until age 87 to be recognized for a huge achievement?


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Kill them all (mosquitoes) with genetic engineering and let God sort out the mutant survivors

“Plan to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida gets go-ahead” (Guardian) is exciting to me since one of the best things that we could do for humanity would be to kill all of the world’s mosquitoes (in addition to the epic level of annoyance, they are responsible for killing 1 million people/year?).

Of course, the only thing more American than getting a mosquito bite is litigation. From the article:

A plan to release a horde of 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas is a step closer to fruition after a state regulator approved the idea, over the objections of many environmentalists.

Oxitec, a British biotechnology company, has targeted the US as a test site for a special version of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. The mosquitoes contain a protein that, when passed down to female offspring, will lessen their chances of survival and, it is hoped, prevent them from biting people and spreading diseases such as dengue fever and Zika.

But the plan has caused uproar among conservation groups, which have sued the EPA for allegedly failing to ascertain the environmental impact of the scheme. Scientists have also expressed concerns about the oversight of the trial.

If this goes bad, we can blame Donald Trump and what my Facebook friends characterize as his “defunding” of the EPA (I wish someone would “defund” our household in the same way that Trump has defunded the Federal agencies that he has been accused of defunding!).

Personally, I am excited! The Mosquito book referenced below says that these insects have zero redeeming value. There are no animals, for example, that would be significantly inconvenienced if mosquitoes were eliminated. In other words, there is no animal that depends on the mosquito for its subsistence.

A tax-free resident of the Sunshine State (from the Corkscrew Swamp sanctuary):


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Epidemiologists switch from doing politics to writing science fiction

“Emergency COVID-19 measures prevented more than 500 million infections, study finds” (Berkeley News):

Emergency health measures implemented in six major countries have “significantly and substantially slowed” the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to research from a UC Berkeley team published today in the journal Nature. The findings come as leaders worldwide struggle to balance the enormous and highly visible economic costs of emergency health measures against their public health benefits, which are difficult to see.

“The last several months have been extraordinarily difficult, but through our individual sacrifices, people everywhere have each contributed to one of humanity’s greatest collective achievements,” Hsiang said. “I don’t think any human endeavor has ever saved so many lives in such a short period of time. There have been huge personal costs to staying home and canceling events, but the data show that each day made a profound difference. By using science and cooperating, we changed the course of history.”

Armed with a few lines of Excel or R code, epidemiologists had been making prophecies about what would happen 1-8 weeks into the future. Citizens would then be able to see what actually happened:

(It is not surprising that these “scientific” results proved to be false, even beyond the usual “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” factors. As no country had ever tried an American-style “shutdown” (in which citizens still meet at grocery, liquor, and marijuana stores and still party every night on Tinder), only a scientist with a letter from God would have had a prayer (so to speak) of predicting the effects of such a shutdown. The self-proclaimed “scientists” also had no data regarding how easy it was for coronavirus to spread, what percent of the population was naturally immune, etc.)

The obvious inability of “scientists” to make useful predictions is not good for the image of “science”, even if “scientists” hadn’t further brought ridicule on themselves by flip-flopping on masks and the dangers of contaminated surface transmission, telling people it was okay to gather in huge crowds for BLM protesting, and telling others to quarantine while having sex with married women who would then go back to their husband and kids.

What’s the solution? Scientists can take up the genre of alternative history science fiction.

Traditional novel: What if the Germans had won World War II? Maybe the U.S. would be governed by an authoritarian puppet president, controlled by a foreign dictator. State governors would issue stay-at-home orders that eliminated Americans First Amendment rights to assemble. Young children would be locked into small apartments, denied schooling, friends, and playgrounds. Some brave folks would #Resist by going into the streets to battle with the city governments that they themselves had elected and would soon vote to re-elect.

Science-informed novel: Look at this two-parameter mathematical model. It shows what would have happened if we hadn’t locked down like I was recommending.

The beauty of this new approach is that, as with the “What if the Germans had won?” novel, there is no way to prove the author wrong.

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We are all pinheads compared to the Ancient Greeks and Romans

One of my activities during the coronaplague has been listening to Major Transitions in Evolution, a 24-lecture course that probably is best enjoyed in the video format because there are a lot of fossils presented. (And let me remind readers that the theory of evolution is only a theory!)

Are you an elderly curmudgeon who believes that every successive generation has been getting dumber? Do you think that the 19th century British were right to emphasize the study of Greek and Roman authors?

