Thursday, March 29, 2007

Some stories what I wrote, and one that I didn't

I'm working for news@nature for a few weeks, so I haven't had a chance to write much stuff for El Gentraso.

What I have written is a story about what the direction a dog's tail wag means, one about 'semi-identical' twins', both of which were subsequently picked up (i.e. copied) elsewhere.

I found them, not by any particular piece of investigative brilliance, but by looking at journal tables of contents. As a science journalist, if you look beyond the press releases on sites like Eurekalert and Alphagalileo, you'll often find that you've got no company.

The twins story, in particular excited a rush of comments to Nature's newsblog, mainly from people who thought they were, or had had, semi-identical twins. But probably aren't/haven't.

Not that incentives for good practice should be necessary, but writing for online is a useful reminder of what people might make of your stories - it's always sobering to see the expressions of hope that come in after any story on a potential cure for a disease or disability, however caveat-laden the story.

More recently, I've written about cane toad distribution and mammal evolution.

So doing all that has prevented me from blogging about John Lanchester's masterly essay on climate change in the LRB. This has one of the best intros I've seen in a long time:

It is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism. After all, terrorism is for the individual by far the modern world’s most effective form of political action, and climate change is an issue about which people feel just as strongly as about, say, animal rights. This is especially noticeable when you bear in mind the ease of things like blowing up petrol stations, or vandalising SUVs. In cities, SUVs are loathed by everyone except the people who drive them; and in a city the size of London, a few dozen people could in a short space of time make the ownership of these cars effectively impossible, just by running keys down the side of them, at a cost to the owner of several thousand pounds a time. Say fifty people vandalising four cars each every night for a month: six thousand trashed SUVs in a month and the Chelsea tractors would soon be disappearing from our streets. So why don’t these things happen? Is it because the people who feel strongly about climate change are simply too nice, too educated, to do anything of the sort? (But terrorists are often highly educated.) Or is it that even the people who feel most strongly about climate change on some level can’t quite bring themselves to believe in it?

It makes you think (and tempts you to act). My guess is that most people don't like doing violence, to property or people, and that we shy away from escalating a confrontation, usually for good reason. Maybe that's another word for cowardice, or apathy, though.

I don't bandy the words 'essential reading' about much, but I'd say that this is. The one thing I might take issue with is Lanchester's approving words on James Lovelock's advocacy of nuclear power.

I don't have an issue with nuclear power per se, and I think it should probably be in our energy portfolio. But George Monbiot's 'Heat' argues that, in practical terms, building a new generation of power stations would take so long that it's not a quick fix - we might as well go all out for renewables and carbon sequestration - and that energy efficiency gives the best return in carbon-saved-per-pound-spent.

One's always tempted to find rational arguments to support things you emotionally favour, but Monbiot makes an effort to do his sums - and also shows that no one really knows what's what when it comes to how we're going to get our energy.

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