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FC106: Candyflipping The Future

Plus, cryopreserved horses, Black Hole Lego, the opposite of cynicism, and good news on coal in Bangladesh, sleeping sickness in Togo, and turtle conservation in Myanmar

Future Crunch
Future Crunch

Good news you probably didn't hear about 🌈


Bangladesh has one of the largest coal pipelines in the world. Or rather, it did. The government is reviewing 90% of planned plants with a view to finding 'less expensive alternatives.' That's 28GW of coal on the chopping block - larger than Australia's entire capacity. Another coal bomb defused, thanks to the efforts of  ̶b̶u̶r̶e̶a̶u̶c̶r̶a̶t̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶p̶o̶l̶i̶t̶i̶c̶i̶a̶n̶s̶  scientists and engineers. China Dialogue

Trachoma is the world's leading infectious cause of blindness. It's also one of the greatest public health successes of all time. According to latest data the number of people at risk from the disease has been reduced by 92% in the last 17 years, from 1.5 billion in 2002 to 137 million in 2020, and 13 countries have eliminated it altogether. WHO

Togo has become the first African country to officially eliminate sleeping sickness, a parasitic disease that's almost always fatal when left untreated. The achievement comes after more than two decades of sustained political commitment, surveillance and screening, and is part of a much bigger global success story - fewer than 1,000 cases were reported globally in 2019. WHO

Sudan’s government has officially ended 30 years of Islamic state rule. Minority languages will be official and Christians and followers of local religions will be allowed to worship in peace in the mainly Muslim nation. “For Sudan to become a democratic country, the constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state. No citizen shall be discriminated against based on their religion." MEM

Two decades ago, the Burmese roofed turtle was thought to be extinct. Conservationists have since helped the population recover to nearly 1,000 animals, some of which have now been successfully released into the wild in Myanmar. “This is one of the best global turtle conservation successes we have. We came so close to losing them.” NYT

Villagers holding turtles
Villagers lined up on the Chindwin River to release turtles. Credit. Steven Platt/WCS

Indistinguishable from magic 🐇


A 12.7-millisecond signal from the cosmos has revealed the violent collision of two black holes into one with 142 solar masses, a body so large physicists didn't think it could exist outside special cases of 'supermassive' black holes at the centers of galaxies. Astronomers are now thinking black holes might be like Legos, combining and recombining to form ever bigger ones. Scientific American

The first ever mixed trial of and LSD and MDMA is about to begin in New York. Therapists believe that candyflipping, as it's known recreationally, could be a potential treatment for multiple mental conditions, such as alcoholism and trauma. “We’re not developing this so people can have a better rave.” Vice

Scientists from the University of Michigan have made twin breakthroughs in their quest to create transparent solar panels. Last month, they hit 8.1% efficiency with glass that was 43.3% transparent, and also proved  their carbon-based design lasts for 27,000 years, debunking the belief that long-lived organic photovoltaics aren't possible. The dream? Skyscrapers that power themselves. Design Boom

In 1980, zoologists in California cryopreserved a critically endangered Przewalski’s horse named Kuperovic. Forty years after his death, his clone has been born in Texas. It's a major milestone for conservationists who hope to be able to introduce more genetic diversity into a species that now has 2,000 individuals in the wild. Horsetalk

More genetics. This one is super meta. Netflix has stored an episode of its new show Biohackers in DNA. The file was converted from 1s and 0s into DNA's building blocks of A, C, G, and T, encoded into short segments of synthetic DNA by DNA printers, and then retrieved using DNA sequencing. Yes, we know that sounds like bad dialogue from Gattaca, but seriously, just read that sentence again. One Zero

Off the beaten track in the Dark Forest 📡


It's very unusual for us to recommend a podcast episode, but we're making an exception here. Resmaa Menakem's interview with Krista Tippett is extraordinary. Colonialism, White supremacy, racism, Black bodies, diversity, policy brutality, bias, it's all here, explained more clearly and compassionately in 45 minutes than in a thousand op-eds. Do yourself a favour and listen. On Being

"Education teaches us how to use our freedom". Elena Shalneva is a wonderful writer, and here she makes the case for the humanities. While fully aware that we owe scientists the constantly and spectacularly improving quality of our lives, she also argues that a world populated only by STEM graduates is a fragile and spiritually barren world indeed. Amen. Quilette

Many of the cognitive bias theories popularized during the 2000s and 2010s are being exposed to the harsh glare of reproduction studies, and it's not looking pretty. The latest sacred cow to bite the dust is the backfire effect - the idea that hearing contradictory information only serves to further entrench pre-existing beliefs or spread misinformation. Compelling story, zero evidence. Cognitive Research

So you're thinking of buying property with friends? You almost definitely need to read this. Simple formula, mapped onto a real world experience. Pick your squad, define basic requirements, locate financing, define legal structure, find property. Live happily ever after in co-sharing communal bliss. What could possibly go wrong. Supernuclear

RIP David Graeber: the opposite of a cynic. "Unlike many tenured radicals, his positions were not adopted for intellectual fashion or frisson: he did not retreat from them under pressure from the organs of respectability and professional decorum, but nor did he inflate them into perfectionism, piety or puritanism." Novara

Bonus: He's most famous for Debt and Bullshit Jobs, but we think his best ever longform piece is this one.

Man sitting in ground amongst students
Graeber (middle) speaks at the University of Amsterdam in 2015. Credit: hansfoto

Humans: Kind 💖


Meet Wawira Njiru.

In 2012, after returning home to Kenya from her overseas studies in Australia, she started feeding schoolchildren. A few years earlier, the government had made primary education free, but the schools had been unprepared for the influx - overnight, 1.3 million children entered the system. Many kids weren't getting a proper meal, and the lack of decent nutrition meant they were dropping out, making high school and university more unlikely.

Wawira decided to do something. She started small, using her own savings and some donations from friends. A local church let her set up a kitchen five minutes away from a school, so children could come during lunch time. 25 were identified, and she found some local volunteers to help with the cooking. Within a few months, they were feeding hundreds, and within a few years, thousands. Her organization Food for Education, is now capable of feeding 30,000 children per day.

Every week day, the kitchen loads up a truck with vats of cooked rice, beans, grains, legumes, and vegetables, which makes the rounds to different partnering schools to deliver lunch. The kids pay 15 cents each - a heavily subsidised amount - to get a nutritious bowl of food that accounts for 40% of their daily nutrients. Wawira and her team have delivered over a million meals since she first started out.

“This is not something that’s nice to do,” she says. “It’s necessary to do.”

Young Kenyan woman standing in school yard
The kind of person you should probably be following on Twitter

That's it for this edition. Thank you for reading. We're working on a deep dive on basic income, coming soon.

Remember, there's more than one future. In the hands of the technology man-children, who are now even richer than last century's robber barons, the future has been displaced into an opioid of fantasy, colonized by people who want you to pay a subscription for an app that helps you sleep. It’s being sold to us, everywhere, in a never-ending stream of gentle curves and softly glowing pastels, as if it were real, but it’s not.

Don't buy it. There are wilder, grittier, kinder futures possible, ones that promise something that has never been before. We're still in the middle of this rupture and there are many hard days still ahead but there's also something glinting on the horizon now, that wasn't there the last time we looked. It's unknowable, strange and different, but that's our fantasy. Don't settle for theirs.

Hang in there. We'll see you next week.

FC HQ

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We're a team of science communicators. Our mission is to foster intelligent, optimistic thinking about the future, and create a 21st century that works for people and the planet.