Science backs you up!

Over the last 10,000 years, human brains have been getting smaller! Professor John Hawks says that our brains have shrunk nearly 10 percent in relatively recent times and quite a bit of the shrinkage has occurred since Virgil was having a slave scribble out the Aeneid.

(Upset about all of the head injuries that occur as part of our sports culture? Our skull bones have been getting thinner as well.)


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Mining Oxygen on Mars

From a Valentine’s Day talk by Jeffrey Hoffman, an astronaut-turned-professor who is now part of an effort to mine oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere…. If the MOXIE system works and Blue Origin gets humans to Mars, they can come back without having had to pack 80 percent of their rocket fuel for the trip home.

Professor Hoffman explained that, though there is plenty of water in the Martian crust it takes too much energy to extract it. Thus, the plan is to “mine” the atmosphere, which is 96 percent CO2 (should be toasty warm from the greenhouse effect, except that atmospheric pressure is comparable at the Martian surface to what we have at 100,000′ above sea level).

Hoffman and collaborators’ experiment will launch in July 2020 and land in February 2021. The Mars journey will also be 7 months for humans, kind of like being on a cruise ship in Asia right now. The shocking news for movie fans is that The Martian is not scientifically accurate. The dramatic wind that forces an evacuation and is blowing stuff around would have to move at 1,000 mph to have enough force, given the thin atmosphere. In fact, the highest recorded winds on Mars are roughly 60 mph.

As with other astronauts I’ve talked to recently, Hoffman is not a fan of centralized government-run rocketry. Regarding the SLS, which promises to cost taxpayers $20 billion at least: “Maybe they will launch it a few times. It is Saturn V technology.” In his view, SpaceX and Blue Origin are where the innovation happens. The government “monopoly” had cost us decades of potential progress.

One thing I learned: this next Mars mission will include a helicopter! Also, landing on Mars is a combination of the worst features of the Earth and Moon. There is the friction from entering the atmosphere, as on Earth, but not enough atmosphere to slow down with wings or a regular parachute.

Sidenote: Hoffman first came to MIT because of Walter Lewin, whose physics lectures are now securely in a memory hole due to #MeToo issues.

Hoffman flew on five Shuttle missions, logged 1,211 hours in space, and did multiple spacewalks, including one to fix the Hubble telescope. An example of “bravery”? Perhaps not. There’s a talk on real bravery today at 4 pm:

What else do we find in the corridors at MIT? “The Trump administration is the noxious product of the capitalist system” (but didn’t most of the Wall Street capitalists support Hillary?)

A poster on “ethnomathematics”:

(If these “traditional and indigenous societies” are doing interesting stuff, why isn’t it just “mathematics”? Why do they need a special numbers nerdism ghetto?)

We crashed a Valentine’s Day party for a group of PhD students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Hollywood-style background:

The future engineering PhDs pour themselves coffee:

Circling back to Professor Hoffman… As with other retired astronauts I have met, this guy is incredibly fit and sharp at age 75. Makes one wonder why humans age at all. If we can live to 75 with hardly any deficits accumulating, why can’t we live to 750? If nearly all of us drop dead by 100, why don’t we drop dead at 10? Most of our cells have to go through at least one replacement cycle by age 10, right?

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Who earned an old-style Nobel Prize in 2019?

One of the (many) interesting angles in Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize (see previous post 1; also previous post 2) was that the Nobel in Physics was previously awarded for recently-developed stuff that had obvious near-term practical value for humans.

Marconi and Braun won in 1909 for the prize in “Physics” for their work in radio, which I think today we would call “engineering.” Nils Gustaf Dalén won in 1912 for improving lighthouses with a gas regulator.

What if the Nobel prize system still worked this way? They couldn’t reach back five decades, as they did with the Higgs boson (postulated 1964; confirmed 2012; Nobel Prize 2013). Who would have earned the prize for an advancement made in 2019?

My nomination: the team behind Garmin Autoland. It seems doubtful that the headline use will be common, but the technology could be adapted to yield huge safety improvements even for healthy two-pilot crews. The weather-avoidance system, for example, could suggest to pilots “Are you sure that you don’t want to adopt the following flight path?” The flap and gear extension systems could say “Would you like to add flaps and gear now that you’re lined up on final?”

