Bill Bryson (III)

This will be my last post related to the book. Anyway, here goes:

1. “the solar system is quite a roomy place and the average asteroid [is] about one and a half million kilometres from its nearest neighbour. [that’s almost four times the average distance from the earth to the moon..] Nobody knows even approximately how many asteroids there are tumbling through space, but the number is thought to be probably not less than a billion. […] As of July 2001, 26.000 asteroids had been named and identified […] As late as 1988, more than half of all American palaeontologists contacted in a survey continued to believe that the extinction of the dinosaurs was in no way related to an asteroid or cometary impact. […] In 2001 researchers at the California Institute of Technology analysed helium isotopes from sediments left from the later KT impact and concluded that it affected the Earth’s climate for about ten thousand years. This was actually used as evidence to support the notion that the extinction of dinosaurs was swift and emphatic – and so it was, in geological terms. […] if you exploded one Hiroshima-sized bomb for every person alive on Earth today you would still be about a billion bombs short of the size of the KT impact.”

2. “Until slightly under a century ago, what the best-informed scientific minds knew about Earth’s interior was not much more than what a coal miner knew – namely, that you could dig down through soil for a distance and then you’d hit rock, and that was about it. […] Earthquakes are fairly common. Every day on average somewhere in the world there are two of magnitude 2.0 or greater – that’s enough to give anyone nearby a pretty good jolt. […]

By the 1960s scientists had grown sufficiently frustrated by how little they understood of the Earth’s interior that they decided to try to do something about it. Specifically, they got the idea to drill through the ocean floor (the continental crust was too thick) to the Moho discontinuity [here’s Salman Khan’s treatment of the subject] and to extract a piece of the Earth’s mantle for examination at leisure. […] The hope was to lower a drill through over 4,000 metres of Pacific Ocean water off the coast of Mexico and drill some 5,000 metres through relatively thin crustal rock. Drilling from a ship in open waters is, in the words of one oceanographer, ‘like trying to drill a hole in the sidewalks of New York from atop the Empire State Building using a strand of spaghetti’. Every attempt ended in failure. The deepest they penetrated was only about 180 metres.”

3. “From the bottom of the deepest ocean trench to the top of the highest mountain, the zone that covers nearly the whole of known life is only around 20 kilometres thick – not when set against the roominess of the cosmos at large. For humans it is even worse because we happen to belong to the portion of living things that took the rash but venturesome decision 400 million years ago to crawl out of the seas and become land-based and oxygen-breathing. In consequence, no less than 99,5 per cent of the world’s habitable space by volume, according to one estimate, is fundamentally – in practical terms completely – off limits to us. [yet some people still claim that the earth was “made for us”…] […]

“Of the small portion of the planet’s surface that is dry enough to stand on, a surprisingly large amount is too hot or cold or dry or steep or lofty to be of much use to us. Partly, it must be conceded, this is our fault. In terms of adaptability, humans are pretty amazingly useless. […] Even in quite mild weather half of the calories you burn go to keep your body warm.”

I’d like also to add that it’s worth remembering just how little the surface part of the Earth actually is. The highest permanent human settlements are located in a height of somewhere between 5,5 and 6 km above sea level. If we take the Kármán line to be the boundary between the atmosphere and outer space, there’s another 95 kilometers above us that we don’t make much use of. Below us there is something along the lines of 6,370 km’s in a straight line down to the centre of the core. Earth’s crust constitutes less than 1 % of Earth’s total volume, and we’ve never even gotten half of the way down there, even with all our fancy machinery.

4. “At any one moment 1,800 thunderstorms are in progress around the globe – some 40,000 a day.” […] “because heat from the Sun is unevenly distributed, differences in air pressure arise on the planet. Air can’t abide this, so it rushes around trying to equalize things everywhere. Wind is simply the air’s way of trying to keep things in balance. Air always flows from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure […] and the greater the discrepancy in pressures, the faster the wind blows.” […] clouds are not great reservoirs of water. Only about 0.035 per cent of the Earth’s fresh water is floating around above us at any moment.”

5. “Ninety-seven per cent of all the water on Earth is in the seas, the greater part of it in the Pacific, which is bigger than all the land masses put together. Altogether the Pacific holds just over half of all the ocean water (51.6 per cent); the Atlantic has 23.6 per cent and the Indian Ocean 21.2 per cent leaving just 3.6 per cent to be accounted for by all the other seas. The average depth of the ocean is 3.86 kilometres, with the Pacific on average about 300 metres deeper than the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Sixty per cent of the planet’s surface is ocean more than 1.6 kilometres deep.”

6. “It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of all the intoxicating existence we’ve been endowed with. But what’s life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours – arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don’t. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment’s additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be. But – and here’s an interesting point – for the most part it doesn’t want to be much. […] there is one other extremely pertinent quality about life on Earth: it goes extinct. Quite regularly. For all the trouble they take to assemble and preserve themselves, species crumble and die remarkably routinely. And the more complex they get, the more quickly they appear to go extinct. Which is perhaps one reason why so much of life isn’t terribly ambitious.”

I of course recommend this book. If you like the stuff you’ve read in the posts, you’ll love the book. It doesn’t go into much depth (well, at one point it goes to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and at another point it talks about stuff going on in the Earth’s core, so that’s not entirely true – but you know what I mean…), however it covers a lot of stuff along the way and I’ll almost guarantee that if you read the book, you’ll come across some stuff you didn’t know and didn’t know you wanted to know.

One more thing – I urge you to remember that the three posts here are excerpts and quotes from almost 600 pages of material. It takes me some time to figure out just what to include and what not to include in posts like these, even though I’ve painted and written plenty in the book along the way which facilitates the blogging process. Actually it’s somewhat easier to know what to include if you cover a ‘reasonably good’ book than it is if you’re reading a brilliant book filled with amazing stuff you want to give on to the rest of the world. This is just another way for me to say, yet again, that it takes a lot of time to make posts like these, which is a big part of why I don’t do it more often.

