The university city is a hub of innovation with over 1,500 science- and technology-based companies in the area, attracting global interest. How did this phenomenon come about?
Innovation is like motherhood and apple pie, in that everyone's in favour of it. Especially governments. They all want more of it. The only problem is that they haven't the faintest idea of how to make it happen and so are suckers for anyone with a Big Idea about it.
A few years ago, an economist named Richard Florida found himself the beneficiary of this syndrome. He published a book with the beguiling title of The Rise of the Creative Class and the even more beguiling subtitle "… and how it's transforming work, leisure, community, and everyday life". Florida's argument was that, as our economies are being transformed into knowledge economies, creativity is to our century what access to natural resources was to the 18th. Creative occupations – an occupational category comprising knowledge-workers, intellectuals and artists – were growing to the point where almost a third of the US workforce could be regarded as "creative" and companies, cities and regions were bending over backwards to attract them.
Once, the fate of great industrial centres was determined by geography – their proximity to natural resources, navigable rivers, harbours, etc. But the "resources" of the new economy are footloose. The message of Florida's book for urban planners and municipal authorities, therefore, was that if cities want to succeed they must attract the creative types. In order to do so, they must cherish the three "Ts" – talent (a highly educated population), tolerance (cultural and sexual diversity) and technology (the infrastructure necessary to sustain an entrepreneurial culture). In other words, they should look a bit like San Francisco.
As it happens, some of Florida's insights were really just contemporary articulations of the ideas of ancient economists. Alfred Marshall observed many years ago that workers in skilled occupations tend to cluster in areas where their peers live and work. But why did those people choose to settle there in the first place?
Which brings us to Cambridge, Marshall's alma mater and the nearest thing Europe has to Silicon Valley. Inevitably, it has been dubbed Silicon Fen. The "Cambridge phenomenon" – the extraordinary ecosystem of science- and technology-based companies in and around the town – has acquired near-mythological status. At the moment there are something like 1,500 of these companies in the region, some of which have become market leaders in the UK and the wider world. Five of them have valuations in the billion-dollar region, and one, ARM, is one of the UK's most successful companies and the dominant firm in one of the fastest-growing markets in the world: that for the processor chips that power smartphones and other mobile devices.
The Cambridge phenomenon has functioned as a honeypot attracting venture capitalists, big consultancy firms, bankers and other specialist organisations that attend to the needs of growing firms in complex industries. Cambridge is now ranked as one of the top three "innovation ecosystems" in the world, according to a recent international survey. It is where Microsoft chose to set up its major European research lab. Ditto Toshiba. And it's where AstraZeneca has chosen to locate its global R&D and corporate headquarters, a decision that will involve spending upwards of £300m and bring about 2,000 researchers and support staff.
Just down the road, in the village of Hinxton, is the Genome Campus, at the heart of which sits the Sanger Institute, named after the only British scientist to win two Nobel prizes, where Sir John Sulston and his colleagues first sequenced the human genome. And not far away is the Babraham Research Campus, which specialises in the incubation of bioscience companies and into which the government recently injected £44m of public funding.
For decades, policy-makers from Europe and beyond have been coming to Cambridge, wistfully eyeing its "technology cluster", shaking their heads at the list of vibrant companies that it has spawned, interviewing academics, executives, planners and venture capitalists and wondering what its secret formula is.
There is no formula. Nobody planned the Cambridge phenomenon, just as nobody planned Silicon Valley. Both developed organically. That doesn't mean that similar phenomena can't happen elsewhere, just that they can't be delivered to order. And they take lots of time to evolve and mature.
In Silicon Valley's case, the story goes back to 1939, when two Stanford-trained engineers, David Packard and William Hewlett, set up a little electronics company in a Palo Alto garage. In the case of Cambridge it also goes back a long way. Because of lobbying by the university in the early part of the 20th century, the town had no "legacy" industries – no mass production, no car manufacturing (unlike Oxford), no smokestacks. Insofar as Cambridge had any industrial sector at all in the first half of the 20th century, it was in relatively clean areas such as consumer and broadcasting technology (Pye, founded in 1896) and scientific instrumentation (Cambridge Scientific Instruments, co-founded by Charles Darwin's fifth son, Horace, in 1881).
The first stirrings of change came in the early 1950s, when Cambridge University embarked on the growth path that has turned it into one of the world's intellectual powerhouses. In 1949, in what was then called the Mathematical Laboratory (and eventually became the Computer Laboratory), Maurice Wilkes and his colleagues had built the Edsac, one of the first general-purpose electronic computers. Unlike other researchers who were building similar machines in other places, Wilkes & Co made theirs immediately available as a computing tool to colleagues in a range of disciplines. This had two effects: it led to a series of scientific breakthroughs (for example, plate tectonics in earth sciences); and it established Cambridge as a leader in information technology and computing.
A second source of innovation was the discovery in 1953 by Watson and Crick of the structure of the DNA molecule. This was the first link in a chain that led to the sequencing of the human genome in 2000 – and eventually spawned a whole ecosystem of biotechnology companies.
A third significant development was the founding, in 1960, of Cambridge Consultants, one of the UK's first technology-transfer companies. It was set up by three Cambridge alumni to "put the brains of Cambridge University at the disposal of the problems of British industry". As far as the IT segment of the ecosystem is concerned, Cambridge Consultants played a critical role, because one can trace links from many of today's successful companies (for example ARM) that stretch back to it.
A fourth factor was the change that took place in the 1960s in the university's and the local authority's attitude to industrial development in the town. Within the university, much of the pressure came from researchers in physics, engineering and computing who came to see local industrial development in their fields as desirable for various reasons: as a way of exploiting their research via startup ventures; as a potential source of research collaboration and funding; and as a way of boosting the employability of their students. These pressures were amplified by the university's liberal – some would say relaxed – attitude to intellectual property.
