Category: Science

Unicorns Found!

Dr. Jorge Pérez, an evolutionary biologist from the University of La Paz, and several companions, were exploring the Andes Mountains when they found a small valley, with no other animals or humans. Pérez noticed that the valley had what appeared to be a natural fountain, surrounded by two peaks of rock and silver snow.

Pérez and the others then ventured further into the valley. “By the time we reached the top of one peak, the water looked blue, with some crystals on top,” said Pérez.

Pérez and his friends were astonished to see the unicorn herd. These creatures could be seen from the air without having to move too much to see them – they were so close they could touch their horns.

While examining these bizarre creatures the scientists discovered that the creatures also spoke some fairly regular English. Pérez stated, “We can see, for example, that they have a common ‘language,’ something like a dialect or dialectic.”

Dr. Pérez believes that the unicorns may have originated in Argentina, where the animals were believed to be descendants of a lost race of people who lived there before the arrival of humans in those parts of South America.

While their origins are still unclear, some believe that perhaps the creatures were created when a human and a unicorn met each other in a time before human civilization. According to Pérez, “In South America, such incidents seem to be quite common.”

However, Pérez also pointed out that it is likely that the only way of knowing for sure if unicorns are indeed the descendants of a lost alien race is through DNA. “But they seem to be able to communicate in English quite well, which I believe is a sign of evolution, or at least a change in social organization,” said the scientist.

Click here for the rest of the story.

Small teams vs. large teams in science

Here we analyse more than 65 million papers, patents and software products that span the period 1954–2014, and demonstrate that across this period smaller teams have tended to disrupt science and technology with new ideas and opportunities, whereas larger teams have tended to develop existing ones.

That is from a new Nature paper by Lingfei Wu, Dashun Wang, and James A. Evans.  Here is the NYT write-up by Benedict Carey.

Will insects go extinct?

No, probably not, no matter what you might have read or seen on Twitter.  The underlying paper is “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers.”  Here is a tweet thread by Alex Wild on the paper, here is one bit:

They make a great deal of local extinctions as a sort of proxy for global extinctions. That’s pretty dicey. I mean, bison are locally extinct here in my Austin neighborhood. But their numbers are recovering elsewhere.

They used 73 studies done on different taxa in different places. Those studies must represent tens of thousands of person-hours. Gargantuan. But the input studies weren’t designed for global assessment.

The paper itself has strong evidence on the severe pressure on butterflies and bees, and furthermore the general encroachment of humans on the natural environment probably is going to diminish species numbers and biodiversity, for insects too.  At the same time, the remaining species will adapt and evolve to meet the new potential habitats, with many kinds of insects having an easier time adapting than say gorillas.

The paper has some quite non-dramatic sentences such as: “Studies on ant populations and trends are lacking except for a few invasive species.”  And: “A single long-term study on grasshoppers and crickets is available…”

So I don’t quite see how the authors arrive at: “The conclusion is clear: unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.”  Bryan Caplan, bet away!

Buy (or Rent) Coal! The Coasean Climate Change Policy

Since climate change and what to do about it are in the news it’s time to re-up an underrated idea, buy coal! Carbon taxes increase the price of carbon and induce economic and technological substitution towards lower-carbon sources of fuel in the countries that adopt them. As carbon-tax countries reduce fuel use, however, non carbon-tax countries see the price of their fuel decline. Thus, unless all countries join the tax-coalition, there is leakage. Supply-side policies are an alternative to demand supply policies. The United States, for example, could buy out and close coal mines, including giving the workers substantial retirement/reallocation bonuses, thus reducing the world supply of coal which is still the largest source of C02 emissions.

You can get rich by hitting an oil gusher, but coal is relatively expensive to mine and to transport. Thus, it’s relatively cheap to buy out coal mines because you aren’t buying the coal, you’re buying the right to leave the coal in the ground. Cutting the supply of coal raises its price which will increase the quantity supplied in other countries. Thus, there is the potential for supply leakage as well as demand leakage. It’s probably easier to use more coal when the price of coal falls (electricity, for example, can be generated in a variety of ways) than it is to mine more coal when the price rises. In other words, the elasticity of the demand for coal is greater than the elasticity of supply so supply leakage is probably less than demand leakage. Furthermore, supply leakage can be handled by buying out supply in the non-coalition countries. As Noah Smith pointed out with the graph at right (data) US CO2 emissions are actually falling while the rest of the world keeps rising (as they catch up in per-capita terms) so addressing the CO2 emissions problem requires bringing countries like China and India on board.