July 31, 2011 Posted by | astronomy, biology, books, Geology, history | Leave a comment

Bill Bryson (II)

More quotes from his wonderful book:

1. “Before [Richard] Owen, museums were designed primarily for the use and edification of the elite, and even they found it difficult to gain access. In the early days of the British Museum, prospective visitors had to make a written application and undergo a brief interview to determine if they were fit to be admitted at all. They then had to return a second time to pick up a ticket – that is, assuming they had passed the interview – and finally come back a third time to view the museum’s treasures. Even then they were whisked through in groups and not allowed to linger. Owen’s plan was to welcome everyone, even to the point of encouraging working men to visit in the evening, and to devote most of the museum’s space to public displays. He even proposed, very radically, to put informative labels on each display so that people could appreciate what they were viewing.”

2. “At the turn of the twentieth century, palaeontologists had literally tons of old bones to pick over. The problem was that they still didn’t have any idea how old any of these bones were. Worse, the agreed ages for the Earth couldn’t comfortably support the numbers of aeons and ages and epochs that the past obviously contained. If Earth were really only twenty million years old or so, as the great Lord Kelvin insisted, then whole orders of ancient creatures must have come into being and gone out again practically in the same geological instant. It just made no sense. […] Such was the confusion that by the close of the nineteenth century, depending on which text you consulted, you could learn that the number of years that stood between us and the dawn of complex life in the Cambrian period was 3 million, 18 million, 600 million, 794 million, or 2,4 billion – or som other number within that range. As late as 1910 [five years after Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis papers], one of the most respected estimates, by the American George Becker, put the Earth’s age at perhaps as little as 55 million years.”

3. “Soon after taking up his position [in the beginning of the nineteenth century], [Humphry] Davy began to bang out new elements one after the other – potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, and aluminum or aluminium […] He discovered so many elements not so much because he was serially astute as because he developed an ingenious technique of applying electricity to a molten substance – electrolysis, as it is known. Altogether he discovered a dozen elements, a fifth of the known totals of his day.”

4. “They [Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy] also discovered that radioactive elements decayed into other elements – that one day you had an atom of uranium, say, and the next you had an atom of lead. This was truly extraordinary. It was alchemy pure and simple; no-one had ever imagined that such a thing could happen naturally and spontaneously. […] For a long time it was assumed that anything so miraculously energetic as radioactivity must be beneficial. For years, manufacturers of toothpaste and laxatives put radioactive thorium in their products, and at least until the late 1920s the Glen Springs Hotel in the Finger Lakes region of New York (and doubtless others as well) featured with pride the therapeutic effects of its ‘Radio-active mineral springs’. It wasn’t banned in consumer products until 1938. By this time it was much too late for Mme Curie, who died of leukaemia in 1934.”

5. “In 1875, when a young German in Kiel named Max Planck was deciding whether to devote his life to mathematics or to physics, he was urged most heartily not to choose physics because the breakthroughs had all been made there. The coming century, he was assured, would be one of consolidation and refinement, not revolution.”

6. “You may not feel outstandingly robust, but if you are an average-sized adult you will contain within your modest frame no less than 7 x 10^18 joules of potential energy – enough to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point. Everything has this kind of energy trapped within it. We’re just not very good at getting it out. Even a uranium bomb – the most energetic thing we have produced yet – releases less than 1 per cent of the energy it could release if only we were more cunning.”

7. “It is worth pausing for a moment to consider just how little was known of the cosmos at the this time. Astronomers today believe there are perhaps 140 billion galaxies in the visible universe. […] In 1919, when Hubble first put his head to the eyepiece, the number of these galaxies known to us was exactly one: the Milky Way. Everything else was thought to be either part of the Milky Way itself or one of many distant, peripheral puffs of gas. […] at the time Leavitt and Cannon were inferring fundamental properties of the cosmos from dim smudges of distant stars on photographic plates, the Harvard astronomer William H. Pickering, who could of course peer into a first-class telescope as often as he wanted, was developing his seminal theory that dark patches on the Moon were caused by swarms of seasonally migrating insects.”

8. “Atoms, in short, are very abundant. They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long-lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms – up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested – probably once belonged to Shakespeare.”

From the wiki correction page: “Jupiter Scientific has done an analysis of this problem and the figure in Bryon’s book is probably low: It is likely that each of us has about 200 billion atoms that were once in Shakespeare’s body.”

9. “Even though lead was widely known to be dangerous, by the early years of the twentieth century it could be found in all manner of consumer products. Food came in cans sealed with lead solder. Water was often stored in lead-lined tanks. Lead arsenate was sprayed onto fruits as a pesticide. Lead even came as part of the composition of toothpaste tubes. […] Americans alive today each have about 625 times more lead in their blood than people did a century ago.”

In this chapter we also learn that we did not arrive at the current best estimate of the age of the earth until little over 50 years ago – I won’t quote from the book, but wikipedia has the short version: “An age of 4.55 ± 1.5% billion years, very close to today’s accepted age, was determined by C.C. Patterson using uranium-lead isotope dating (specifically lead-lead dating) on several meteorites including the Canyon Diablo meteorite and published in 1956.” At this point, the age of the universe was still very uncertain, from the book: “In 1956, astronomers discovered that Cepheid variables were more variable than they had thought; they came in two varieties, not one. This allowed them to rework their calculations and come up with a new age for the universe of between seven billion and twenty billion years” – as Bryson puts it, that estimate was “not terribly precise”. Our knowledge about the age of the universe is quite new.

10. “Well into the 1970s, one of the most popular and influential geological textbooks, The Earth by the venerable Harold Jefferys, strenuously insisted that plate tectonics was a physical impossibility, just as it had in the first edition way back in 1924. It was equally dismissive of convection and sea-floor spreading. And in Basin and Range, published in 1980, John McPhee noted that even then one American geologist in eight still didn’t believe in plate tectonics.”