On the planners' side, there were pressures from central government to reverse their previous anti-industrial bias for the area. A particular cause célèbre had been their refusal to permit IBM to locate its European R&D laboratory in Cambridge. In the end, the planners changed their minds after a commission led by Sir Nevill Mott, head of the Cavendish Laboratory, signalled a radical shift in the university's attitude to industrial development. From that moment, the die was cast.
What we see in Cambridge and Silicon Valley today are complex industrial ecosystems. But while a formula is unattainable, we can see that such ecosystems need certain key ingredients if they are to thrive.
First of all, the ecosystem needs to have a significant research university at its heart. It has to be in a pleasant urban environment that has a good housing stock, reasonable transport links, good state and private schools, good healthcare and a lively cultural life. And the local planners have to be sympathetic to the needs of small tech-based companies, especially in their early stages of their corporate life.
It's important that the university at the heart of the ecosystem should be one that gives considerable freedom to its academics and has a liberal attitude towards intellectual property. Also needed are legal firms that understand IP, and outposts of the global accounting and consulting firms because venture capitalists do not feel comfortable funding ventures which are audited by local firms. And there even needs to be a range of different kinds of hotel – including boutique ones – to cater for visiting researchers, financiers and conference attendees.
The ecosystem needs a lot of small specialist firms that can quickly tackle specific commissions together with a networking system that enables people quickly to locate a particular specialist when they need him or her. Most important of all, it needs a significant population of "angel" investors – experienced entrepreneurs who have acquired wealth through building successful companies and who are willing and able to invest in, and mentor, firms at the startup stage, long before any venture capitalist would deign to look at them.
Cambridge has a club of such angel investors. Membership requirements include a net worth in excess of £15m and a track record of at least one successful "exit" from a startup. At present, the club has 56 members. It functions as an arena in which innovators and entrepreneurs can pitch ideas to an audience that is experienced, sympathetic but critical and exceedingly well-informed. Not every pitch that succeeds in this forum results in a successful new company. But it provides a useful reality check on scientific and technological dreams.
At another level, the "Cambridge phenomenon" tells us that innovation ecosystems cannot be bought off the shelf and installed wherever governments wish to locate them. Innovation is a complex and delicate plant. You have to prepare the soil carefully, be prepared to wait for the fruits and accept that your administration will be long gone before they materialise. Even in quickly moving technologies, patience is a virtue.John Naughton
British archaeologist Robin Coningham talks about a three-year expedition to Nepal, which could rewrite history
When Professor Robin Coningham's youngest son Gus was five, he was asked at school what his father did. "He works for the Buddha," said the boy. Which led to a bit of confusion, recalls Coningham.
But it turns out Gus was not that far off the mark. Last week it emerged that a team led by Coningham, a professor of archaeology and pro-vice-chancellor at Durham University, had made a startling discovery about the date of the Buddha's birth, one that could rewrite the history of Buddhism. After a three-year dig on the site of the Maya Devi temple at Lumbini in Nepal, Coningham and his team of 40 archaeologists discovered a tree shrine that predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years.
The impact of Coningham's work is groundbreaking in many ways. Prior to this discovery, it had been thought that the shrine at Lumbini – an important pilgrimage site for half a billion Buddhists worldwide – marked the birthplace of the Buddha in the third century BC. But the timber structure revealed by archaeologists was radio-carbon-dated to the sixth century BC.
"It has real significance," says Coningham, 47. "What we have for the first time is something that puts a date on the beginning of the cult of Buddhism. That gives us a really clear social and economic context... It was a time of huge transition where traditional societies were being rocked by the emergence of cities, kings, coins and an emerging middle class. It was precisely at that time that Buddha was preaching renunciation – that wealth and belongings are not everything."
The early years of the religion took hold before the invention of writing. As a result, different oral traditions had different dates for the Buddha's birth. This is the first concrete evidence that Buddhism existed before the time of Asoka, an Indian emperor who enthusiastically embraced the religion in the third century BC.
Legend has it that the Buddha's mother, Maya Devi, was travelling from her husband's home to that of her parents. Midway in her journey, she stopped in Lumbini and gave birth to her son while holding on to the branch of a tree. The research team believe they have found evidence of a tree in the ancient shrine beneath a thick layer of bricks. According to Coningham, it became clear that the temple, 20km from the Indian border, had been built "directly on top of the brick structure, incorporating or enshrining it".
The painstaking work, carried out every January and February since 2011, was initially intended as a Unesco preservation project and was jointly conducted in sub-zero temperatures by archaeologists from Nepal and the UK.
"We worked there in January because the water table is so low," says Coningham. "Unfortunately it's just solid fog for the first three weeks of the season. You just do not see the sun and it's about three to four degrees … You wash clothes and you cannot dry them. So you end up with two pairs of clothes and rather smelly." The archaeologists had to wear slippers to preserve the site which, at the bottom of a two-metre trench, picked up much damp. Somewhat incongruously, the slippers were teamed with hard hats "because of health and safety".
There was no gas-fired heating and power was limited to around 10 hours a day, so each morning at 5.30 Coningham would wash himself with a bucket of hot water and a cup. The diet, he says drily, was "great if you like curry and rice and dhal three times a day". The team also had to contend with thousands of pilgrims visiting the site every day from Tibet, Thailand and Sri Lanka, each bringing their own rituals. "At any one time, you were sprayed with cologne, covered with banknotes or had rice thrown at you," Coningham recalls. "Or there were nuns busy scraping mortar out from between the bricks and eating it to imbue the relics and sanctity of this sacred site into their bodies. Sometimes it can be quite distracting."
