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FC111: The Very Last Scream Of Light

Plus unhappy families, the world's biggest insect farm, bionic drummers and good news on lynxes, Hepatitis B, electric vehicles in Europe, and crime in the United States.

Future Crunch
Future Crunch

We're obviously fans of science, and given that you're reading this newsletter, we think it's safe to assume you're a fan of science too. This is not a particular edgy or interesting thing to be in 2020. If this year's taught us anything it's that dismissing the views of trained experts might be excellent political bloodsport when things are going well, but when the going gets tough science-bashing isn't a luxury society can afford (we've got 210,000 reasons for anyone who'd like to argue otherwise). So far so good... science is awesome, and populists are craven. Nothing to see here.

What might not be as obvious is that we're also fans of social science, and this is a little more controversial. Officially, this is the study of societies and the relationships between individuals within those societies, but the 'science' part of it is misleading - it's a label tacked on a long time ago by people who thought it would lend their pursuits an air of credibility. They thought that if they were just smart enough, and if they just collected enough data, they could figure out a set of established rules governing human behaviour. The truth of course, is that humans aren't particles in an accelerator or chemicals in a tube. We're irrational, emotional, unpredictable and equally capable of dizzying genius and mind-blowing stupidity.

That doesn't mean social science is useless, nor does it mean we should stop using the scientific method to try and figure out why groups of people behave the way they do. Instead of calling it science though, we should call it what it is: pattern recognition. That's a far better description of what sociologists, historians, geographers, economists and anthropologists actually do. And once you make that admission, things suddenly get a lot more interesting; once you start thinking in terms of patterns, rather than rules, your time horizons expand and events suddenly don't seem as frenzied or random as they appear at first glance.

In this sense, Newton's clockwork universe, long abandoned as a metaphor by physicists, is still helpful when it comes to thinking about society. Imagine civilization as a vast, gleaming astrolabe, a whirling masterpiece of spinning dials and copper bands and interlocking curves bending past our line of sight, yet intricate to the finest detail, a hyperobject beyond the comprehension of the human mind. On its surface, a billion whirligigs and diamond-beaked cuckoos and miniature marching bands chiming and popping and spinning around. These are the 24 hour news cycle tourist traps, the things we point our cameras at with loud "aaahs" or "booos". They're impressive or shocking, and so they get our attention, becoming the subject of a thousand articles and Facebook posts.

Underneath though, are the mechanisms that actually matter. The larger cogs and wheels and levers that turn more slowly, briefly visible through the passing gaps, but mostly hidden from view. These are the broader patterns, the ups and downs of economic cycles, the moral arcs of justice, the push and pull of history's rhymes. And even deeper still, buried beneath forgotten layers of deep time, the titanic engine of evolution itself, a cyclopean pendulum measuring out its own, inexorable drumbeat.

Ok look we're getting a little carried away with our metaphor here, and the contradictions are already piling up. The point we're trying to make is that the study of how society works isn't science - it's meaning making. Want to explain something using a bad steampunk metaphor? Go for it. It's not about looking for rules of nature, it's about looking for rules of thumb. Pandemics turbocharge conspiracy theories. Things can and do fall apart. Tom Cruise will never die. People are more likely to change their behaviour when given a viable alternative. Capitalism contains the seeds of counter-movements that rein in its worst depredations.

So yes, we love science and technology and good news, and that's what this newsletter is all about. But we also get very excited about patterns of movement in that megalithic societal machine, and that's what this newsletter is about too. When smart people spot a flash of tungsten, or catch a glint of light reflected in a giant revolving cog, we try to share those moments with you. In a world gone slightly mad we've discovered this can be a pretty good way to maintain sanity. Ignore the fancy gadgets on the surface, keep your eyes on the slow spin of the mechanisms underneath, and in a really quiet moment, see if you can make out the sound of that subterranean beat.