Why it is important for humanity: a lot of people ride as passengers in airplanes. It is upsetting when airplanes crash (but, to judge by relative media coverage, hardly anyone cares about automobile crashes).

Reader: What are your picks? I guess you could also go back a couple of years (but not 49!) to things that proved themselves useful in 2019.


  • this Cirrus video, in which the presumed wife-mother does not seem too concerned about the expiration of the pilot (presumed husband-father) as she activates Garmin Autoland and looks forward to the next stage of her life journey
  • TIME magazine’s best inventions of 2019 (potential candidates from the folks who remind us that Greta Thunberg is #1 out of 8 billion)
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Geologist says Black Lives Don’t Matter…

… and neither do any other lives.

I’ve been listening to How the Earth Works, a survey course in geology from Michael E. Wysession, a professor at Washington University (St. Louis). It would surely be better as a video, but it works reasonably well in audio from Audible.

Wysession has a great knack for analogy, e.g., if the history of the Earth is your arm then you could erase human history with one swipe of an emery board over a fingernail.

What are we standing on? “The crust is literally the scum of the Earth,” says the professor, and more than 90 percent oxygen by volume.

The course dates from 2008 and therefore does not reference TIME Geophysicist of the Year Greta Thunberg. Wysession is a specialist in seismology, not in climate modeling, but he delivers the standard modeler result that the Earth is going to get warmer from the abuse it has suffered at the hands of humans, a child-like species in the professor’s view. He offers some practical tips, e.g., don’t live in the interior of a continent, especially near the Equator, because in the worst case it could be 8 degrees C hotter in 100 years. Areas near the ocean (but obviously you don’t want to buy a house right at current sea level!) will experience more moderate temperature increases.

Does he wail from his parents’ $10,000 chair like Greta T? No. He seems to take the long view. The Earth’s climate has been unusually stable for the past few hundred years. Back in the pre-Babylonian times there would be huge floods and multi-year droughts (thus leading to the stories we find in the Hebrew Bible, for example). As a geologist, he doesn’t get all that excited if the Earth gets hotter or colder for a while (“while” = tens of thousands or millions of years). What if climate change causes half of the human race to perish? Famine is the standard mechanism for controlling overpopulation of any species.

Climate is important for humans, according to the notes:

Between 0–100 C.E. warm, stable climates allowed the Roman Empire to thrive and expand. However, in 400 C.E., the climate went into an extended period of freezing. Starving Europeans migrated south and eventually overrode the Roman culture, contributing to its demise.

He also describes how the colder climate starting circa 1300 brought flood to China, which caused a boom in the rat population, which led to a boom in the flea population, which led to the Black Plague as the rats and fleas spread to the Middle East and Europe. The Plague in turn made the climate colder as “Millions of trees sprang up in now-abandoned fields, pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and cooling the climate.”

But humans aren’t important for the Earth in the long run.

For those who do want to worry about our species, Wysession brings up a lot of additional risks that don’t make it into the New York Times. When the Earth’s magnetic field “flips” from north-south to south-north, the flip happens almost instantaneously… in geologic time. There is hardly any magnetic field for 1,000 years during a “flip” and that means no magnetosphere. With no magnetosphere, cosmic rays rush in and destroy almost all of the life on our planet.

Can we predict volcanic eruptions? Not really. When a big one occurs, it can plunge us into a 1,000-year cooling period. Supposedly this happened 75,000 years ago with Toba.

What about geoengineering to stave off a big climate change? Wysession says that the sunspot cycle, which changes insolation by less than 0.1 percent, can have significant effects on the Earth’s climate (the Little Ice Age from 1550-1850, for example). So if we can build a big sunshade up in space, paint a bunch of stuff on Earth white, or fill the upper atmosphere with reflective particles we should be able to set the Earth’s temperature more or less as desired. (Failing that, plant some trees in the Sahara.)

Unlike our media and politicians, How the Earth Works covers both positive and negative feedback mechanisms for all of the cycles on our planet. Despite the discussion of human-caused climate changes, the course overall is a story in remarkable stability (not as bitingly sarcastic and funny as when told by this Nobel-winning physicist, though). Why aren’t our oceans as salty as the Dead Sea? Subduction keeps them in equilibrium by dragging ocean crust, filled with salt, down into the Earth.

Given that Americans want to talk about geoscience, but without doing any studying, watching or listening to this class could make you the life of the party (assuming that it is a very dull party).