But he says that the response of the monks and nuns to their discovery was "deeply moving and pretty humbling". There was no big celebration – their reaction was "all that was needed".
The site at Lumbini had been hidden under the jungle until it was excavated in 1896. Back then, it was identified as the Buddha's birthplace because of a sandstone pillar that bore an inscription documenting the visit of Asoka to the site. The earliest levels remained buried until now.
After the filming of a documentary about the find for the National Geographic Channel, Coningham has been dubbed a real-life Indiana Jones – a description that elicits a polite rumble of laughter. "I was one of those rather sad children who loved dinosaurs," he says. "My grandparents used to go to Hunstanton [in Norfolk] and I would spend my summer holidays collecting fossils there. Then I discovered that a great way of escaping family holidays was to go on digs, so I started at the age of 15. Then I discovered you could dig abroad, so in my first year at university [he studied archaeology and anthropology at King's College, Cambridge] I decided to specialise in the Indian subcontinent. That became my life. And if you spoke to my family, they'd say it's still my life."
His wife Paula, who teaches Greek to A-level students, and his two sons – Urban, 15, and Gus, 13 – are used to his regular absences, despite that early confusion about exactly what his job entailed. For Coningham, the dig at Lumbini was memorable because it has marked "a deeply rare and exciting time when belief, archaeology and science come together".
Does he have a personal faith? "I was brought up a Catholic," he replies. "I had a great-aunt who was a mother superior, so my youth was full of washing feet, kissing crosses, et cetera. So in a way I suppose the experience [of this dig] has made me a great relativist. Also for me it shows we know so little about the early years of the world's great traditions." But he says that the tenets of Buddhism hold a certain appeal. "At the moment, I'm balancing this job with the role of pro-vice-chancellor. So I'm a bureaucrat and it's very tempting, at times, to think of renunciation," he jokes.
The next site Coningham and his team have been encouraged to look at is one of the rumoured locations of Buddha's childhood home. Unesco, with the Japanese government's aid, is funding three more years of research.
"Buddhism is a growing religion, and within five years there will be 22 million annual pilgrims flying into south Asia," says Coningham. "That will overwhelm these sites. So the next mission is to start mapping and planning how they will be protected."
In an area where more than half the population live below the poverty line, subsisting on less than $1.50 a day, the key will be to balance the financial benefits of tourism with the need for sustainability and historic preservation. As the story of the discovery at Lumbini becomes more widely known, Coningham is hopeful more young people will be attracted by what archaeology has to offer. "What's really interesting is it's the ancient civilisations that continue to pull people in," he says. "Archaeology like this can touch and be of interest to the life of hundreds of millions of people."
Even if those concerned have to wear damp slippers and work in freezing, foggy conditions, subsisting on a diet of rice for weeks at a time? "Well, yes," Coningham laughs. "But that's archaeology for you."Elizabeth Day
Endless movement between hot and cold will eventually mean the end of the universe
Thermodynamics is the study of heat and energy. At its heart are laws that describe how energy moves around within a system, whether an atom, a hurricane or a black hole. The first law describes how energy cannot be created or destroyed, merely transformed from one kind to another. The second law, however, is probably better known and even more profound because it describes the limits of what the universe can do. This law is about inefficiency, degeneration and decay. It tells us all we do is inherently wasteful and that there are irreversible processes in the universe. It gives us an arrow for time and tells us that our universe has a inescapably bleak, desolate fate.
Despite these somewhat deflating ideas, the ideas of thermodynamics were formulated in a time of great technological optimism – the Industrial Revolution. In the mid-19th century, physicists and engineers were building steam engines to mechanise work and transport and were trying to work out how to make them more powerful and efficient.
Many scientists and engineers – including Rudolf Clausius, James Joule and Lord Kelvin – contributed to the development of thermodynamics, but the father of the discipline was the French physicist Sadi Carnot. In 1824 he published Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, which laid down the basic principles, gleaned from observations of how energy moved around engines and how wasted heat and useful work were related.
The second law can be expressed in several ways, the simplest being that heat will naturally flow from a hotter to a colder body. At its heart is a property of thermodynamic systems called entropy – in the equations above it is represented by "S" – in loose terms, a measure of the amount of disorder within a system. This can be represented in many ways, for example in the arrangement of the molecules – water molecules in an ice cube are more ordered than the same molecules after they have been heated into a gas. Whereas the water molecules were in a well-defined lattice in the ice cube, they float unpredictably in the gas. The entropy of the ice cube is, therefore, lower than that of the gas. Similarly, the entropy of a plate is higher when it is in pieces on the floor compared with when it is in one piece in the sink.
A more formal definition for entropy as heat moves around a system is given in the first of the equations. The infinitesimal change in entropy of a system (dS) is calculated by measuring how much heat has entered a closed system (δQ) divided by the common temperature (T) at the point where the heat transfer took place.
The second equation is a way to express the second law of thermodynamics in terms of entropy. The formula says that the entropy of an isolated natural system will always tend to stay the same or increase – in other words, the energy in the universe is gradually moving towards disorder. Our original statement of the second law emerges from this equation: heat cannot spontaneously flow from a cold object (low entropy) to a hot object (high entropy) in a closed system because it would violate the equation. (Refrigerators seemingly break this rule since they can freeze things to much lower temperatures than the air around them. But they don't violate the second law because they are not isolated systems, requiring a continual input of electrical energy to pump heat out of their interior. The fridge heats up the room around it and, if unplugged, would naturally return to thermal equilibrium with the room.)