11. “By the time Shoemaker came along, a common view was that Meteor Crater had been formed by an underground steam explosion. Shoemaker knew nothing about underground steam explosions – he couldn’t; they don’t exist…”

July 30, 2011 Posted by | astronomy, books, Chemistry, cosmology, Geology, Paleontology, Physics | Leave a comment

Bill Bryson

Here’s the link, order it if you like what you read here. I read the book 3 years ago, but this is the kind of book that you’ll probably want to reread at some point if you’re like me. When I read it the first time I borrowed my big brother’s book, as he had it standing on his bookshelf while I was visiting him over the Summer. I recently bought the book myself (it was on sale) and I’ve pretty much since I bought it been somewhat bugged by the fact that (yet) a(/nother) book I’ve read stands on my bookshelf looking as if it’s never even been touched by a human hand (most of the books I’ve read contains pages painted in at least two colours and often contain various notes in the margin – ‘you can tell they’ve been read’). So I decided to take another shot at it, also because I needed a break from Genetics – some of that is hard and this is supposed to be my vacation after all… Ok, let’s move on to some quotes from the book:

1. I’d actually like to quote the introduction chapter in full, it’s that good; but that would be overkill so less will do. However I can’t stop myself from telling you in a bit more detail just how Bryson starts out (…I was just about to add ‘…his adventure’):

“Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.
To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under appreciated state known as existence.
Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually care about you – indeed, they don’t even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there.”


“Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes into view, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will close you down, then silently reassemble and go off to be other things. And that’s it for you. […] The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is, of course, the miracle of life.


But the fact that you have atoms and that they assemble in such a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. […] The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years […] Consider the fact that for 3,8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of heriditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.[*]

This is a book about how it happened…”

*Technically, this passage is not entirely true/correct, as the concept of sexual reproduction is quite a bit younger than that – but the finer details don’t subtract much from the narrative: “The first fossilized evidence of sexually reproducing organisms is from eukaryotes of the Stenian period, about 1 to 1.2 billion years ago.” (wikipedia) It’s still a pretty long time ago. Interestingly, this inaccuracy is not mentioned on this wiki page dealing with inaccuracies and errors in the book. I’ve found at least a few passages besides those that I considered a bit problematic while reading them, but I generally let those pass when I’m reading both because of the background of the author and the likely background of the target group (it’s pop sci after all).

So anyway, that’s how he starts out.

2. Also from the introduction:

“about four of five years ago, I suppose – I was on a long flight across the Pacific, staring idly out the window at moonlit ocean, when it occured to me with a certain uncomfortable forcefulness that I didn’t know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on. I had no idea, for example, why the oceans were salty but the Great Lakes weren’t. Didn’t have the faintest idea. I didn’t know if the oceans were growing more salty with time or less, and whether ocean salinity levels was something I should be concerned about or not. […] I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, didn’t understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was – didn’t know anything, really.”

So he spent 3 years of his life to write the book and try to find out some of this stuff presumably asking a lot of really awkward questions along the way. Quotes below are from the book proper, not from the introduction:

3. “until 1978 no-one had ever noticed that Pluto has a moon.” […] “Our solar system may be the liveliest thing for trillions of miles, but all the visible stuff in it […] fills less than a trillionth of the available space.” […] “When I was a boy, the solar system was thought to contain thirty moons. The total now is at least ninety, about a third of which have been found in just the last ten years. The point to remember, of course, when considering the universe at large is that we don’t actually know what is in our own solar system.” […] Surprisingly little of the universe is visible to us when we incline our heads to the sky. Only about six thousand stars are visible to the naked eye from Earth, and only about two thousand can be seen from any one spot.”

4. “It was history’s first co-operative international scientific venture, and almost everywhere it ran into problems. Many observers were waylaid by war, sickness or shipwreck. Others made their destinations but opened their crates to find equipment broken or warped by tropical heat. Once again the French seemed fated to provide the most memorably unlucky participants. Jean Chappe spent months travelling to Siberia by coach, boat and sleigh, nursing his delicate instruments over every perilous bump, only to find the last vital stretch blocked by swollen rivers, the result of unusually heavy spring rains, which the locals were swift to blame on him after they saw him pointing strange instruments at the sky. Chappe managed to escape with his life, but with no useful measurements.”

5. “The second half of the eighteenth century was a time when people of a scientific bent grew intensely interested in the physical properties of fundamental things – gases and electricity in particular – and began seeing what they could do with them, often with more enthusiasm than sense. In America, Benjamin Franklin famously risked his life by flying a kite in an electrical storm. In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.”

6. “It is hard to imagine now, but geology excited the nineteenth century – positively gripped it – in a way that no science ever had before or would again. In 1839, when Roderick Murchison published The Silurian System, a plump and ponderous study of a type of rock called greywacke, it was an instant bestseller, racing through four editions, even though it cost 8 guineas a copy and was, in true Huttonian style, unreadable. (As even a Murchison supporter conceded, it had ‘a total want of literary attractiveness’.) And when, in 1841, the great Charles Lyell travelled to America to give a series of lectures in Boston, sellout audiences of three thousand at a time packed into the Lowell Institute to hear his tranquillizing descriptions of marine zeolites and seismic perturbations in Campania.”

7. “The first attempt at measurement [of the age of the Earth] that could be called remotely scientific was made by the Frenchman Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in the 1770s. It had long been known that the Earth radiated appreciable amounts of heat – that was apparent to anyone who went down a coal mine – but there wasn’t any way of estimating the rate of dissipation. Buffon’s experiment consisted of heating spheres until they glowed white-hot and then estimating the rate of heat loss by touching them (presumably very lightly at first) as they cooled. From this he guessed the Earth’s age to be somewhere between 75,000 and 168,000 thousand years old. This was of course a wild underestimate; but it was a radical notion nonetheless…”

Bryson often include examples like these, on just how people figured stuff out – as you can also tell from quote #4 and #5. These parts of the book are really fascinating to me, because they make it clear just how many problems related to measurements and knowledge sharing that were around, making life complicated for people trying to figure stuff out in the past; problems we don’t even spare a thought today. And because descriptions such as these make it much more clear how many of the tools people today take for granted didn’t exactly come along by themselves. The stuff above deals with only the first 100 pages or so; needless to say, there’s a lot of good stuff in this book. I’ll bring more quotes and stuff from the book tomorrow – I should have blogged the book in detail the first time I read it, but I never got around to do it and this time I’ll try to rectify that mistake.

July 29, 2011 Posted by | astronomy, books, Chemistry, Geology, history, science | Leave a comment

Some data

From Pew:

From the report: “Nearly a decade after September 11, 2001, skepticism about the events of that day persists among Muslim publics. When asked whether they think groups of Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., most Muslims in the nations surveyed say they do not believe this.

There is no Muslim public in which even 30% accept that Arabs conducted the attacks.”