Good news you probably didn't hear about 🌈


The proportion of the world's children under the age of five infected with hepatitis B has dropped to just under 1%, down from 5% in the early 2000s. 85% of kids around the world are now getting all three doses of the HBV vaccine - and Gavi says it is on track to avert a further 1.2 million infection-related deaths between 2021 and 2035. Science, B*t©h3$! WHO

We had to dig for this one, seeing as it did not appear in a single mainstream news publication. The US Justice Department has released its crime data for 2019, showing that violent crime in the United States decreased by 0.5% last year, the third consecutive year of declines, and property crime dropped by 4.1%, the 17th consecutive year of declines. Hellholes, anyone?

Crime is declining in France too. While the idea of 'ensauvagement' — long a dog whistle of the far right — is now being parroted by all sides of French politics, the truth is that nearly all major crimes are lower than they were a decade ago. Since 2006, acts of physical violence outside the home have decreased by 8% and thefts with physical violence or threat have dropped by 61% in the same period. NYT

Electric car sales in Europe have smashed through even the most optimistic forecasts by experts. One in 10 new cars sold in 2020 will be electric or hybrid, triple last year’s sales. New forecasts suggest that it will be one in seven in 2021, as manufacturers scramble to comply with tighter emissions standards. Smart regulation + great technology. It really can be that simple. Ars Technica

Here's an even bigger market signal. The world's largest cement producer, LafargeHolcim, has become the the first global building materials company to commit to reducing its emissions within the next decade, and says it will reach 100% carbon neutrality by 2050. Reminder: the cement industry causes 8% of global carbon emissions. FT

Singapore has created the new 400 ha Sungei Buloh Park in the northern portion of the island, a refueling site for migratory birds and home to oriental hornbills, otters, saltwater crocodiles, and many other species. It's part of a wider initiative to turn disused industrial areas back into natural landscapes, and plant 1 million trees across the city-state by 2030. Mongabay

The recovery of the Iberian lynx is one of the best conservation success stories of modern times. The population increased by 23% in 2019. There are now 894 individuals in the wild, up from just 92 in 2002. The EU has also earmarked €18 million to keep the project running for the next five years, giving conservationists a real shot at restoring a stable, genetically diverse population. La Vanguardia

Indistinguishable from magic 🐇


"From the heart of a galaxy 215 million light-years away, a brilliant flash of light flared into the void of space - the last scream of light from a dying star pulled apart by a supermassive black hole." How's that for great science writing? (nice work @riding_red). It's the closest death of a star we've ever observed, offering unprecedented insight into cosmic annihilation. Science Alert

star being pulled apart by black hole
The most violent act in the universe. A star being torn apart on a sub-atomic level during a ‘tidal disruption event’. Credit: European Southern Observatory (ESO)

Deepfakes are one of the media's favourite AI scare stories, and for some people, a surefire symbol of the end times. In practice, they're probably going to be extremely useful. Nvidia, for example, just figured out a clever way to use them for video calls that require drastically lower bandwidth. Say goodbye to image resolution, and hello to emotional resolution (perhaps it's the end times after all).

The fastest drummer in the world is a bionic drummer with one arm. With help from researchers at Georgia Tech, he's using electromyography and ultrasound technology to push the capabilities of prosthetics right out to the limits, to help people with disabilities realize "they're not only not disabled, they're actually super-able." Big Think

The world's largest insect farm is currently under construction an hour north of Paris. Inside the new farm, robots will hatch, feed, harvest and process mealworms in trays stacked in tall towers, with AI monitoring and optimising environmental conditions. Ÿnsect already has contracts worth $100 million with fish feed producers. Not bad for a sector that didn't exist a decade ago. Fast Company

Australian researchers have spotted an example of human micro-evolution. A third artery, which runs down the centre of our forearms while we're in the womb, isn't vanishing as often as it used to. In the 19th century, one in ten people retained this extra channel of blood supply under their wrist. Today, it's almost a third, suggesting natural selection is favoring those who hold onto it. Phys.org

And of course, speaking of evolution... how could we not include the Nobel for CRISPR. Bravo Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier! NYT