This formula also imposes a direction on to time; whereas every other physical law we know of would work the same whether time was going forwards or backwards, this is not true for the second law of thermodynamics. However long you leave it, a boiling pan of water is unlikely to ever become a block of ice. A smashed plate could never reassemble itself, as this would reduce the entropy of the system in defiance of the second law of thermodynamics. Some processes, Carnot observed, are irreversible.
Carnot examined steam engines, which work by burning fuel to heat up a cylinder containing steam, which expands and pushes on a piston to then do something useful. The portion of the fuel's energy that is extracted and made to do something useful is called work, while the remainder is the wasted (and disordered) energy we call heat. Carnot showed that you could predict the theoretical maximum efficiency of a steam engine by measuring the difference in temperatures of the steam inside the cylinder and that of the air around it, known in thermodynamic terms as the hot and cold reservoirs of a system respectively.
Heat engines work because heat naturally flows from hot to cold places. If there was no cold reservoir towards which it could move there would be no heat flow and the engine would not work. Because the cold reservoir is always above absolute zero, no heat engine can be 100% efficient.
The best-designed engines, therefore, heat up steam (or other gas) to the highest possible temperature then release the exhaust at the lowest possible temperature. The most modern steam engines can get to around 60% efficiency and diesel engines in cars can get to around 50% efficient. Petrol-based internal combustion engines are much more wasteful of their fuel's energy.
The inefficiencies are built into any system using energy and can be described thermodynamically. This wasted energy means that the overall disorder of the universe – its entropy – will increase over time but at some point reach a maximum. At this moment in some unimaginably distant future, the energy in the universe will be evenly distributed and so, for all macroscopic purposes, will be useless. Cosmologists call this the "heat death" of the universe, an inevitable consequence of the unstoppable march of entropy.Alok Jha
The index card: sleep expert Kevin Morgan outlines the do's and dont's for both problem sleepers and everybody else
Learn why lobsters are red when served up, how coffee is decaffeinated – and what usefully halves every 5,730 years
Why is it that leaves have so many different shapes? asks Dieter
Despite their many shapes, leaves have certain things in common. "Leaves need to be much longer and wider than they are thick to intercept light for photosynthesis and allow gaseous exchange without losing too much water," says Dr Richard Waites from the University of York. "Leaves also need to withstand high winds, allow water to run off them easily and avoid being eaten by herbivores." The huge range of shapes demonstrates that there are many ways to solve such problems. "Other modifications to leaf shape might also be a response to climate," Waites says. However there are still mysteries to be solved. While flowers are finely tuned to suit their pollinators, leaves show variation. "If you could find all leaves from a single oak tree, you would see that no two are the same," Waites says. "This illustrates that while plants can build precise parts for a specific function with little variation, they can also exploit variation around a common theme. So far it is unclear why in one tree such variation is important."
How is coffee decaffeinated? asks Tristram Foster
There are three commonly used ways. The first involves passing an organic solvent such dichloromethane (CH2Cl2) over swollen green beans to dissolve the caffeine (this may need to be repeated several times). The beans are then heated to remove traces of dichloromethane, necessary not least because this solvent is a potential carcinogen. The second method uses water as the solvent; however water extracts not only caffeine, but also several compounds which boost the coffee's taste. To get around this, the water containing the extracts is passed over specially modified charcoal to selectively trap the caffeine. It can then be re-used to decaffeinate more green beans without the danger of drawing out flavoursome compounds as the water is already saturated with these taste-giving chemicals. The third method is more expensive and uses supercritical CO2, heated at high pressure so that it is neither a liquid nor a gas but a rather strange sort of hybrid. This supercritical CO2 extracts the caffeine very selectively (so it doesn't remove the desirable compounds) and the CO2 can be recycled after passing over charcoal to trap the caffeine. Interestingly, the caffeine extracted by these decaffeination processes can be added to soft drinks to give them a kick.
Cosmic microwave background radiation is the energy left over from the big bang. But where did the energy from the original, higher frequency, wave go as it red-shifted to the microwave end of the spectrum? asks Peter Tudor
Prepare yourselves for a shocker: "The energy of photons really does just seep away as the universe expands," Dr Andrew Pontzen tells me. This goes against our Earthly experiences, where energy is conserved, but according to Pontzen this energy loss is expected from Einstein's theory of general relativity. "Over normal timescales, the universe does not change very much from one moment to the next. In physics, we call this a symmetry – an experiment done now will have the same result as an identical experiment done in a few minutes' time (or a few years, or millennia)," he explains. "In the case of time symmetry, the result is energy conservation." But take a very long timescale and the symmetry breaks down. "The universe is expanding, so it isn't the same now as it was a billion years ago," Pontzen says. "Precisely because of that, the energy inside the universe has not been conserved. Not that this should unsettle us. In the immediate surroundings of the Earth, nothing is expanding; the expansion takes place between widely separated galaxies. That means energy does not seep away from the Earth, the solar system, or even the galaxy. It's only in intergalactic space that it gets lost."
Why do lobsters turn red in hot water? asks Amy Robertson
The red colour of a cooked lobster is due to a pigment called astaxanthin that belongs to a family of colourful chemicals called carotenoids (so called because one of the first to be discovered was the orange pigment found in carrots). In a live lobster the molecules of astaxanthin are bound to a protein molecule. This results in them adopting a slightly different shape, while the close proximity of the molecules to each other results in interactions arising between them. Together these effects shift the wavelength of light absorbed by the astaxanthin molecules to red end of the visible spectrum, giving the lobsters a blueish hue. When the lobsters are boiled, the temperature damages the protein, liberating the astaxanthin molecules and hence the creature turns from blue to red.