“Muslims continue to believe there is widespread hostility toward them in the West. More than seven-in-ten think most or many Americans are hostile toward Muslims in the Palestinian territories, Turkey, and Pakistan, and solid majorities feel this way in Egypt and Jordan.

Moreover, perceptions of American hostility have increased since 2006 in four of the five countries where trends are available”

“On balance, respondents in the non-Muslim nations surveyed believe Muslims in their countries want to be distinct from the larger society. Majorities or pluralities hold this view in Western Europe, the U.S., Israel and Russia. This opinion is particularly widespread in Germany (72%), Spain (69%), and Russia (66%).”

“Among the Muslim publics surveyed, those in Lebanon offer the most positive ratings of Christians; 96% express a favorable opinion of the religious group, which makes up about 40% of the Lebanese population. Majorities of Muslims in Jordan (57%) and Indonesia (52%) also rate Christians favorably; Egyptian Muslims are nearly evenly divided, with 48% offering positive views and 47% saying they have an unfavorable opinion.

In contrast, Muslims in Turkey and Pakistan offer overwhelmingly negative views of Christians. In Turkey, just 6% of Muslims have a favorable view and 82% offer negative opinions of Christians; among Pakistani Muslims, 16% have positive opinions and 66% offer unfavorable views.” [my emphasis]

“Ratings of Jews are dismal in the seven predominantly Muslim nations surveyed. About one-in-ten (9%) Muslims in Indonesia, and even fewer in Turkey (4%), the Palestinian territories (4%), Lebanon (3%), Jordan (2%), Egypt (2%) and Pakistan (2%) express favorable opinions of Jews.”

“In the Arab countries surveyed, large majorities of Muslims who say some religions are more prone to violence consider Judaism to be the most violent religion; 97% in Jordan, 93% in Egypt, 88% in the Palestinian territories and 77% in Lebanon share this view.”

“On balance, Muslims in the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed are more likely to associate negative characteristics with Westerners than non-Muslims are to associate them with Muslims. For example, nearly nine-in-ten (89%) Jordanian Muslims use at least three of the six negative adjectives tested to describe people in Western countries, as do majorities in Egypt (81%), Turkey (73%), the Palestinian territories (71%), Pakistan (67%) and Indonesia (63%); only in Lebanon is this not the case.

In contrast, Spain is the only Western country surveyed where a majority (60%) of non-Muslims associate three or more negative characteristics with Muslims. At least three-in-ten non-Muslims in Britain (39%), the U.S. (35%) and France (30%) do not attribute any of the six negative characteristics tested to Muslims.”

The link has more.

July 26, 2011 Posted by | data, religion | 4 Comments

Wikipedia articles of interest

1. Milankovitch cycles.

“Milankovitch theory describes the collective effects of changes in the Earth’s movements upon its climate, named after Serbian civil engineer and mathematician Milutin Milanković, who worked on it during First World War internment. Milanković mathematically theorized that variations in eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession of the Earth’s orbit determined climatic patterns on Earth through orbital forcing.

The Earth’s axis completes one full cycle of precession approximately every 26,000 years. At the same time the elliptical orbit rotates more slowly. The combined effect of the two precessions leads to a 21,000-year period between the seasons and the orbit. In addition, the angle between Earth’s rotational axis and the normal to the plane of its orbit (obliquity) oscillates between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees on a 41,000-year cycle. It is currently 23.44 degrees and decreasing.”

2. Gravity of Earth. Here’s more, somewhat related.

3. Histone.

4. Lake Victoria.

“With a surface area of 68,800 square kilometres (26,600 sq mi), Lake Victoria is Africa’s largest lake by area, and it is the largest tropical lake in the world. Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake by surface area (only Lake Superior in North America is larger). In terms of its volume, Lake Victoria is the world’s eighth largest continental lake, and it contains about 2,750 cubic kilometers (2.2 billion acre-feet) of water.


“The introduction of the Nile perch had a decisive impact on Haplochromis stocks which it favoured as its prey, affecting both their abundance and diversity. It is believed that the contribution of this species flock to the fish biomass of the lake has decreased from 80% to less than 1% since the introduction of the Nile perch,[18][33] and that some 65% of the Haplochromis species were driven to extinction in the process, an event which may well represent the largest extinction event amongst vertebrates in the 20th century.[17]

Freed from their evolutionary predators, populations of the diminutive endemic silver cyprinid Rastrineobola argentea (omena in Luo, mukene in Luganda and dagaa in Swahili), flourished, developing into huge shoals. In turn, Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) populations, that had hitherto fed on haplochromines, exploded in response to this new food source.[34] Similar and other impacts have propagated throughout the ecosystem.


The Nile perch ‘boom’ was to accelerate and massively expand this process. It coincided with an emerging European market for high-quality white fish meat, prompting the development of industrial fish processing capacity along the lake’s shores in Kisumu, Musoma, Mwanza, Entebbe and Jinja.[40] The export of Nile perch has since expanded away from the European Union (EU) to the Middle East, the United States and Australia, and now represents large foreign exchange earnings to the lake’s riparian states. In Uganda, indeed, its export is second only to coffee in the rankings of export earnings. In 2006, the total value of Nile perch exports from the lake was estimated to be US$ 250 million. […]

With such high demands for Nile perch, the value of the fishery has risen considerably. Labour inflows into the fishery have increased along with growing demand. In 1983, there were an estimated 12,041 boats on the lake. By 2004, there were 51,712, and 153,066 fishermen.[38] The fishery also generates indirect employment for additional multitudes of fish processors, transporters, factory employees and others. All along the lakeshore, ‘boom towns’ have developed in response to the demands of fishing crews with money to spend from a day’s fishing.[Note 4] These towns resemble shanties, and have little in the way of services. Of the 1,433 landing sites identified in the 2004 frame survey, just 20% had communal lavatory facilities, 4% were served by electricity and 6% were served by a potable water supply.[38]”

5. Flesh-fly.

“Flies of the Diptera family Sarcophagidae (from the Greek sarco- = flesh, phage = eating; the same roots as the word “sarcophagus”) are commonly known as flesh flies. Most flesh flies breed in carrion, dung, or decaying material, but a few species lay their eggs in the open wounds of mammals;[1] hence their common name. Some flesh fly larvae are internal parasites of other insects. These larvae, commonly known as maggots, live for about 5–10 days, before descending into the soil and maturing into adulthood. At that stage, they live for 5–7 days. […]

The family contains three subfamilies, the Miltogramminae, the Paramacronychiinae and the Sarcophaginae, containing between them 108 genera. Flesh-flies are quite closely related to the family Calliphoridae, which belongs to the same (large) infraorder, the Muscomorpha, and includes species such as the blowfly that have similar habits to the flesh-flies. [genus/genera is the taxonomic level one step above species. There are a lot of different kinds of flies like this and they are quite successful.]