Coal use in China is very high and increasing. India has been canceling coal plants as solar becomes cheaper but coal is still by far the largest source of power in India. Thus, there is plenty of opportunity to buy out, high-cost coal mines in China and India.

It might seem odd to buy Chinese and Indian coal mines but we buy Chinese and Indian labor, why not a coal mine? Moreover, it’s important to understand that the policy is to buy only up to the point that it benefits both parties. Buying coal isn’t foreign aid, it’s a pollution reduction plan just like a carbon tax or R&D investment and because we can buy barely-profitable coal mines and avoid the problem of leakage this is a low-cost method to reduce CO2 emissions.

Collier and Venables worry that foreign voters won’t like foreign investors buying up coal mines, although foreign investment is hardly uncommon and foreigners do protect rainforests by buying the right to cut them down. In any case, Collier and Venables suggest a cap-extract and trade program. Under cap-extract there is a cap on global extractions of carbon (not use) but rights to extract can be traded. Since it’s more valuable to extract say oil than coal what this would mean is that payments would flow from mostly developed countries to developing countries which makes it clear that we are all in the boat together.

Even without a cap-extract and trade program, however, there are other factors that make buying coal attractive to people in selling countries, namely coal is killing them even putting aside the dangers of climate change.

NYTimes: Burning coal has the worst health impact of any source of air pollution in China and caused 366,000 premature deaths in 2013, Chinese and American researchers said on Thursday.

Coal is responsible for about 40 percent of the deadly fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 in China’s atmosphere, according to a study the researchers released in Beijing.

India’s air quality is even worse than China’s and is responsible for some 1.2 million early deaths annually. A 25% cut in pollution in India could increase life-expectancy by 1.3 years and in some highly polluted cities such as Delhi by 2.8 years. Not all pollution comes from coal but a substantial amount does.

Buyers might worry that a foreign government will take their money and later renege on the deal. There are lots of ways to deal with this problem–turn the coal fields into a national park, for example, or develop them for housing. But let’s turn a problem into a solution. Instead of buying coal, we could rent it. In other words, buy the right to delay mining the coal for say 10 years. Given the rate of improvement in solar, many coal plants will be uneconomic in 10 years and given the rate of improvement in living standards and the consequent increased demand for clean air, many coal plants in India and China could well be unpolitical in 10 years. Thus, it is true that some solutions are naturally in the offing, but for exactly this reason some coal plants are going to be working extra hours in the next decade to squeeze out what profit they can while they still can. We can avoid this last push of CO2 into the atmosphere by buying up the right to extract and holding it for a decade.

A program to leave coal in the ground could easily pay for itself in lives saved and climate stabilized.

Paul Romer’s advice for the World Bank

First, outsource the bank’s research upon which it depends for identifying problems and proposing solutions. Diplomacy and science cannot both thrive under the same roof. One consequence of the bank’s commitment to diplomacy is its necessary embrace of the helpful ambiguity that makes it possible for multilateral institutions to allow “Chinese Taipei” compete in the Olympic Games without “Taiwan, China” having a seat in the UN. Dispassionate examination makes clear that what the bank does to maintain conformity on the diplomatic front is not compatible with scientific research.

All that matter in science are the facts. When complex political sensitivities are allowed to influence research by stifling open disagreement, it ceases to be scientific. For good reasons, the bank’s shareholders have chosen to protect its diplomatic function, at the expense of its research.

Outsourcing research would be a better, more efficient way for the bank to establish the facts needed to do its job. This would also be an investment in the universities that make the discoveries that drive human progress.

Here is the full piece.  What do you all think?