How accurate is carbon dating? asks Josh
Since carbon dating emerged in 1949, it has been applied to a multitude of items, including the bones of Richard III. Organic matter contains carbon, some of which is of a radioactive form known as carbon-14 (14C). The initial proportion of 14C in organic matter depends upon the atmospheric concentration of 14C when the matter was living. When dead, the concentration halves every 5,730 years. This enables the 14C age of a material to be deduced.
But Dr Charlotte Bryant from the University of Glasgow points out that there are many nuances to the technique. "If you want to know the date of a wooden object you usually want to find out when it was made, but this is not necessarily the same as the age of the wood it is made from," she explains. Fluctuations in atmospheric 14C concentration also have to be taken into account. "A 14C age is not equivalent to a calendar age, so needs to be converted," Bryant says. "We do this by comparing the radiocarbon age to a 'calibration curve'." This is based on materials whose date has been deduced from alternative methods, such as tree ring analysis, and is always being updated and refined. "From one radiocarbon measurement and its uncertainty, the calibration gives a range of possible calendar ages," Bryant says. "How big this range is depends on how old the sample is and where on the calibration curve it lies – ie, when atmospheric 14C changed rapidly the range of possible calendar ages is usually smaller."
The latter point is illustrated by nuclear weapons testing, which resulted in atmospheric 14C nearly doubling in the early 1960s. Contextual clues can help to narrow down the date range, as can the dating of other related samples. While the limit of carbon dating is around 50,000 years, it is a powerful technique. "In an ideal situation [post-bomb] you can have precision of a few years, but pre-bomb samples could have age ranges of decades to hundreds, or for samples close to the radiocarbon method limit, even thousands of years," says Bryant.
Keep the questions coming by emailing email@example.com. Please include your full name and where you liveNicola Davis
Lynne Segal offers a powerful manifesto for dealing with the march of time
The mighty Simone de Beauvoir published Old Age in 1970, when she was in her early 60s. A troubled, anguished and angry testimony, it detailed her profound dismay at the sagging of the body; the loss of looks (her own and the admiring glances of others), the absence of desire and the unwilling and uncomfortable contemplation of mortality. Not for her the basic philosophy of Woody Allen: "Old age isn't so bad, when you consider the alternative."
In contrast, Lynne Segal's thoughtful analysis of ageing offers a far more combative, zestful approach. It asks: when suffering from "temporal vertigo", absorbing at once all the ages you have ever been, and dealing with the inevitable loss of loved ones, how do you accept the physical ravages and build on the experiences of the past, to live fully in the present? What does it mean to age well?
Segal, now in her 60s, is a socialist feminist and anniversary professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. For the past 30 years, she has fearlessly taken on some of the loopier ideas of feminism and contributed significantly to a more optimistic agenda for sexual politics. In books such as Is the Future Female?, Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men and Straight Sex: The Politics of Desire, she challenged the kind of essentialism that believes that women are somehow "nicer" than men and that, as sections of the sisterhood argued, men are incapable of change.
Social conditioning is, obviously, particularly potent when it comes to the business of growing old. And here is Segal's first challenge. Whom does she define as old? "Late midlifers"? "Early elderly"? At what point does an individual cease being surprised at the wrinkled, chipmunked face in the mirror and begin the period of critical self-reflection that surely must be one of the perks of ageing? What's certain is that the number of years that have passed is no guide in itself; as the writer Penelope Lively says in Moon Tiger: "Chronology irritates me."
Madonna wearily refuses to age, while women are now bearing children in a decade when their mothers were ploughing through the menopause. Old age for Dante began at 45; for Hippocrates, it meant the 50s. Now, 10 million Britons are over 65 and soon centurions will be the norm.
How we age is influenced by society's attitudes and currently "youthism" reigns, but it is also dictated by events in the shape of disease, desertion and unexpected isolation and deprivation. A fifth of those over 65 live in poverty, the majority of them women.
Segal's book is worth buying alone for the vim with which she sees off the "dim-witted" arguments of coalition minister David Willetts and historian Francis Beckett, among others, who insist that the baby-boomers have stolen all the booty and forfeited their children's future. Neoliberals, not the baby-boomers, have done the damage, Segal argues, and there are better ways to share the diminished spoils – a tax on corporate wealth, for one.
To help construct her guide for a "good" old age, Segal calls on an army of poets, writers, academics and activists, perhaps too many, when it's her voice the reader may seek. Her recommendations include remaining politically active (she quotes the inestimable John Berger, in his 80s: "…one protests… in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds"); valuing interdependency; treasuring connections with those who are younger; seeking out joy and ignoring all instructions to opt for invisibility and celibacy.
Until her 40s, Segal and her son lived in a collective in her large house in north London. Then she cohabited more conventionally with her male partner; she was 15 years older and he left her for a younger woman. Now, she has a female partner. Segal quotes from June Arnold's novel, Sister Gin, in which Su, in her 50s, falls for Mamie, a woman in her 80s. "My darling's face has been walked on by life," Su says, as a valediction, not a complaint.
Most of the cast that Segal rallies to explore her theme share an experience of beauty and/or fame, among them the poet Robert Frost ("No memory having starred/ Atones for later disregard/ or keeps the end from being hard"). The majority of those growing older will face other challenges. For millions, especially, perhaps, feminists, paid work, a career, has played a significant part in providing motivation and in forging an identity. Will retirement mean an erosion of a core sense of self? Or, looking back, is it possible to build on aspects of yourself you were never encouraged to value?
Segal quotes the remarkable Lou Andreas-Salomé, who, among her many achievements, became a psychoanalyst after the age of 60. "All my life I have done nothing but work," she said, near death. "And really, when you come to think of it… why?"
