Science Be Praised!

Today I felt very much the scientist of the group following our first presentations in the public speaking class. The presentations (mine, of course, humbly excluded) were great both in content and delivery. The topics covered were anarchy (= good), the purpose of law, terrorism in literature, activism in cinema and Catalan independence. My own topic was intended as a middle finger of sorts to these kinds of areas. That middle finger served to shout, “You’re messing up, socially minded emotional people. Lend me your ears that I might fill them with science.” (What do you mean fingers can’t talk? Derrick’s helped me through some tough times…) Because while I focussed on the failings of international aid, the speech could just have easily been about any other area of policy; scientific reasoning makes the difference.
Much as I respect political ideas, they just won’t make the same difference as those of science. Will any of the other speakers’ proposed solutions (anarchy, strong laws, free Catalans and Al Qaeda does Pride and Prejudice) ever make the same difference to people’s lives as the discovery of penicillin? If we could pass on just one idea to a post- apocalyptic society (and ideally not one destroyed by nukes, point taken) I should chose the scientific method over any of the other stuff, even free speech and equality. Before you assault me with organic beans, remember that a man in West Philadelphia can expect today to live longer than a king did 300 years ago. I don’t remember reading that in any constitution. I don’t recall seeing that in any revolutionary text. It was science wot done it.
This isn’t to say that the other stuff isn’t important, but scientists probably deserve a tad more recognition than presently received. “We murder to dissect”? Just you say that to my face, Mr Wordsworth.

PS why not have a looksie at my article on Slugger O’ Toole?

Rockin Rocky

Wowz so a lot’s happened since last we spoke. Sorrys for the lateness.
We’ve started working for a few hours on a Wed morning at the West Philadelphia YMCA, lending a hand at a summer scheme there and nearly drowning in the process. Every single child there is black except for one, (on closer inspection he’s actually albino). This stands in sharp contrast to Drexel University, our hosts, where most students are white. From first impressions, America really does seem much more racially divided than Europe and the fact that West Philly is the poorest part of the city doesn’t help.
On a more upbeat note, we went to New York City on Saturday which was HellaBallsToTheWallsAwesome (I think that’s a French word) and definitely an improvement on the original York. Touristy sightseeing was the order of the day, taking in Liberty, Wall Street and Ground Zero. We’ve a couple more trips up there to come. Good times.
Trips to the National Constitution Center, Independence Hall and Liberty Bell on Friday were also pretty cool, along with a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sunday, of Rocky fame. Every American history museum we’ve seen so far has been incredibly patriotic in its presentation of the facts, which makes things more interesting but a bucket load of salt is also required (or saline equivalent: the average US pretzel). The ‘Freedom Rising’ presentation at the Constitution Center especially is just tear- jerkingly patriotic. The Constitution for Americans was presented like the Resurrection for Christians- a woman bounces about the stage expounding American Colonial history (following the subtle historical philosophy of TheBritsAteBabies-ism) as four giant screens descended from the roof to completely surround her with flames followed by images of the Apollo Moon landings, fall of the Berlin Wall and the Civil Rights movement. How much of that is contained within the Constitution I’ll leave to you to decide…  But the patriotism was still sweetly endearing and if you can’t be proud of your country at a museum dedicated to its founding, something’s clearly up. I’d certainly like to have bits of the US Constitution in the UK I s’pose.
Otherwise, the work’s heating up, as is the weather. We’re in for 105 degrees tomorrow. Somehow three hours of class today was spent scaling a climbing wall and last night we were round a professor’s house for a screening of Rocky in his back yard. Surreal but awesome. Staying with an American family for the weekend, they have a swimming pool and XBox Kinect. So many levels of win.
Stay tuned.

Diffusing the Population Bomb

(This blog was also posted on Slugger O’ Toole)

There was an article in today’s Guardian which struck me. Actually, it annoyed the hell out of me. The article was announcing a recent UN report that world population will hit 7 Billion on Halloween this year. But rather than simply report this fact, the article insisted on propagating a tired, disproved and altogether ignorant message: there are too many of us on this planet.