July 26, 2011 Posted by | astronomy, biology, cosmology, Geography, Physics, wikipedia | Leave a comment

Mansfield Park

I’m currently reading this. If you’re able to read stuff like this online (I’m not), the entire book is available here. A few quotes from some of the first chapters:

i) “there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.”

ii) “‘I must tell you another thing of Fanny, so odd and so stupid. Do you know, she says she does not want to learn either music or drawing.’
‘To be sure, my dear, that is very stupid indeed, and shows a great want of genius and emulation.'”

iii) “Lady Bertram did not at all like to have her husband leave her; but she was not disturbed by any alarm for his safety, or solicitude for his comfort, being one of those persons who think nothing can be dangerous or difficult, or fatiguing to anybody but themselves.”

iv) “Being now in her twenty-first year, Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty; and as a marriage with Mr Rushworth would give her the enjoyment of a larger income than her father’s, as well as ensure her the house in town, which was now a prime object, it became, by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty to marry Mr Rushworth if she could.”

v) “‘If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow.'”

vi) “‘I pay very little regard,’ said Mrs Grant, ‘to what any young person says on the subject of marriage. If they profess a disinclination for it, I only set it down that they have not yet seen the right person.’ […] ‘I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly; I do not like to have people throw themselves away; but everybody should marry as soon as they can do it to advantage.'”

vii) “‘An engaged woman is always more agreeable than a disengaged. She is satisfied with herself. Her cares are over, and she feels that she may exert all her powers of pleasing without suspicion. All is safe with a lady engaged; no harm can be done.'”

viii) “‘Girls should be quiet and modest.'”

ix) “‘Captain Marshall? You have a large acquaintance in the navy, I conclude?’
‘Among admirals, large enough; but,’ with an air of grandeur, ‘we know very little of the inferior ranks. Post captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us.'”

Almost 200 years have passed. Reading books like Austen’s makes it much easier to appreciate just how much modern societies stand to lose by not defending their values and their culture. Treat women like crap? We’ve already been there. We’ve almost always been there. And it took a lot of hard work and fights to go ‘someplace else’. How much work it took is easier to appreciate once you realize how new many of the ‘default positions’ of people with a Western mindset today are, and how revolutionary they must have been when they were first introduced into the collective meme-space.

It’s always somewhat problematic to draw any kinds of wide-ranging conclusions about ‘societal matters’ based on fictional accounts, I know, but I still think it’s worth remembering that there are many people today living in Western countries who have attitudes towards women that likely would(/’ve) be(/en) considered barbaric by the people quoted above – by people for whom it is completely natural that a female’s main role in society is and ought to be to i) look nice (like a piece of furniture) and behave nicely in order to ii) get married to someone rich, or at the very least ‘a proper match’, and iii) get some children; and for whom a ‘natural result’ of an ‘imprudent marriage’ might be for a young girl to break off contact with her own sister and pretty much never talk to her again. That’s how far some of them have to go. If we allow individuals like those to dictate how we treat women, we’ll have a very long way to go too before long.

July 26, 2011 Posted by | books, quotes, random stuff | Leave a comment

Why do continental plates move around?

Don’t want the blog to die, even temporarily, so a brief update:

Here’s more, plus links to related stuff. There are lots of geology subjects covered in the Cosmology/Astronomy section of Khan Academy and it’s good stuff to get refreshed.. Or learn.

In other news, my brothers will be joining me and my parents tomorrow. Burial will take place on Friday. Today has been much better than yesterday and the day before, probably in part because the day was filled with stuff to do. Time helps. ‘Doing stuff’ helps.

July 19, 2011 Posted by | Geology, Khan Academy | Leave a comment

My grandfather…

…is dying.

I’ll go home to my parents tomorrow morning and if I don’t react to comments or post new stuff here in the next couple of days, that’s the reason.

July 15, 2011 Posted by | blogging, personal | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

1. Herbig-Haro object.

“Herbig–Haro objects (HH) are small patches of nebulosity associated with newly born stars, and are formed when gas ejected by young stars collides with clouds of gas and dust nearby at speeds of several hundred kilometres per second. Herbig–Haro objects are ubiquitous in star-forming regions, and several are often seen around a single star, aligned along its rotational axis.

HH objects are transient phenomena, lasting not more than a few thousand years.”

2. Sparkling wine production. (File under: So much stuff to know, so much you don’t know, can’t ever know and don’t know that you don’t know.)

3. Heterosis.

“Heterosis, or hybrid vigor, or outbreeding enhancement, is the improved or increased function of any biological quality in a hybrid offspring. It is the occurrence of a genetically superior offspring from mixing the genes of its parents.

Heterosis is the opposite of inbreeding depression. Inbreeding depression leads to offspring with deleterious traits due to homozygosity. […] The inverse of heterosis, when a hybrid inherits traits from its parents that are not fully compatible, with deleterious results, is outbreeding depression.”