A question that could revolutionise ageing and that deserves an answer long before one runs out of time.Yvonne Roberts
François Mitterrand's life story is told with panache, while Brian Cox and Robin Ince try to face reality
Book of the Week (Radio 4) | iPlayer
Today (Radio 4) | iPlayer
The Infinite Monkey Cage (Radio 4) | iPlayer
My mornings last week were properly en-jollied by Philip Short's biography of François Mitterrand on Radio 4's Book of the Week. Mitterrand's life is exactly as uninteresting as you might imagine, but his tale is transformed by reader Henry Goodman's exqueezeet rrrrenderring of ze accsont fronsayse. This only gets fully frou-frou when he does the characters' voices, but then he really gives it some welly, and it sets up your day having someone inform that there's "a mitting of the Rrrrezizztanse and zey are wetting fur may". Although I've had to stop drinking coffee when the programme's on because I keep spluttering all over my keyboard.
Accents still matter when it comes to radio, and on Wednesday Today had a little chat about being northern. Mishal Husain introduced Stuart Maconie as a "self-styled northerner", which seemed unfair, as he is northern and doesn't live in London. ("Self-styled" should be banned as an adjective when introducing people: it's always a sneer.) Anyway, Maconie was as charming as ever and made a few salient points about what northerners are allowed to be good at, namely, indie music and entertainment. It reminded me of the constant search for role models for black kids that aren't from sport or urban music. If you're just the light-ent laffs between the serious discussions, if you're always on the back pages rather than the front, then you never attain true power.
Or is that just my perception? On last week's Infinite Monkey Cage, the discussion was about whether it is possible to truly know reality, whether we can ever be objective. I do like this programme, though the speed of it can sometimes be bewildering. Mostly this is down to host Robin Ince, a lovely man determined to zoom through life without wasting a minute, absorbing as much about it as he can on the way. He always sounds on the verge of crossness, Ince, as does David Mitchell: their impatience is what makes them funny.
Essentially, The Infinite Monkey Cage is Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time but with the pomposity removed and with the added ingredients of a) a live audience and b) Brian Cox. It's all about learning stuff, filling our minds with proper facts and interesting notions, thus, we hope, shoving out any half-baked opinions about the broken-down marriage of two people we have never met.
Cox, the funky physicist, is an excellent co-host, though he will keep doing that thing that scientists think is funny, which is bigging up his own subject as opposed to other sciences. This is as about as hilarious as football team rivalry, but it can lead to some interesting put-downs: last week, the fantastically named neuroscientist Beau Lotto was moved to comment that "physics is actually quite easy", which the audience loved. Cox believes that everything can be measured (which it can, in the world of psychics), and through those measurements we can find the absolute truth of the world. Alan Moore, a writer, said: "Yes, but how do we look at the measurements, Brian?"
The different voices on this programme were what gave it its character: not only was each person approaching the problem from a different angle, they did so in diverse tones. Claudia Hammond was logical but approachable, Lotto was soothing and American, almost new wave, and Alan Moore's Midlands accent had you constantly readjusting. He sounded so cosy, so warm-snug-in-a-pub. And yet what he talked about was anything but. Fantastique!Miranda Sawyer
From 1950s comics to a 2013 film, from Homer Simpson to James Bond's Holly Goodhead, space is a setting that sellsTom Lamont
To celebrate caturday today, we check in with a baby pincushion, erm, porcupine, and her apple.
It's caturday again, which means it's time to watch a video!
This gives me the opportunity to tell you all sorts of facts about these strange animals that most people don't know. First, porcupines are rodents. The 29 formally described species of porcupine differ from each other in overall body size and in the clustering, structure, colour and length of their quills. Additionally, New World porcupines climb trees whilst Old World species are strictly terrestrial. Porcupines occur throughout the New World and in Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, where they are found in a variety of habitats in tropical and temperate regions. All porcupines are herbivorous and they tend to be nocturnal.
"Porcupine" translates from Middle French as "spined pig" in honour of their most noteworthy feature: quills. (They also can grunt and squeal like a pig.) An adult porcupine can have 30,000 or more of these quills, which are replaced when lost. Contrary to popular mythology, porcupines cannot shoot their quills at predators, but they do detach easily when touched. The quills are hollow with sharp tips and overlapping barbs that point backwards, making it easy to pierce skin and other tissues -- and very difficult to remove. These qualities have inspired scientists to speculate that imitating the fine structure of porcupine quills will lead to the development of better medical devices that require minimal force to penetrate tissues, such as needles and other items (doi:10.1073/pnas.1216441109).
Here's a sweet little video of a baby porcupine eating an apple (and doing other things too) -- surely, baby porcupines are amongst of the cutest of all mammalian babies (although baby skunks are damned cute too):
Cho W.K., Ankrum J.A., Guo D., Chester S.A., Yang S.Y., Kashyap A., Campbell G.A., Wood R.J., Rijal R.K. & Karnik R. et al. (2012). Microstructured barbs on the North American porcupine quill enable easy tissue penetration and difficult removal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (52) 21289-21294. doi:10.1073/pnas.1216441109
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..GrrlScientist
'When an old technique's not working, stay watchful. Contemplate alternative techniques, explore likely scenarios and focus on general readiness'
My favourite bit of "meta-advice" – advice on how to deal with the advice that rains down on us from friends, books, columns like this – comes from the novelist Rick Moody. He happened to be talking about writing routines, a topic with which I'm dangerously obsessed, but his wisdom applies to any work, and to relationships and life in general. "The insight I offer you is this," he told the Writeliving blog. "There's no one process, and as soon as I imagine some approach to generating work is foolproof, it becomes suddenly worthless to me, and I have to start over." If, like me, you're always fiddling with your work systems, reorganising your stuff, testing new tricks for cultivating habits… take comfort. One tactic works for a while, then the self-sabotaging part of your brain gets wise to what you're doing, and the cycle begins again. The problem isn't that you've failed to find the One True Secret of productivity, happiness or love. The problem is believing you ever might.