Poor Sleep Makes People Poor: The Costs of India Standard Time

After Independence, India adopted a single time zone for the entire country. India spans as much 1,822 miles in the East-West direction or 29 degrees longitude. If India followed the convention of a new time zone every 15 degrees it would have at least two time zones. With just one zone the sun can rise two hours earlier in the East than in the far West.

In an original and surprising paper, Maulik Jagnani, argues that India’s single time zone reduces the quality of sleep, especially of poor children and this reduces the quality of their education. Why does a nominal change impact real variables? The school day starts at more or less the same clock-hour everywhere in India but children go to bed later in places where the sun sets later. Thus, children in the west get less sleep than children in the east and this shows up in their education levels and later even in their wages!

I find that later sunset causes school-age children to begin sleep later, but does not affect wake-up times. An hour (approximately two standard deviation) delay in sunset time reduces children’s sleep by 30 minutes. I also show that later sunset reduces students’ time spent on homework or studying, and time spent on formal and informal work by child laborers,while increasing time spent on indoor leisure for all children. This result is consistent with a model where sleep is productivity-enhancing and increases the marginal returns of study effort for students and work effort for child laborers.

The second part of the paper examines the consequent lifetime impacts of later sunset on stock indicators of children’s academic outcomes. I use nationally-representative data from the 2015 India Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) to estimate how children’s education outcomes co-vary with annual average sunset time across eastern and western locations within a district. I find that an hour (approximately two standard deviation)delay in annual average sunset time reduces years of education by 0.8 years, and children in geographic locations with later sunset are less likely to complete primary and middle school.

Addendum: The importance of sleep and coordination of sleep with circadian rhythms is also illustrated by the phenomena of teenagers who get more sleep and do better in school when school opening is better timed with adolescent sleep patterns. As a result, we are seeing a movement to push school opening times later for teenagers. Perhaps India will adopt a second time zone.

Columbus Lowered World Temperature

European germs killed 90% of the population of the Americas in the century after 1492 causing millions of hectacres of farm land to revert to forest which increased the uptake of carbon and reduced the planetary temperature. That is the upshot of a new paper that joins together previous estimates of population decline, farm land and carbon sequestration to push the onset of the Anthropocene to before the industrial revolution.

Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492.

Abstract: Human impacts prior to the Industrial Revolution are not well constrained. We investigate whether the decline in global atmospheric CO2 concentration by 7–10 ppm in the late 1500s and early 1600s which globally lowered surface air temperatures by 0.15C, were generated by natural forcing or were a result of the large-scale depopulation of the Americas after European arrival, subsequent land use change and secondary succession. We quantitatively review the evidence for (i) the pre-Columbian population size, (ii) their per capita land use, (iii) the post-1492 population loss, (iv) the resulting carbon uptake of the abandoned anthropogenic landscapes, and then compare these to potential natural drivers of global carbon declines of 7–10 ppm. From 119 published regional population estimates we calculate a pre-1492 CE population of 60.5 million (interquartile range, IQR 44.8–78.2 million), utilizing 1.04 ha land per capita (IQR 0.98–1.11). European epidemics removed 90% (IQR 87–92%) of the indigenous population over the next century. This resulted in secondary succession of 55.8 Mha (IQR 39.0–78.4 Mha) of abandoned land, sequestering 7.4 Pg C (IQR 4.9–10.8 Pg C), equivalent to a decline in atmospheric CO2 of 3.5 ppm (IQR 2.3–5.1 ppm CO2). Accounting for carbon cycle feedbacks plus LUC outside the Americas gives a total 5 ppm CO2 additional uptake into the land surface in the 1500s compared to the 1400s, 47–67% of the atmospheric CO2 decline. Furthermore, we show that the global carbon budget of the 1500s cannot be balanced until large-scale vegetation regeneration in the Americas is included. The Great Dying of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth System in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution.

*Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologer Can Save the World*

Still more incredible is the fact that one person almost single-handedly created the first maps of two-thirds of the planet yet is unknown to the average citizen of Earth (while Amerigo Vespucci, whose cartographic credentials are suspect, has two continents named for him).  The unsung mapmaker Marie Tharp, who earned a master’s degree in geology from the University of Michigan, worked briefly for an oil company, and then in 1948 became a drafter for a new oceanographic project led by Maurice Ewing at Columbia University.  For years, Ewing’s all-male team of graduate students collected sonar soundings of the ocean floor while Tharp laboriously transformed the linear strings of depth readings into three-dimensional topography.

Here is the Wikipedia page for Marie Tharp.  Here is a biography of Marie Tharp, which I just ordered.  Timefulness is by Marcia Bjornerud and you can order it here.

What should I ask Ed Boyden?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with him, no associated public event.  Here is his MIT bio:

Ed Boyden is Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology at MIT, associate professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT’s Media Lab and McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and was recently selected to be an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2018). He leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, which develops tools for analyzing and repairing complex biological systems such as the brain, and applies them systematically to reveal ground truth principles of biological function as well as to repair these systems. These technologies include expansion microscopy, which enables complex biological systems to be imaged with nanoscale precision; optogenetic tools, which enable the activation and silencing of neural activity with light; robotic methods for directed evolution that are yielding new synthetic biology reagents for dynamic imaging of physiological signals; novel methods of noninvasive focal brain stimulation; and new methods of nanofabrication using shrinking of patterned materials to create nanostructures with ordinary lab equipment. He co-directs the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, which aims to develop new tools to accelerate neuroscience progress.

Here are other Ed Boyden links.  So what should I ask him?

My Conversation with Larissa MacFarquhar

This was a really good one, here is the text and audio.  The opening:

TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with the great Larissa MacFarquhar. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker, considered by many to write the very best and most interesting profiles of anyone in the business. She has a very well-known book called Strangers Drowning. The subtitle is Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s about extreme altruists. And she’s now working on a book on people’s decisions whether or not to leave their hometown.

Here is one excerpt proper:

COWEN: If you’re an extreme altruist, are you too subject to manipulation by others? If you care so much about so many other people, and those people actually can be harmed pretty easily at low cost, does this mean that you, the extreme altruist, you just go through life being manipulated?

MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.

The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.

COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?

MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —

COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.

MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us.

And:

COWEN: Your view on how much you should be lied to if you have dementia — is that the same as what you would propose for a sibling or a child, someone you loved and knew?

MACFARQUHAR: With dementia?

COWEN: Right. Would you be consistent and apply the same standard to them that you would want for yourself?

MACFARQUHAR: Ohhh, I don’t know.

COWEN: I would say don’t lie to me, but, in fact, for others, I would be more willing to lie to them than I would wish to be lied to myself.

Try this part too:

COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?

MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —

COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?

MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.

COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?

MACFARQUHAR: Probably not. But I’ll say two things about this.

First is, I think there is far too much emphasis on describing people’s looks. Because the thing about humans is that their faces are unique, so you can describe somebody, but you’re never going to be able to call up an exact picture in a reader’s mind about what the person looks like. So what you’re doing is not really describing what they look like — what you’re doing is evoking something which, I guess, the malign form of that is looksism.

But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.

And also, from me:

COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist? Or is that a contradiction?

Definitely recommended.

Ratio of <= 40 to >= 50 scientists funded by the NIH

The dotted line at the top is the Jones-implied ratio of productivity of <= 40 year olds to >= 50 year-olds, as drawn from Figure 1 in this source.

For the construction of this data source I am indebted to PseudoMontaigne.  Does it not imply that NIH funding is vastly over-allocated according to the criterion of seniority?  Or might this be the rise of the lab system, where the older people are the PIs, and they in turn dole this money out to younger researchers?  More middlemen, so to speak.  Opinions?

The culture that is (some of) Indian science

The organisers of a major Indian science conference distanced themselves Sunday from speakers who used the prestigious event to dismiss Einstein’s discoveries and claim ancient Hindus invented stem cell research.

The Indian Scientific Congress Association expressed “serious concern” as the unorthodox remarks aired by prominent academics at its annual conference attracted condemnation and ridicule.

The distinguished gathering of Indian researchers and scientists hosts Nobel laureates, but in recent years has seen Hindu mythology and faith-based theories edging onto the agenda.