4. Copper. This is a good article (don’t take my word for it, the wikipedia community has identified it as such..). Some bits from the article:

“Copper(II) ions are water-soluble, where they function at low concentration as bacteriostatic substances, fungicides, and wood preservatives. In sufficient amounts, they are poisonous to higher organisms; at lower concentrations it is an essential trace nutrient to all higher plant and animal life. The main areas where copper is found in animals are tissues, liver, muscle and bone.” […]

“in 2005, Chile was the top mine producer of copper with at least one-third world share followed by the United States, Indonesia and Peru.” […]

“Copper occurs naturally as native copper and was known to some of the oldest civilizations on record. It has a history of use that is at least 10,000 years old, and estimates of its discovery place it at 9000 BC in the Middle East;[39] a copper pendant was found in northern Iraq that dates to 8700 BC.[40] There is evidence that gold and iron were the only metals used by humans before copper.[41] Copper smelting is known to have occurred since 5500 BC in the Balkans by a chisel from Prokuplje in Serbia. It was invented independently in other parts of the world: China before 2800 BC, the Andes around 2000 BC, Central America around 600 AD and West Africa around 900 AD.[42]” […]

“The Great Copper Mountain was a mine in Falun, Sweden, that operated from the 10th century to 1992. It produced two thirds of Europe’s copper demand in the 17th century and helped fund many of Sweden’s wars during that time.[54] It was referred to as the nation’s treasury; Sweden had a copper backed currency.[55]” […]

“The protein hemocyanin is the oxygen carrier in most mollusks and some arthropods such as the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus).[75] Because hemocyanin is blue, these organisms have blue blood, not the red blood found in organisms that rely on hemoglobin” […]

5. List of Russian explorers.

There were a lot of those. Many links to interesting people and places.

July 15, 2011 Posted by | anthropology, astronomy, genetics, Geology, wikipedia | Leave a comment

An introduction to DNA

I decided to take the biology stuff ‘from the top‘ and this is as far as I’ll go today:

…This is pure gold. I’m currenty at chapter 9 in Russell’s Genetics…, which is about ‘The Organization of DNA in Chromosomes’, after having read the chapter about ‘The Structure of Genetic Material’ (‘the chemical composition of DNA and RNA’). So I can tell you that Sal’s treatment is, as he also mentions himself again and again, grossly simplified – some of this is very complex stuff. However ‘the basics’ needn’t be that hard to get, and Salman Khan does his best to make this stuff approachable, even to people with very little knowledge of biology.

Today’s been a great day where I feel like I’ve learned a lot. If you’ve liked (some of..?) the videos I’ve posted from Khan Academy so far, then you really should go make a user profile (one can log in via google or facebook) and start exploring more systematically. There’s a lot of good stuff here.

July 12, 2011 Posted by | biology, genetics, Khan Academy, Lectures | 10 Comments

Once again, there is no soul (‘outside the brain’)

“The idea that the self, or the conscious mind, emerges from the workings of the physical structures of the brain – with no need to invoke any supernatural spirit, essence or soul – is so fundamental to modern neuroscience that it almost goes unmentioned. It is the tacitly assumed starting point for discussions between neuroscientists, justified by the fact that all the data in neuroscience are consistent with it being true. Yet it is not an idea that the vast majority of the population is at all comfortable with or remotely convinced by. Its implications are profound and deeply unsettling, prompting us to question every aspect of our most deeply held beliefs and intuitions.

This idea has crept along with little fanfare – it did not emerge all at once like the theory of evolution by natural selection. There was no sudden revolution, no body of evidence proffered in a single moment that overturned the prevailing dogma. While the Creator was toppled with a single, momentous push, the Soul has been slowly chipped away at over a hundred years or more, with most people blissfully unaware of the ongoing assault. But its demolition has been no less complete.

If you are among those who is skeptical of this claim or who feels, as many do, that there must be something more than just the workings of the brain to explain the complexities of the human mind and the qualities of subjective experience (especially your own), then first ask yourself: what kind of evidence would it take to convince you that the function of the brain is sufficient to explain the emergence of the mind?

Imagine you came across a robot that performed all the functions a human can perform – that reported a subjective experience apparently as rich as yours. If you were able to observe that the activity of certain circuits was associated with the robot’s report of subjective experience, if you could drive that experience by activating particular circuits, if you could alter it by modifying the structure or function of different circuits, would there be any doubt that the experience arose from the activity of the circuits? Would there be anything left to explain?

The counter-argument to this thought experiment is that it would never be possible to create a robot that has human-like subjective experience (because robots don’t have souls). Well, all those kinds of experiments have, of course, been done on human beings, tens of thousands of times. […]

When people argue that activity of some brain circuit is not identical to a subjective experience or sufficient to explain it, they are missing a crucial point – it is that activity in the context of the activity of the entire rest of the nervous system that generates the quality of the subjective experience at any moment. And those who dismiss this whole approach as scientific reductionism ad absurdum, claiming that the richness of human experience could not be explained merely by the activity of the brain should consider that there is nothing “mere” about it – with hundreds of billions of neurons making trillions of connections, the complexity of the human brain is almost incomprehensible to the human mind. (“If the brain were so simple that we could understand it, then we would be so simple that we couldn’t”).”

Read all of it here.

July 12, 2011 Posted by | biology, random stuff | Leave a comment

Krebs / Citric Acid Cycle (yep, Khanacademy’s still awesome!)

Lots more here. I also took a personal interest in this short but neat and instructive video:

He also has a couple of follow-ups to that one here, here and here. They are also quite neat; a lot of learning in a short amount of time.

Btw, I just went and made myself an account to Khanacademy. I consider it quite likely that I’ll visit the site more frequently in the future than I used to do. If I do I’ll do my best to remember to post on my progress here as well.

The site has a lot of data on your progress and I like that kind of stuff. For instance now I know that I’ve spent 50 minutes today on the site (maybe information like that could potentially cause me to cut down on my time consumption of a good like this, but I actually don’t think that is in any way the most likely outcome..).

July 12, 2011 Posted by | biology, diabetes, Khan Academy | Leave a comment


Smbc. Danes who haven’t already done so can get a good laugh reading along here (Danish stuff), if they like this kind of stuff.

When people engage in discussions such as those at the link (‘who’s the smarter professor?’/’who get’s to say who’s the smarter professor?’/’how do we decide who’s the (highest status) professor’), I like to imagine in my head a small group of male monkeys posturing, trying to figure out who’s the stronger one; the one that gets to mate with the females in the tribe. I find it quite cute when very smart and hardworking people engage in status games with the people they consider their peers. They behave like children but don’t realize it. (I would have said …we, but I don’t belong to that group. Though it’s probably cute too to some other people when I do similar stuff..)

Also, academics in countries like Denmark like to point out that they’re not in it for the money. That’s probably true. They’re in it for the status. The kind of status that money can’t easily buy. Even if they like to think so, their motives are not somehow fundamentally different, somehow more ‘pure’, than the motives of people who are ‘in it for the money’. Everybody like to think that the kind of status they have relatively much of is the most important kind of status there is, or maybe even ‘…the only kind of status that matters’.