Indeed, there's one view of psychology according to which everything we do to make ourselves miserable – every dysfunctional behaviour, from minor to destructive – begins as an approach that once worked well, often in childhood, then passed its sell-by date. We're not idiots who choose unhappiness; rather, we develop coping mechanisms that make sense at the time. The psychotherapist Suzanne Lachmann recalls a typical patient whose mother was "so volatile that [the patient] never knew if she'd come home to find all her belongings strewn across the front lawn… As a result, [she] developed her own set of rules to navigate these situations, remaining on guard at all times." That's a pro-sanity strategy – until suddenly it isn't. Unfortunately, we often then respond by pursuing the old approach more vigorously. We're like drivers stuck in mud, accelerating and wondering why there's no forward motion.
This trap is what Donald Sull, a London Business School professor, calls "active inertia". Companies do it, too: time and again, he's watched established firms respond terribly to industry changes. They don't adapt nimbly, but nor do they pause to take stock. Instead, "stuck in the modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past, market leaders simply accelerate their tried-and-true activities. In trying to dig themselves out of a hole, they just deepen it." One case study is Laura Ashley, which thrived in the 60s as an alternative to miniskirts and knee-high boots, but floundered as the demand for stylish workplace womenswear grew. Panicking, the firm hired a string of new bosses – the televangelist Pat Robertson even joined the board – but just drew nearer to collapse. It was only much more recently that it made the changes necessary to move on.
What's the answer? This may be a rare case in which business school insights are truly useful outside business. Sull recommends "active waiting". When an old technique's not working, stay watchful. Contemplate alternative techniques, explore likely scenarios and focus on general readiness. (Can't figure out where to go with a relationship? That's OK; for now, try paying attention to exercise and sleep.) There's no shame in not yet knowing what the right next approach will be, and no single path to unbroken happiness anyway. Take it from a man named Moody.Oliver Burkeman
It has been a glorious autumn for fungi. From bright yellow chanterelles, to the distinctive but poisonous fairytale toadstool, fly agaric, there is an abundance of fungi to be found. A hot summer, followed by a mild, moist autumn will certainly have helped to usher in the bumper crop, but exactly how mushrooms proliferate is still poorly understood.
Until now most experts have assumed that mushroom spore dispersal is at the mercy of local air currents. But new research shows that mushrooms are much more proactive, and even go as far as creating their own weather to ensure the spores spread far and wide.
Emilie Dressaire, from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, US, and her colleagues used high-speed filming and mathematical modelling techniques to show how shitake and oyster mushrooms release water vapour when they drop their spores. They discovered that the increase in moisture cools the air around the mushroom and whips up winds that blow the spores away.
The scientists found that this mushroom-induced weather was strong enough to lift spores clear of the mushroom. "As a result mushrooms are able to disperse their spores, even in the most inhospitable surroundings," says Dressaire, who presented her findings last week at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics in Pittsburgh.
Each individual mushroom produces millions of spores, and this clever dispersal technique means that at least some of them land somewhere suitable to grow. After that it all rather depends on the weather.Kate Ravilious
Climate professors Mike Hulme and David Keith go head to head over whether climate engineering could provide a solution to climate change
Geoengineering. It's not the sexiest sounding topic, but a small group of scientists say it just might be able to save the world.
The basic idea behind geonengineering (or climate engineering) is that humans can artificially moderate the Earth's climate allowing us to control temperature, thereby avoiding the negative impacts of climate change. There are a number of methods suggested to achieve this scientific wizardry, including placing huge reflectors in space or using aerosols to reduce the amount of carbon in the air.
It's a hugely controversial theory. One of the main counter-arguments is that promoting a manmade solution to climate change will lead to inertia around other efforts to reduce human impact. But the popularity of geoengineering is on the rise among some scientists and even received a nod from the IPCC in its recent climate change report.
In a fast-flowing and sometimes heated head-to-head climate professors David Keith and Mike Hulme set out the for and against. Keith, a geoengineering advocate, doesn't believe that this science is a solve-all but says "it could significantly reduce climate impacts to vulnerable people and ecosystems over the next half century." While Hulme sets out his stall in no uncertain terms: "Solar climate engineering is a flawed idea seeking an illusory solution to the wrong problem".
Enjoy the debate and do add your comments at the end.David Keith: Gordon McKay professor of applied physics (SEAS) and professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School
Deliberately adding one pollutant to temporarily counter another is a brutally ugly technical fix, yet that is the essence of the suggestion that sulphur be injected into the stratosphere to limit the damage caused by the carbon we've pumped into the air.
I take solar geoengineering seriously because evidence from atmospheric physics, climate models, and observations strongly suggest that it could significantly reduce climate impacts to vulnerable people and ecosystems over the next half century.
The strongest arguments against solar geoengineering seem to be the fear that it is a partial fix that will encourage us to slacken our efforts to cut carbon emissions. This is moral confusion. It is our responsibility to limit the impact that our cheap energy has on our grandchildren independently of the choices we make about temporary solar geoengineering.
Were we faced with a one-time choice between making a total commitment to a geoengineering programme to offset all warming and abandoning geoengineering forever, I would choose abandonment. But this is not the choice we face. Our choice is between the status quo—with almost no organised research on the subject—and commitment to a serious research program that will develop the capability to geoengineer, improve understanding of the technology's risks and benefits, and open up the research community to dilute the geo-clique. Given this choice, I choose research; and if that research supports geoengineering's early promise, I would then choose gradual deployment.Mike Hulme: professor of climate and culture in the School of Social Science & Public Policy at King's College London
David, your ambition to significantly reduce future climate impacts is one of course we can share along with many others. But I am mystified by your faith that solar climate engineering is an effective way of achieving this. More direct and assured methods would be to invest in climate adaptation measures—a short-term gain—and to invest in new clean energy technologies—a long-term gain.