At this year’s congress, the head of a southern Indian university cited an ancient Hindu text as proof that was discovered on the subcontinent thousands of years ago.

“We had 100 Kauravas from one mother because of stem cell and test tube technology,” said G. Nageshwar Rao, Vice Chancellor at Andhra University, referring to a story from the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

Rao, who was addressing school children and scientists at the event, also said a demon king from another centuries-old Hindu epic had two dozen aircraft and a network of landing strips in modern-day Sri Lanka.

“Hindu Lord Vishnu used guided missiles known as ‘Vishnu Chakra’ and chased moving targets,” added the professor of inorganic chemistry.

Event organisers tried to hose down the remarks, saying it was “unfortunate” the prestigious event had been derailed by controversy.

Here is the full account, via Anecdotal.  My point here is not to make fun of India, which I am a big admirer of.  Rather, successful science requires many, many cultural dimensions, not just a few, and those dimensions must be applied consistently.  India has an active and mostly successful space program, is a world leader in cheap and effective heart surgery, and in general the country is teeming with innovation, including in the culinary realm I might add.

So many of you take the cultural prerequisites of science for granted, and yes Max Weber still is underrated.

How to reform scientific grants?

Using the economic theory of contests, Gross and Bergstrom modeled a controversial alternative: awarding grants instead by partial lottery. Under a partial lottery system, funds are awarded by random draw among a pool of high-ranking grants — the top 40 percent, for example. Since applicants would be aiming to clear a lower bar for a smaller prize — a shot at the lottery instead of a guaranteed payout for winning proposals — the contest theory model predicts that applicants would spend less time trying to perfect their applications, Bergstrom said.

Here is more from James Urton, and more here, via Charles Klingman and also Michelle Dawson.

Hacking Photosynthesis

The vast majority of life on Earth depends, either directly or indirectly, on photosynthesis for its energy. And photosynthesis depends on an enzyme called RuBisCO, which uses carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to build sugars. So, by extension, RuBisCO may be the most important catalyst on the planet.

Unfortunately, RuBisCO is, well, terrible at its job. It might not be obvious based on the plant growth around us, but the enzyme is not especially efficient at catalyzing the carbon dioxide reaction. And, worse still, it often uses oxygen instead. This produces a useless byproduct that, if allowed to build up, will eventually shut down photosynthesis entirely. It’s estimated that crops such as wheat and rice lose anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of their growth potential due to this byproduct.

While plants have evolved ways of dealing with this byproduct, they’re not especially efficient. So a group of researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana decided to step in and engineer a better way. The result? In field tests, the engineered plants grew up to 40 percent more mass than ones that relied on the normal pathways.

That’s John Timmer at Ars Technica summarizing a paper by South et al. in Science. The experiment was done in tobacco plants but the same pathways are used in the C3 group of plants including rice, wheat, barley, soybean, cotton and sugar beets so the applications are large.

Me on elitism in economics

He [Cowen] said that he agreed with the idea that influence of economics comes from a relatively small number of institutions, and he thinks the number is shrinking. “What used to be something like a ‘top six’ has over time become the ‘top two,’ namely Harvard and MIT.”

Cowen said that he doesn’t “find that entirely ideal, by any means.” But he also said that those departments deserve praise for their work. “Harvard and MIT are in fact remarkably good at finding, evaluating and attracting top talent. It is stunning how good they are at this, and we should not begrudge them that,” he said. (Cowen is an example, having earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. His undergraduate alma mater is George Mason, where he teaches.)

The centralization of top departments, he said, worries him less than do “pressures for conformity.”

Cowen added that he is sympathetic to Vigdor’s criticism, but that the centralization may be “an opportunity” for departments outside the elites to shine. “The centralized centers of influence are going to miss important ideas in their early stages,” Cowen said. “Both public choice and experimental economics came out of non-top schools,” including to some extent George Mason, he said. “So did blogging. If something is unfair, well, in part that is your big chance.”

That is from Scott Jaschik at Inside HigherEd, mostly about Jacob Vigdor and his critique of the economics profession.