Signals of life in the Dark Forest 📡


Now this is an op-ed. Fareed Zakaria with easily the best 'here is the state we find ourselves in' piece we've read in the last six months. He argues that the world now sits at a crossroads, with the possibilities of chaos, cold war, or cooperation. Nothing is written, and everything is to play for. WaPo

It's okay to kick the robots. Beneath the anthropomorphic wrappers and the 'co-bot' rebrands from dead-eyed futurists, the robot is more of a zombie than a peer. We shouldn't forget that bosses and corporations are using them to do what they’ve always done: protect their property and create fealty and compliance through proxies that attract loyalty and deflect critique. Real Life

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Psychology researcher Pam Weintraub has been looking into family estrangements, and has some advice on how to repair a family rift. The most important tip for anyone trying to reunite with relatives? Resisting the urge to recreate the past instead of building a new future. Psyche

Last week we posted a piece by Andrew McAfee outlining the eco-modernist argument for growth. Here's the reply by Jason Hickel, who says green growth and dematerialization are fairy tales. On balance, it looks like Hickel has the more convincing case, but we can't help but feel his prescriptions are too radical for even the most ecologically-minded of governments. Perhaps that's the point?

We've had these two sets playing on repeat over the last few weeks. The first, by Brooklyn desert tech legends, Bedouin, is a masterclass in EQ control and has some of the best remixes we've ever heard (can't believe those are all their own tunes). The second, from Birds of Mind, showcases the Parisian duo at their finest - lush beats, inspired samples, and a little disco to keep it interesting.

Future Brunch 🍳


Our next Future Brunch is with young indigenous astrophysicist Kirsten Banks. It's happening at 10am AEST on Tuesday 20th October. We're going to be exploring the ancient secrets of the night time sky. Kirsten is a proud Wiradjuri woman and a rising star in Australian science, whose research has shown that Aboriginal people may have discovered Earth was a planet millennia before Galileo. Want to hear more about why 'twinkliness' matters, and how to find the celestial emu in the southern skies? You can register for this one hour webinar here.

Our last Future Brunch was with technology humanist Sara Hendren, and it was easily one of our favourite conversations of 2020. We came into it expecting to talk about inclusive design (and we did) but we also covered so, so much more. Things like the meaning of 'normal' and the true worth of a human being, and how radical it can be to look at the built world and simply ask "what needs to change here?" We have a video and a full transcript of the interview up on the website.

Human Kind 💖


Meet Alain Nteff.

Man staring out at cityscape
"Maternal and infant death is not a woman issue - it's a humanitarian issue. We all have mothers, we all have sisters, everybody should take it seriously." Youtube

This 28 year old engineer from Cameroon is on a mission to free the world from maternal and infant deaths. He's the creator of a non-profit called GiftedMom, which provides prenatal and antenatal care in two ways: through an SMS service with appointment reminders; and an app that helps women understand what kind of health care they need to have a safe pregnancy and delivery. Mothers can use the app to send questions to a doctor or midwife, and GiftedMom also has a fund that finances care for women in areas with no health care resources.

The seed for his idea was planted in 2012 when Nteff visited a hospital in rural Cameroon where a friend was doing his medical practice. While he was there he witnessed several mothers and newborns die from conditions that could have been easily prevented with proper care. Nteff was deeply affected by what he saw, and decided to do something about it. A year later, he launched Gifted Mom - the first digital platform for pregnant women and newborn babies in rural areas of Cameroon and other African countries.

Today, the app has almost 200,000 users, partners with 56 hospitals and clinics, and doctors and midwives are fielding around 5,000 questions a week from women around Cameroon. It's a simple intervention that's helping hundreds of thousands of expectant moms who might otherwise not have been able to get the help they need. "We want to save 25 million lives in the next decade,” Nteff says “This is for me. This is for my family. This is for my society.”


Alright we're done here. Thanks for reading.  

Don't forget to look out for those flashes of gold, and let the slow grind of those sunken gears vibrate through your the soles of your feet. We'll see you next week.

Love,

FC HQ

Future Crunch

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.