My main argument against solar engineering is not the moral hazard argument you refer to. It is twofold. First, all evidence to date—from computer simulations and from the analogies of explosive volcanic eruptions—is that deliberately injecting sulphur into the stratosphere will further destabilise regional climates. It may reduce globally-averaged warming, but that it not what causes climate damage. It is regional weather that does that—droughts in the US, floods in Pakistan, typhoons in Philippines. Solar climate engineering in short is a zero-sum game: some will win, some will lose.
Which leads me to my second argument. The technology is ungovernable. Even the gradual deployment you propose will have repercussions for all nations, all peoples and all species. All of these affected agents therefore need representation in any decisions made and over any regulatory bodies established. But given the lamentable state in which the conventional UN climate negotiations linger on, I find it hard to envisage any scenario in which the world's nations will agree to a thermostat in the sky.
Solar climate engineering is a flawed idea seeking an illusory solution to the wrong problem.
DK - You are correct that climate impacts are ultimately felt at the local scale as changes in soil moisture, precipitation or similar quantities. No one feels the global average temperature. Precisely because of this concern my group has studied regional responses to geoengineering.
In the first quantitative look at the effectiveness of solar geoengineering we found—to our surprise—that it can reduce changes in both temperature and precipitation on a region-by-region basis. This work has now been replicated by much larger study using a whole set of climate models led by Alan Robock one of the more skeptical scientist working on the topic, and they got the same result. While there are claims in the popular press that it will "destabilise regional climates"—presumably meaning that it will increase local variability—I know of no scientific paper that backs this up.
I have no faith in geoengineering. I have some faith in empirical science and reasoned argument. It's true that we don't have mechanisms for legitimate governance of this technology. Indeed in the worse case this technology could lead to large-scale conflict. This exactly why I and others have started efforts to engage policy makers from around the world to begin working on the problem.
MH - David, The point here is how much faith we can place in climate models to discern these types of regional changes. As the recent report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown, at sub-continental scales state-of-the-art climate models do not robustly simulate the effects of greenhouse gas accumulation on climate.
What you are claiming then is that we can rely upon these same models to be able to ascertain accurately the additional effects of sulphur loading of the stratosphere. Frankly, I would not bet a dollar on such results, let alone the fate of millions.
You may say that this is exactly why we need more research—bigger and better climate models. I've been around the climate research scene long enough to remember 30 years of such claims. Are we to wait another 30 years? What we can be sure about is that once additional pollutants are injected into the skies, the real climate will not behave like the model climate at scales that matter for people.
As for getting political scientists to research new governance mechanisms for the global thermostat - you again place more faith in human rationality than I. We have had more than 20 years of a real-world experiment into global climate governance: it's called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It's hardly been a roaring success! You must be a supreme optimist to then expect a novel system of global governance can be invented and sustained over the time periods necessary for solar climate engineering to be effective.
DK: You made a very strong claim that geoengineering is zero-sum. If true, I would oppose any further work on the technology. I responded that results from all climate models strongly suggest that this is not the case. Your response was to dismiss climate models. Assume for the moment that climate models tell us nothing about regional climate response, on what then do you base your claim that solar geoengineering is zero sum - that is, that is just shuffles winners and losers?
When climate skeptics rubbish models I defend science by agreeing if all we had was complex models I too would be a doubter; but, I then argue, that we base our conclusions on a breath of evidence from basic physics and a vast range of observations to simple—auditable—models as well as the full-blow three dimensional climate models. Models of atmospheric circulation and aerosols developed for earth make good predictions of the climates of other planets. This is a triumph of science.
The same science that shows us that carbon dioxide will change the climate shows that scattering a bit more sunlight will reduce that climate change. How you do you accept one and reject the other?
On the other points: I am not exited by an endless round of climate model improvements nor do it think that political scientist will solve this. We need less theory and more empiricism.
MH: David, I agree that we need less theory and more empiricism. This is one of the reasons why I am skeptical that climate models are able to reveal confidently what will happen to regional climates—especially precipitation—once sulphur is pumped into the stratosphere.
I don't dismiss climate models, but I discriminate between what they are good for and what they are less good for. Having spent nearly half of my professional life studying their ability to simulate regional and local rainfall—by comparing simulations against observations, empiricism if you will—I have little faith in their skill at the regional and local scales.
But let's assume for a moment that climate models were reliable at these scales. Another argument against intentional solar climate engineering is that it will introduce another reason for antagonism between nations. There are those who claim that their models are good enough to precisely attribute specific local meteorological extremes—and ensuing human damages—to greenhouse gas emissions. There will be nations who will want to claim that any damaging weather extreme following sulphur injection was aerosol-caused rather than natural- or greenhouse gas-caused. The potential for liability and counter-liability claims between nations is endless.
I am against solar climate engineering not because some violation of nature's integrity - the argument used by some. I am against it because my reading of scientific evidence and of collective human governance capabilities suggests to me that the risks of implementation greatly outweigh any benefits. There are surer ways of reducing the dangers of climate change.
David Keith and Mike Hulme will be debating "The Case For and Against Climate Engineering" on Monday December 2 between 17:00 and 18:30 at the Oxford Martin School. Entry is free and open to the public. Registration is not required. The debate will be webcast live. To join in the conversation tweet using #geoengineering and direct questions to the speakers @oxmartinschool
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