July 8, 2011 Posted by | Psychology | 6 Comments

Tomorrow a new country will be born

The southern part of Sudan will obtain independence.

They have a long road ahead of them:

“I visited South Sudan with Unicef earlier this year, and it would be difficult to imagine a country more in need of intensive care. As hundreds of thousands of displaced people flood across the border, wanting to get back to the south before separation, there is nowhere for them to go and no services to support them. Families set up makeshift homes under a tree, with only the branches for shelter.

International agencies like Unicef are working hard to sink boreholes, train teachers, build hospitals, improve immunisation rates, but they are starting from next to nothing: South Sudan has one of the highest infant-mortality rates and lowest education indicators in the world. There is only one children’s hospital in the country, one child in 10 dies before their first birthday, and fewer than 1% of girls finish their primary education.

To make matters so much worse, the insidious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has been pushed north out of Uganda, regularly carries out raids on South Sudan villages, killing adults and kidnapping children who are then forced to join the marauders or become their slaves, often being made to murder their own family or friends so that escape and return to their villages becomes impossible. The brave South Sudanese have formed themselves into groups of “arrow boys” to defend their villages using homemade bows and arrows, but they have limited effect against the guns and horses of the LRA.” …

July 8, 2011 Posted by | Africa, current affairs | Leave a comment

Witches abroad

yet another Discworld novel. What can I say? – I really love those books. I completed it some days ago, but I try not to be too much online these days. In general that’ll probably mean that there’ll be a bit of a lag between what I post and what I’m currently reading over the next months (but don’t hesitate to comment anyway – comments are also a way for you to keep me posting, I probably wouldn’t have posted this update (at least not today..) if Plamus hadn’t commented on my post about Jones’ paper).

The book is part of the Witches-storyline, from which I’ve only ever read Equal Rites before. It’s Pratchett-quality as always – hilarious at times, great most of the rest of the time – though I like books such as Small Gods and Going Postal better. That said, reading this book is not a bad way to spend your time, and I’m 99 % sure you’ll like it more than what other people are telling you to read during the summer right now. Some quotes, I’ve tried to do my best to not include spoilers of any kind:

1. “Local people called it the Bear Mountain. This was because it was a bare mountain, not because it had a lot of bears on it. This caused a certain amount of profitable confusion, though; people often strode into the nearest village with heavy duty crossbows, traps and nets and called haughtily for native guides to lead them to the bears. Since everyone locally was making quite a good living out of this, what with the sale of guide books, maps of bear caves, ornamental cuckoo-clocks with bears on them, bear walking-sticks and cakes baked in the shape of a bear, somehow no-one had time to go and correct the spelling.”

2. “Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.”

3. “They were not nice mountains. They were the kind of mountains where winters went for their summer holidays.”

4. “To Nanny Ogg Greebo was still the cute little kitten that chased balls of wool around the floor.
To the rest of the world he was an enormous tomcat, a parcel of incredibly indestructible life forces in a skin that looked less like a fur than a piece of bread that had been left in a damp place for a fortnight. Strangers often took pity on him because his ears were non-existent and his face looked as though a bear had camped on it. They could not know that this was because Greebo, as a matter of feline pride, would attempt to fight or rape absolutely anything, up to and including a four-horse logging wagon. Ferocious dogs would whine and hide under the stairs when Greebo sauntered down the street. Foxes kept away from the village. Wolves made a detour.
‘He’s an old softy, really,’ said Nanny Ogg.”

5. “‘If the creator had meant us to shift rocks by witchcraft, he wouldn’t have invented shovels. Knowing when to use a shovel is what being a witch is all about. And put down that wheelbarrow , Magrat. You don’t know nothing about machinery.'”

6. “‘Old Deliria Skibbly took me to see her once, when I was a girl. Of course, she was getting pretty … eccentric by then. Gingerbread houses, that kind of thing.’ She spoke sadly, as one might talk about an elderly relative who’d taken to wearing her underwear outside her clothes.
‘That must have been before those two children shut her up in her own oven?’ said Magrat, untangling her sleeve from a briar.
‘Yeah. Sad, that. I mean, she didn’t really ever eat anyone,’ said Nanny. ‘Well. Not often. I mean, there was talk, but …'”

7. “They had breakfast in a forest clearing. It was grilled pumpkin. The dwarf bread was brought out for expection. But it was miraculous, the dwarf bread. No-one ever went hungry when they had some dwarf bread to avoid. You only had to look at it for a moment, and instantly you could think of dozens of things you’d rather eat. Your boots, for example. Mountains. Raw sheep. Your own foot.”

8. “Genua was wealthy. Genua had once controlled the river mouth and taxed its traffic in a way that couldn’t be called piracy because it was done by the city government, and therefore sound economics and perfectly all right.”

9. “Despite many threats, Granny Weatherwax had never turned anyone into a frog. The way she saw it, there was a technically less cruel but cheaper and much more satisfying thing you could do. You could leave them human and make them think they were a frog, which also provided much innocent entertainment for passers-by.
‘I always felt sorry for Mr Wilkins,’ said Magrat, staring moodily at the table top. ‘It was so sad watching him try to catch flies on his tongue.’
‘He shouldn’t have said what he said,’ said Granny.
‘What, that you were a domineering old busybody?’ said Nanny innocently.
‘I don’t mind criticism,’ said Granny. ‘You know me. I’ve never been one to take offence at criticism. No-one could say I’m the sort to take offence at criticism -‘
‘Not twice, anyway,’ said Nanny. ‘Not without blowing bubbles.'”

July 5, 2011 Posted by | books, quotes, Terry Pratchett | Leave a comment

Fundamentals of Genetics

by Peter Russell. Started it today, have read most of the first chapter on Cell Structure and Cellular Reproduction. There are two big reasons why this book is a good buy for a guy like me: a) “Fundamentals of Genetics is a text ideally suited for courses whose students have a limited background in biology and chemistry, or for those in which time constraints prohibit the use of a more comprehensive text. The new text is approximately 25 percent shorter than Genetics, making it ideal not only for one-semester courses in genetics, but for one-quarter and summer courses as well.” b) “each chapter of Fundamentals of Genetics is self-contained so that you can use the chapters in a sequence that best accomodates your own teaching [learning…] strategies.”