The obsession with population found its most popular spokesperson in the form of Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus who, in the late 18th Century, argued that if the poor of the world kept reproducing at a high rate (and the poorest tend to have the highest birth rates) then the only possible result in a world of limited resources will be mass starvation. It was in part due to such ideas that the Irish famine was allowed to run its terrible course. There is indeed some evidence to suggest that nature provides mass population reduction as a way of benefiting those left behind: incomes rose significantly in Britain following the devastation of the Black Death, leaving one person in three dead.
World population has skyrocketed since the days of the Plague and Famine, leading academics to postulate that the next Big Disaster could well eclipse all those that went before it. The 20th Century anti population movement reached its zenith in 1968 with the publication of Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. The book brought home to non academic readers the potential horrors of overpopulation with the prediction that hundreds of millions of people in developing countries would perish to hunger in the coming decades. Its front cover loudly proclaimed “While you are reading these words four people will have died from hunger”.
Well, those decades have passed and 2.8 billion extra people now walk this Earth, an increase greater than that anticipated by Ehrlich. And the result? In the last 50 years, world population may have doubled but agricultural production tripled. Daily food supply per person has increased by around 25%. But the news is even more positive; population growth is beginning to tail off. As people get richer, despite being more able to afford more children, they by and large choose to have fewer. Better job opportunities cause people to focus more on their careers and improved child mortality means fewer children need be born in the first place. The average world birth rate declined from 5.3 births per woman in 1960 to 3.0 in 2006. It is true that these are just averages and some regions have gotten significantly worse. But these are countries such as North Korea and Zimbabwe and clearly due to political circumstances. The data paint a clear picture- increasing global population is not leaving people worse off and is anyway reaching equilibrium, not exploding.
But while Ehrich’s theory seems disproved, many modern environmentalists point to Malthusianism in a new form- global warming. The increased emission of CO2 that growing population creates is endangering the very people who, by being born, create it. This was certainly the message of the Guardian article: more people= more warming. Nonsense. More consumption= more warming, regardless of the number of people creating it. I fail to see how a moral person can worry about the existence of a child in a large family in rural Africa who burns a little wood for cooking while we enjoy CO2 intensive Western lifestyles over here.
Here’s a statistic that every such person should read: doubling the incomes of the world’s poorest 650 million people would take the same resources as a bit less than 1%  of those of the world’s richest 650 million and income means carbon. Concerned about global warming? Great, hand out condoms to bankers, not Bangladeshis. It’s time to put the population myth to rest.

Full of Philly

A jet- lagged hello from Philadelphia! Arrived on Sunday and staying in dorms over looking the city giving an amazing view from my 9th floor room. Excitement, excitement EXCITEMENT.
These Fulbright guys really don’t want us to pay for anything. Two days into Philadelphia we’ve already been given mobile phones, loaded with $30 credit, transport passes and all our meals covered. And next week we get a cheque for $750 for whatever other expenses we might have. This is good.
I don’t normally like to start the day with an offensive self- stereotype but having Lucky Charms for breakfast was too hard to resist, especially when someone actually tracked me down to show me them. Food here is all you can eat, which so far has entailed ‘more than you really should’, which I understand is an ancient American tradition.
Classes started today, general introductions all round. Worryingly for a physics student, it seems I’ll have to talk about my ‘feelings’ and other awful, unquantifiable stuff. We’ve essay and research based classes on American society which entail reading Why We Can’t Wait by MLK, Dreams From My Father by Obama and The Soloist by Steve Lopez plus going on cultural trips for ‘research’. This weekend that means heading up to New York to see the Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero on Saturday, followed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sunday. This is also good.
We also have classes on ‘Social Issues in America’ which are part sociology, part service projects. Today we had a talk from the service head of the Penn Charter School who seems to have founded a hundred NGOs and tomorrow morning we’ll be helping out at a summer camp for disadvantaged youth at a YMCA in West Philadelphia (born and raised…). Most interestingly, we also have classes on public speaking by the most enthusiastic professor I’ve ever met. We’ll suffer the indignity of having our speaking filmed and played back to us. I tend to move my hands like a puppet on speed, so this should make for painful viewing.
Otherwise, this city is hot (with a capital HOT). I really don’t see how the first Irish immigrants coped without AC. Perhaps that explains the alcoholism (and, btw, I haven’t touched a drop of the stuff, despite spotting 5 Irish pubs so far). It’ll be very interesting to see the contrasts between the European and American outlooks. When in Sociology we Europeans were asked to state our religious beliefs, only two out of 17 were religious so it’ll be interesting to see how the YMCA find that.
Over and out.