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Female infanticide disproves sociobiology?

Wikipedia says “Sociobiology is a field of biology that aims to examine and explain social behavior in terms of evolution.”

One of the things that we learned about on our Northwest Passage cruise was the historical practice of female infanticide among Eskimos/Inuits. When food got scarce, female infants were at risk. The explanation given in museums and by guides was that boys would grow up into adult male hunters who could take care of their elderly parents.

From The North West Passage Exploration Anthology (a report from John Franklin from his 1825 trip):

The difficulty of procuring nourishment frequently induces the women of this tribe to destroy their female children. Two pregnant women of the party then at the fort, made known their intention of acting on this inhuman custom, though Mr. Dease threatened them with our heaviest displeasure if they put it into execution: we learned that, after they left us, one actually did destroy her child; the infant of the other woman proved to be a boy.

If the goal of an animal is propagating his/her/zir genes, this does not seem to make sense. A typical human female reproduces, thus passing on her parents’ genes. A typical human male has no offspring (polygamy is the natural human state, it seems; see “The era of monogamous long-term marriage was a brief interruption” within Real World Divorce).

The period of life in which the son will be potentially useful won’t likely start until after the parents are beyond reproductive age (and therefore whether they live or die has minimal effect on their reproductive success).

Readers: Is the existence of female infanticide across a range of cultures a simple proof that sociobiology is wrong?

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Nobel-winning physicists discourage young people from physics as a career

From a CNN article on the latest Nobel Prize in Physics:

Peebles, who is Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University, had a message for budding scientists.

“My advice to young people entering science: you should do it for the love of science,” he said at a press conference following the announcement.

“You should enter science because you are fascinated by it.”

In other words, “Don’t do it for the paycheck or the working conditions, as you might for most other career choices.” (Nobody says “You should train to be a dental hygienist because you are fascinated by teeth”; the stress will be on the $75k/year median wage following a two-year degree and on the flexibility to work anywhere in the U.S. and any number of days per week.)

[Apropos of nothing, CNN goes on to note

In 2018 the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a woman for the first time in 55 years, and for only the third time in its history. Donna Strickland, a Canadian physicist, was awarded last year’s prize jointly with Gérard Mourou, from France, for their work on generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses. They shared the award with an American, Arthur Ashkin, who at 96 becomes the oldest Nobel Laureate, for developing “optical tweezers.”

The preceding year’s Nobel had nothing to do with astrophysics, but it continues to be newsworthy because of the gender ID of one of the winners? (If, indeed Dr. Strickland identified as a woman at the time of the research or award, is there any evidence that Dr. Strickland continues to identify as a woman?)]


  • In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions. : “There is a fierce competition that begins the day you declare yourself a physics major. First, among your fellow undergraduates, you spar for top ranking in your class. This leads to the next battle: becoming a graduate student at a top school. Then, you toil for six to eight years to earn a postdoc job at another top school. And finally, you hope, comes a coveted faculty job, which can become permanent if you are privileged enough to get tenure. Along the way, the number of peers in your group diminishes by a factor of ten at each stage, from hundreds of undergraduates to just one faculty job becoming available every few years in your field. Then the competition really begins, for you compete against fellow gladiators honed in battle just as you are. You compete for the scarcest resource in science: money.”
  • “Women in Science” (compare to medicine, for example)
  • “The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM” (Atlantic): “In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions.”
  • An academic career need not be entirely bleak: “College professor spends nearly $190K in federal grants on strip clubs, sports bars” (USA Today), regarding an Electrical and Computer Engineering professor who spent tens of thousands of dollars of grant money in strip clubs and then wasted the rest….; Philadelphia Inquirer story on the same guy says “Once confronted, Nwankpa decided to bare all” and noted that his colleagues had selected him to be department chair

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Book that explores the biggest issue of our age

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann, author of the fascinating 1491 (what Elizabeth Warren’s ancestors were up to before Europeans arrived to trash these continents), explores what I think is the biggest issue of our age: can the human population continue to expand without (a) the Earth being transformed into an unpleasant habitat, and (b) humans themselves suffering a Malthusian reduction to a subsistence standard of living.

Mann frames the issue:

The two people were William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College demographer Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism”—the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption its growing numbers and appetite will overwhelm the planet’s ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. Our prosperity is temporary, he said, because it is based on taking more from Earth than it can give.

