The big idea: should we leave the classroom behind?

MY 21-year-old goddaughter, a second-year undergraduate, mentioned in passing that she watches video lectures offline at twice the normal speed. Struck by this, I asked some other students I know. Many now routinely accelerate their lectures when learning offline – often by 1.5 times, sometimes by more. Speed learning is not for everyone, but there are whole Reddit threads where students discuss how odd it will be to return to the lecture theatre. One contributor wrote: “Normal speed now sounds like drunk speed…”

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 6 November 2021. To continue reading, click here.

Can history teach us anything about the future of war – and peace?

TEN years ago, the psychologist Steven Pinker published The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he argued that violence in almost all its forms – including war – was declining. The book was ecstatically received in many quarters, but then came the backlash, which shows no signs of abating. In September, 17 historians published a riposte to Pinker, suitably entitled The Darker Angels of Our Nature, in which they attacked his “fake history” to “debunk the myth of non-violent modernity”. Some may see this as a storm in an intellectual teacup, but the central question – can we learn anything about the future of warfare from the ancient past? – remains an important one…

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)

This article first appeared in The Observer on 7 November 2021. To continue reading, click here.

Deciphering Dumba

A HERD of around 40 elephants processes across open grassland in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. Led by a matriarch named Valente, they are headed towards a newly felled tree, a potential food source. The tree is out of sight: perhaps the elephants detected vibrations from the impact through their feet. That’s cool, and the procession is impressive – but elephant scientist Joyce Poole isn’t sure why this particular video went viral. Since May, she and her husband Petter Granli have been posting clips of elephants daily on social media, and others are far cuter or odder…

African elephants

This article first appeared in New Scientist on 6 November 2021. To continue reading, click here (paywall).

How does Covid end?

AS Cop26 gets under way in Glasgow this weekend, one collective action problem is taking centre stage against the backdrop of another. Covid-19 has been described as a dress rehearsal for our ability to solve the bigger problem of the climate crisis, so it seems important to point out that the pandemic isn’t over. Instead, joined-up thinking has become more important than ever for solving the problem of Covid-19…

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 29 October 2021. To continue reading, click here.

 

Epigenetics, the misunderstood science

A little over a decade ago, a clutch of scientific studies was published that seemed to show that survivors of atrocities or disasters such as the Holocaust and the Dutch famine of 1944-45 had passed on the biological scars of those traumatic experiences to their children.

The studies caused a sensation, earning their own BBC Horizon documentary and the cover of Time (I also wrote about them, for New Scientist) – and no wonder. The mind-blowing implications were that DNA wasn’t the only mode of biological inheritance, and that traits acquired by a person in their lifetime could be heritable. Since we receive our full complement of genes at conception and it remains essentially unchanged until our death, this information was thought to be transmitted via chemical tags on genes called “epigenetic marks” that dial those genes’ output up or down. The phenomenon, known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, caught the public imagination, in part because it seemed to release us from the tyranny of DNA. Genetic determinism was dead…

DNA methylation

This article first appeared in The Observer on 10 October 2021. To continue reading, click here.

writer & journalist