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by Tom Chivers
Friday, 14
January 2022
Reaction
07:00

The progressive way to boost birth rates

The UK population is forecast once again to decline — but it needn't happen

In 1934, Aldous Huxley wrote an article in the magazine Everyman which asked “Will the depopulation of Western Europe and North America proceed to the point of extinction or military annihilation?” He based his concern on a paper in the journal Sociological Review, which forecast that by 1976, Britain’s population would have fallen from 44 million to 33 million. 

The birth rate had been falling since 1870, and people thought that it was going to carry on. A group of biologists and statisticians also put together a report predicting that the British population would drop to just 17.4 million in 2000, and 4.4 million by 2035. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Monday, 10
January 2022
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07:00

Repeat after me: Covid doesn’t spread on surfaces

Will we ever move beyond outdated advice?

On every table in every cafe, on every counter-top in every store, there is a bottle of disinfectant. Every shop door has a “please disinfect your hands” sign with a little hand gel dispenser. “These premises are cleaned regularly,” say proud little signs in train stations.

It’s more than two years since the virus started spreading, and we still think it does so by touching things.

For the record: it pretty much doesn’t and we’ve known as much for a while. Almost exactly a year ago, Nature was asking: “COVID-19 rarely spreads through surfaces. So why are we still deep cleaning?” ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Friday, 24
December 2021
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13:11

The world’s most powerful space telescope is finally launching

After a 30-year wait, the James Webb Space Telescope is heading to space

Something that not everyone appreciates about space missions is how long they take.

Not just the travel, although with outer-planet missions — Cassini visiting Saturn, say, or the planned 2024 Europa Clipper, off to look for life on the icy Jovian moon — the weightless fall through space takes several years. It’s the planning. 

The Cassini-Huygens mission, which arrived in Saturnian space in 2004, having been launched in 1997, was originally proposed in 1982. The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, announced in 2012, is scheduled to reach Ganymede in 2032. The scientists who come up with an idea for a space mission sometimes aren’t lucky to live to see them launch. At least two of those behind Clipper did not. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 16
December 2021
Explainer
14:00

Millions of adults can’t be boostered

The aim of jabbing everyone by the new year has been doomed from the start

Britain has pinned its hopes on the booster drive protecting us from Omicron. Only minor non-pharmaceutical measures, including a request to work from home if possible and reinstatement of mandatory masks in some public spaces, are being put in place. Instead, the plan is to give the booster to every adult by the end of December.

Or is it? First, as has been widely reported, the NHS seems to disagree: health service leaders say the goal is only to offer the jab to everyone by December, and actually giving them will take until February.

But let’s assume Boris Johnson is right about his own policy, and that the goal is to get actual jabs in actual arms by the new year. The trouble is: by the Government’s own rules, that’s not possible. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 9
December 2021
Reaction
14:30

New Zealand’s smoking ban will backfire

Making it illegal to sell cigarettes to future generations will create a black market

We should legalise drugs.

That’s not a surprising position for someone who, like me, comes from the liberal, vaguely Left side of politics. But it’s the one I hold. And I hold it, as do most liberals, because I believe (on the basis, I think, of good evidence) that most of the harms caused by drugs are caused by their prohibition. If you make a drug illegal, you make it impossible to regulate: it is, for example, often easier for under-18s to get hold of cannabis than alcohol, because it is not sold in regulated shops which require ID. There is no quality control or safety management. The argument for legalising drugs is not that drugs are safe: drugs are not safe. The argument for legalising drugs is precisely that they are unsafe, and it is easier to make them safer if you can regulate them. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 25
November 2021
Explainer
15:53

Has the UK reached herd immunity?

Professor Neil Ferguson believes we are almost there

Neil Ferguson says he thinks we’re “almost at herd immunity” in Britain. Herd immunity is when enough people are immune to the virus — via vaccination or infection — that the disease cannot increase in prevalence, and either becomes stable or dwindles away.

Is he right? Well, I hope so, because I said something similar myself a few weeks ago, but I’d still be cautious. Let’s have a quick look at some basic numbers.

First, the naive way of calculating a herd immunity threshold uses the R0 of a pathogen — the number of people that each infected person would infect if no one had any immunity. If the R0 is five, then the herd immunity is one minus a fifth, or 80%. The R0 of the Delta Covid variant is probably about five, so (again, naively) herd immunity is about 80% coverage. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Friday, 12
November 2021
Idea
07:00

Increasing MPs salaries is a good bet

If it stands a chance of increasing the quality of candidates, what is there to lose?

MPs earn fairly well: £82,000 a year, roughly the equivalent of professionals such as headteachers or senior doctors, albeit not very much compared to most senior lawyers. But, as we’ve been seeing in recent days, many of them top that salary up with second jobs which can lead to real or perceived conflicts of interest.

I idly wondered the other day whether paying MPs a lot more, but banning them from having second jobs, would be a good thing. This made a lot of people very angry. But I am interested in the question.

Banning second jobs seems the main thing, although no doubt there would be knock-on effects; but it’s the pay issue that interested me. Whether increasing MPs’ pay would “work” seems to me to be two questions: one, whether it would attract a higher-quality calibre of applicant; and two, whether it would reduce the level of corruption. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 4
November 2021
Debate
07:00

The Lib Dems are deluded on the environment

Nuclear is the only way they could achieve their ambitious climate goals

The world is on course to miss the 1.5°C target quite significantly. That will be bad. And Britain, although it is reducing its emissions, has not done so fast enough. Sir Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, rightly says that government failings ahead of COP26 have been “hugely disappointing”.

But at the moment, the British parliament is preparing for a second reading of a bill called the “Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill”. Under the current system, anyone wishing to develop a new source of nuclear energy in the UK has to put in all the money themselves and will not see any revenue until the plant starts producing electricity. These major projects take a long time and are inherently risky, so the companies only take on the project if they can expect very high returns. ...  Continue reading

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