Borlaug, born twelve years later, has become the emblem of what has been termed “techno-optimism” or “cornucopianism”—the view that science and technology, properly applied, can help us produce our way out of our predicament. Exemplifying this idea, Borlaug was the primary figure in the research that in the 1960s created the “Green Revolution,” the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that raised grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger.

Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.

Mann reminds us that the default scientific assumption is that Vogt is correct:

Biologists tell us that all species, if given the chance, overreach, overreproduce, overconsume. Inevitably, they encounter a wall, always to catastrophic effect, and usually sooner rather than later.

Yet, on the other hand, we’ve already apparently cheated what seemed like biological limits. World population has the proverbial Silicon Valley hockey stick growth and yet people are living better than ever, all around the world (except here in the U.S., according to my Facebook friends, since the Trumpenfuhrer arrived at the Reichstag!). Mann cites estimates that humans currently consume 25-50% of the Earth’s “primary production”

Convinced by politicians that STEM is the path to a glamorous and satisfying career? Here’s a description of Vogt’s 1938 job studying birds:

As a new employee of the Compañía Administradora del Guano, Vogt based his operations on the Chincha Islands, three granitic outposts thirteen miles off the southwest coast of Peru. Named, unexcitingly, North, South, and Central Chincha, they were each less than a mile across, ringed by hundred-foot cliffs, and completely covered in heaps of bird excrement—treeless, gray-white barrens of guano. Atop the guano, shrieking and flapping, were millions of Guanay cormorants, packed together three nests to the square yard, sharp beaks guarding eggs that sat in small guano craters lined by molted feathers. The birds’ wings rustled and thrummed; multiplied by the million, the sound was a vibration in the skull. Fleas, ticks, and biting flies were everywhere. So was the stench of guano. By noon the light was so bright that Vogt’s photographic light meter “often could not measure it.” Vogt’s head and neck were constantly sunburned; later his ears developed precancerous growths. Vogt worked, ate, and slept in the bird guardians’ barracks on North Chincha, remaining offshore for weeks on end (he was also given an apartment in the nearby shore town of Pisco). His quarters on the island were almost without furniture, covered with guano dust, alive with flies and roaches. Birds mated, fought, and raised their offspring on the roof overhead, leaving so much guano that the building had to be shoveled off periodically to avoid collapse.

Vogt’s opinion was that World War II in the Pacific could be explained by “population pressure” in Japan, and that both World Wars in Europe were explained by competition over resources. He was worried about population growth elsewhere:

Vogt, for instance, was loudly scornful of the “unchecked spawning” and “untrammeled copulation” of “backward populations”—people in India, he sneered, breed with “the irresponsibility of codfish.”

The book proves that every American has an idea for a movie (about soil!) and confirms the history in Real World Divorce:

Marjorie instead went home to California, where she apparently met Vogt, fourteen years her senior, who was futilely trying to convince Walt Disney to make an animated movie about soil. It seems evident that they began a relationship. Juana had spent much of the previous two years alone in Latin America, trolling the embassy circuit for Nazi gossip. In June 1945 the couple rendezvoused in California. The marriage collapsed. Two months later Juana went to Reno, Nevada, to obtain one of the city’s famous quick divorces. Early in 1946 Marjorie also went to Reno, and for the same reason. Marjorie filed for divorce from Devereux, appeared before the court, received her decree, and married Bill on the same day: April 4, 1946.

With the help of the new young wife, Vogt pushes Road to Survival in 1948, coinciding with Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet. Thinking around environmentalism hasn’t significantly changed in the ensuing 70 years:

Vogt and Osborn were also the first to bring to a wide public a belief that would become a foundation of environmental thought: consumption driven by capitalism and rising human numbers is the ultimate cause of most of the world’s ecological problems, and only dramatic reductions in human fertility and economic activity will prevent a worldwide calamity.

The Earth has a carrying capacity. Humans will breed until this carrying capacity is exceeded. Then wars and famine will break out.