It’s relatively accessible and you can take it one chapter at the time. That’s how I’ll proceed. I know it’ll require some heavy lifting along the way, so I don’t expect to finish it anytime soon. Remember that if this book constitutes the curriculum of a 10 ECTS course, it corresponds to something like 250-300 hours of work (if -ll- a five point course, it’s still 125-150 hours). I don’t have an exam to look forward to, but I’d like to learn some of this stuff and that’ll take time. Maybe I’ll quote from it here, maybe I won’t, haven’t really decided yet.

July 4, 2011 Posted by | biology, books, genetics | Leave a comment

Garett Jones’ paper

Plamus linked to it in the comments section and I’ve seen it linked elsewhere as well, it’s an interesting paper.

Here’s the abstract:

“A recent line of research demonstrates that cognitive skills—IQ scores, math skills, and the like — have only a modest influence on individual wages, but are strongly correlated with national outcomes. Is this largely due to human capital spillovers? This paper argues that the answer is yes. It presents four different channels through which intelligence may matter more for nations than for individuals: 1. Intelligence is associated with patience and hence higher savings rates; 2. Intelligence causes cooperation; 3. Higher group intelligence opens the door to using fragile, high-value production technologies, and 4. Intelligence is associated with supporting market-oriented policies. Abundant evidence from across the ADB region demonstrating that environmental improvements can raise cognitive skills is reviewed.”

I don’t buy 4 at all unless/before much more work is done in that field. Now it mostly just reads ‘I read Caplan’s book and people I know talk about it so I should probably mention it in my study’ to me. The other parts I don’t have strong opinions about. Below’s some stuff from the study and my remarks. Here’s Figure 1 from the paper, you have log-GDP pr. capita up the y-axis:

The ‘PRC’ in the corner is China, and there are plenty of reasons (the name of the most significant one is Mao) why you’d think it makes good sense that they haven’t managed as well as the theory suggests. The IQ-effect is huge: “Jones and Schneider […] found that across countries […]: 15 IQ points is associated with a 150 percent increase in productivity.” If you think simply in terms of labour input, this finding would suggest that in a country with an average IQ of 115, 2 average workers can be expected to add the same value to a product as (‘do the work of’) 5 workers living in a country with an average IQ of 100. Yet the private returns related to that productivity difference is very small; in the paper they mention an estimated wage differential of just 13 percent.

There’s a lot of stuff in the paper, I’ll just go through a few interesting bits I found. Here’s some stuff on environmental factors and their influence on IQ:

“there is a vast public health literature on environmental correlates of intelligence, and many of these papers study nations in Asia. A study of excessive fluoride in Indian drinking water found a 13 IQ point-difference between children “residing in two [separate] village areas of India with similar educational and socioeconomic conditions” (Trivedi et al. 2007, 178). If even half of this relationship is genuinely causal, and if intelligence has some of the technological and political spillover effects discussed below, then public health matters are of first-order concern for economic development.”

The impact of just two environmental factors of that size could in theory reduce the mean intelligence of a population with Mensa-level average IQ to that of current-day Japan. These effect sizes are huge.

“Arsenic and fluoride exposures are also associated with low IQ in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Shanxi province (Wang et al. 2007, 664), even when comparing “groups [who] lived in rural areas with similar geographic and cultural conditions and a comparable level of socioeconomic development.” High arsenic exposure was associated with a 10-point IQ gap, and high fluoride exposure with a 4-point gap. In both cases, the “normal” group had an IQ of 105, 5 points above the US mean.

In the Visayas region of the Philippines, Solon et al. (2008) found evidence that lead levels reduced the IQ of children. In their study, one microgram of lead per liter of blood was associated with a 2.5 point reduction in the verbal IQ of older children, and a 3.3 point reduction in the IQ of young children. In their sample of children, the levels of lead in the blood averaged 7.1 micrograms per liter, so lead exposure could be costing the average child in this sample 15 IQ points even under conservative estimates.”

The role of nutrition is mentioned in the paper, but they don’t go much into the specifics. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the main things holding India back on the IQ-scale of Figure 1.

I think both point V and VI are only/mainly there because of the agenda of the authors and I hate that kind of thing. V is almost pure speculation using an already (with respect to which conclusions can be drawn from the findings) speculative voter preferences model from the US to talk about East Asia. Smarter people will be more likely to support free market policies if they think they’ll gain from it and they get a say in the matter, which depends mainly on how the local government decides to split up the cake. Show me a group of American professors of theoretical physics pushing for more free market policies in education (fewer gov. subsidies). No, that’s not the relevant margin, but to take an extreme example in the opposite direction, in a standard median voter model you could have an IQ increase of 30 points of the 4 top deciles having no effect on policies whatsoever, if the intelligence of the median voter is unchanged. Yeah, you might argue the IQ effects are to be had on the other side of the distribution, but model symmetry means that you could make the same argument and apply the change to the 4 lowest IQ deciles. Conceptually they probably just take up this subject to encourage further research, but I’m one of those people thinking that Caplan is drawing way too strong conclusions from his findings already, and using IQ proxies to speculate about effects in countries looking nothing like the US, having wastly different political systems – well, that’s just not very smart. Point VI is of the same kind – it smells of ‘we want to push this idea, how can we include it in the paper’-motivation. It mentions one way to increase a country’s IQ – immigration. From the paper:

“Even if scientists and public health officials quickly reach their limits in raising a person’s IQ—again, not a foregone conclusion — we still have a reliable tool for raising a nation’s IQ. Encourage immigration by individuals with higher average intelligence. Many countries implicitly do this by permitting high-skilled immigrants to enter and work legally.”

Nowhere in the paper is it mentioned that this is most likely a zero-sum game. One country’s gain is another country’s loss. And the ‘many countries implicitly do this…’ part is correct but only half of the story, as many countries, especially Western countries, also implicitly do the opposite – import massive amounts of low-IQ immigrants (and also implicitly form/maintain policies which encourage these people to have a lot of children, lowering national IQ and future human capital even further).

July 1, 2011 Posted by | immigration, IQ, studies | 4 Comments