Category Archives: History

Coronavirus and the geopolitics of disease

ON 28 January 2020 at the Great Hall of the People on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square – a symbol of the Chinese Communist Party’s political might – President Xi Jinping met Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), to discuss the current coronavirus outbreak. “The epidemic is a devil,” Xi said. “We cannot let the devil hide.” …

Wuhan railway station during the coronavirus outbreak, January 2020

This article first appeared on the cover of New Statesman, issue 21-27 February 2020. To continue reading, click here.

The end is nigh

IN case you missed it, the end is nigh. Ever since Jared Diamond published his hugely popular 2005 work Collapse, books on the same theme have been arriving with the frequency of palace coups in the late Roman Empire. Clearly, their authors are responding to a universal preoccupation with climate change, as well as to growing financial and political instability and a sense that civilization is lurching towards a cliff edge. Mention is also made of how big-data tools are shedding new light on historical questions. But do these books have anything useful to share? Any actionable points besides that on my coffee mug: “Now panic and freak out”? …

This article first appeared online in Nature on 18 February 2020 (print edition of 20 February 2020). To continue reading, click here.

Dark and frozen matter: science in the Alps

I’m shamelessly advertising the following 6-day tour of Switzerland and France that’s being organised by New Scientist and Kirker Holidays, because I’m going to be a guide on it – talking about all that the melting glaciers are revealing about our past – and because if scientific holidays are your cup of tea, this one promises to be really fun and instructive. We get to eat fondue too. Here’s the official blurb, or part of it – there are two departures in 2020:

Departing 18th May and 17th September 2020

One of the world’s most important centres of science and innovation, Geneva is also a charming lakeside town with a fascinating history. The tour focuses on CERN, where they operate the famous Large Hadron Collider, and Mont Blanc to investigate receding glaciers and what they reveal about history. Accompanied by particle physicist Darren Price and science journalist Laura Spinney.

During your stay in Geneva you will also explore the old town, visit the Museum of the History of Science and learn about watchmaking at an historic workshop.

More details are available here.

 

Beyond borders: the best books about pandemics

WITH cases of coronavirus reported on four continents, health experts are concerned it could become a pandemic. The world is currently in the grip of two others – Aids and tuberculosis – while measles is on the rise again and polio stubbornly resists eradication. When smallpox was wiped out, some in the medical community were so high on their success they thought other infectious diseases would soon be licked. Fifty years later, this triumph remains unique…

This article was first published in The Guardian on 6 February 2020. To continue reading, click here.

The 2010s: what just happened?

THE 2010s were the decade in which we were reminded that science is just a method, like the rhythm method. And just like the rhythm method, it can be more or less rigorously applied, sabotaged, overrated, underrated and ignored. If you don’t treat it with respect, you may not get the optimal result, but that’s not the method’s fault…

Ice mountains on Pluto

This article was first published in The Guardian on 26 December 2019. To continue reading, click here.