Norman Borlaug also demonstrates what a comfortable career science can be…

Many years later, after he won the Nobel Prize, Norman Borlaug would look back on his first days in Mexico with incredulity. He was supposed to breed disease-resistant wheat in Mexico’s central highlands. Only after he arrived, in September 1944, did he grasp how unsuited he was for the task—almost as unqualified in his own way as Vogt had been when he set sail for Peru. He had never published an article in a peer-reviewed, professional journal. He had never worked with wheat or, for that matter, bred plants of any sort. In recent years he had not even been doing botanical research—since winning his Ph.D., he had spent his time testing chemicals and materials for industry. He had never been outside the United States and couldn’t speak Spanish. The work facilities were equally unprepossessing. Borlaug’s “laboratory” was a windowless tarpaper shack on 160 acres of dry, scrubby land on the campus of the Autonomous University of Chapingo. (“Autonomous” refers to the university’s legal authority to set its curriculum without government interference; Chapingo was the name of the village outside Mexico City where it was located.) And although Borlaug was sponsored by the wealthy Rockefeller Foundation, it could not provide him with scientific tools or machinery; during the Second World War, such equipment was reserved for the military.

Mann points out that being a science writer is a lot more fun than being a scientist: “A prerequisite for a successful scientific career is an enthusiastic willingness to pore through the minutiae of subjects that 99.9 percent of Earth’s population find screamingly dull.”

After decades of poverty and 80-hour work weeks, the Green Revolution ensues. Combine with the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia to use in fertilizer (Mann says that 1 percent of the world’s industrial energy goes for this) and we can have unlimited food, right?

Maybe not. “Norman Borlaug: humanitarian hero or menace to society?” (Guardian, 2014):

“Few people at the time considered the profound social and ecological changes that the revolution heralded among peasant farmers. The long-term cost of depending on Borlaug’s new varieties, said eminent critics such as ecologist Vandana Shiva in India, was reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to pests.

Not only did Borlaug’s ‘high-yielding’ seeds demand expensive fertilisers, they also needed more water. Both were in short supply, and the revolution in plant breeding was said to have led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers,” he wrote.

The political journalist Alexander Cockburn was even less complimentary: “Aside from Kissinger, probably the biggest killer of all to have got the peace prize was Norman Borlaug, whose ‘green revolution’ wheat strains led to the death of peasants by the million.”

Mann does not cover these criticisms of Borlaug’s work. Even with Mann’s 100-percent positive perspective on the frankengrains, he admits that the only way to feed an increased human population with the latest tech comes at the cost of destroying animals in the ocean:

Hard on the heels of the gains were the losses. About 40 percent of the fertilizer applied in the last sixty years wasn’t assimilated by plants; instead, it washed away into rivers or seeped into the air in the form of nitrous oxide. Fertilizer flushed into rivers, lakes, and oceans is still fertilizer: it boosts the growth of algae, weeds, and other aquatic organisms. When these die, they rain to the ocean floor, where they are consumed by microbes. So rapidly do the microbes grow on the increased food supply that their respiration drains the oxygen from the lower depths, killing off most life. Where agricultural runoff flows, dead zones flourish. Nitrogen from Middle Western farms flows down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico every summer, creating an oxygen desert that in 2016 covered almost 7,000 square miles. The next year a still larger dead zone—23,000 square miles—was mapped in the Bay of Bengal.

How about organics? Maybe that is the answer:

[Organic farming promoter Jerome] Rodale died in 1971—bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering the host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

The Gates Foundation will enable the Earth to support 50 billion people by engineering rice that accomplishes C4 photosynthesis:

Barely 3 percent of the flowering plants are C4, but they are responsible for about a quarter of all the photosynthesis on land. The impact of C4 is evident to anyone who has looked at a recently mowed lawn. Within a few days of mowing, the crabgrass in the lawn springs up, towering over the rest of the lawn (typically bluegrass or fescue in cool areas). Fast-growing crabgrass is C4; lawn grass is ordinary photosynthesis. The same is true for wheat and maize. Plant them on the same day in the same place and soon the maize will overshadow the wheat—maize is C4, wheat is not. In addition to growing faster, C4 plants also need less water and fertilizer, because they don’t waste water on reactions that lead to excess oxygen, and because they don’t have to make as much rubisco.

One of these in-between species is maize: its main leaves are C4, whereas the leaves around the cob are a mix of C4 and ordinary photosynthesis. If two forms of photosynthesis can be encoded from the same genome, they cannot be that far apart. Which in turn implies that people equipped with the tools of molecular biology might be able to transform one into another. In the botanical equivalent of a moonshot, an international consortium of almost a hundred agricultural scientists is working to convert rice into a C4 plant—a rice that could grow faster, require less water and fertilizer, withstand higher temperatures, and produce more grain. Funded largely by the Bill & Melinda

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