The Weekly Wrap for Saturday, 9 October 2021
- A US judge suspended a highly-restrictive Texan abortion law
- Despite pleas from Pope Francis, Missouri executed Ernest Johnson
- Elon Musk faced the prospect of a $9bn fine over his SolarCity deal
- The CIA admitted its informants keep getting killed or compromised
- Moscow offered to supply EU gas with one condition: Nord Stream 2
- Russia's sovereign internet took shape with help from US tech giants
- Poland's top court challenged the legal basis of EU membership
- The victims of French Catholic sex abuse numbered 330,000
- Ireland prepared to end its status as a tax haven with a 15% floor
- Japan's new PM, Kishida, got off to a rocky start in polls
This week, people in lab coats all around the world held their breaths as the Nobel prizes were awarded in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature. Peace and economic sciences are to follow. Let's see what the biggest brains in the world have been worrying away at.
Orderly models and disorderly systems
This year, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences couldn't pick a clear winner - so the prize was split. Despite the vast difference in their chosen interests, all three laureates worked to find reason and order in our seemingly chaotic universe. One half of the gong was shared by the scientists Syukuro Manabe of Japan and Klaus Hasselmann of Germany for their groundbreaking work on climate modelling. It's a good thing they were awarded it now – they are 90 and 89 respectively! In the 1960s, Manabe had painstakingly built the first predictive models showing how levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide impacted the climate. The beautifully humble laureate insisted that he hadn't known the importance of his work at the time. He persisted simply because he "really had great fun." Despite the rudimentary computing power available to him, Manabe's work is still referenced today.
Manabe's joint-laureate focused on the link between climate and weather. In the 1970s, Hasselmann worked at Hamburg's Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. There, he developed a vast theory to explain how seemingly random weather events are transformed into oceanic conditions. These slower moving but profound trends in turn have an impact on the highly-variable weather events that until then were written off as unpredictable. In doing so, Hasselmann helped show the world our "finger prints" on the climate and weather. His response to the accolade was pitch perfect, "[I] would rather have no global warming and no Nobel prize."
The other half of the prize landed in the lap of one Giorgio Parisi, a comparatively sprightly 73-year-old. In the words of the committee, the Italian was awarded "for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales". His physical and mathematical modelling is applicable when studying complex systems in fields as diverse as biology, neuroscience, and machine learning. And good for you if you know what any of that means.
Touch, warmth, and asymmetric organocatalysis
The Nobel Assembly at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute is tasked with adjudicating the most important contributions in the fields of physiology and/or medicine. Where physics examines the nature of the universe around us, this award is far more intimate. A pair of molecular biologists – both American – shared the prize this year for their work on the simplest of all human gestures: the power of touch. David Julius was working at the University of California, San Francisco in the 1990s when he channelled his fascination with touch into a deep study. It would lead him, funnily enough, to hot sauce. Julius identified the specific proteins on the sensors that responded to the spiciness of chillies. He then sought compounds from mint to find the corresponding 'cool' receptors. All of this food-based research has pushed forward the progress of new pain killers.
For his part, the Armenian-born Ardem Patapoutian conducted his exploration into an even more fundamental question of touch, pressure, and how the body knows where it is . Patapoutian found the cellular mechanism and the underlying gene that transforms pressure on our skin into a signal in our nervous system. He did this by deleting one gene after another in lab-cultured cells until he found the one that responded to pressure – after 71 failed experiments .
Lastly, to the Nobel prize in Chemistry (we know this is what you've been waiting for!) Before Benjamin List and David MacMillan, the chemists of the world were labouring under a costly delusion. In that dark era, it was believed that there were only two types of catalysts : metals and enzymes. List at the Max Planck Institute (there it is again) and MacMillan at Princeton didn't just revolutionise chemical manufacturing – they made it greener. They independently worked on a new path called asymmetric organocatalysis that uses organic matter to control chemical reactions. It not only increased control but also vastly sped up the process, and is used by pharmaceutical companies to mass produce drugs for respiratory problems. Another German winner, another German response to being elevated, "I thought somebody was making a joke".
Words of wisdom and words of peace
An extremely well-deserved Nobel prize for Literature was accorded to the Tanzanian-born, UK-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah. His 10 novels and numerous short stories have prised apart stereotypes about East Africa and introduced the English-speaking world to a rich perspective on colonialism and migration. In a world of hardening borders, Gurnah's elevation is a symbol of another path. But Gurnah is a writer, far be it for from us to describe his work.
Here he is in By the Sea , "I speak to maps. And sometimes they something back to me. This is not as strange as it sounds, nor is it an unheard of thing. Before maps, the world was limitless. It was maps that gave it shape and made it seem like territory, like something that could be possessed, not just laid waste and plundered. Maps made places on the edges of the imagination seem graspable and placable."
And finally, late yesterday the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two journalists . The labour of their lives is protecting freedom of expression in countries where it has been nearly extinguished. Russia's Dmitry Muratov cofounded Noyava Gazeta in 1993 – it remains the most important independent newspaper in the country. No mean feat given the political climes. Muratov shares this award with the trailblazing Maria Ressa, who co-founded the unbowed digital news site Rappler in the Philippines nearly a decade ago. It is no small source of pride at inkl that we know Maria, work closely with Rappler, and support her crusading journalism to the hilt. Bravo.
EDITOR'S NOTE: If you have the resources and inclination, please consider heading to Rappler's crowdfunding site to support their crucial work.
The other heat death of our universe
Climate change is becoming increasingly deadly around the world, with global extreme heat exposure increasing 200 percent in cities since 1983, a new study has shown. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, found the rise in extreme heat is affecting nearly a quarter of the world’s population. And that number will rise as people continue to move into cities in droves. Cities tend to be hotter because of their heat-trapping asphalt and lower amounts of vegetation.
Of the 13,115 cities examined, the one that fared the worst was Dhaka, Bangladesh. It is a dire problem in South Asia; more than half the people on Earth who face life-threatening heat stress live in India. The inequality cycle of heat is known. The poor are least likely to have air conditioned homes. Exposure to extreme heat affects people's ability to work and their children's ability to learn. This lack of income and opportunity entrenches poverty – and pushes cooling further out of reach.
With the United Nations’ COP26 climate summit only a few weeks away, world leaders would do well to remember the people most affected by the sluggish race to decarbonise economies. These are people who don’t travel the world in temperature-controlled jets — they risk their lives under sweltering tin roofs. That is, if they think about those people at all. Australia's Scott Morrison , prime minister of one of the heaviest polluting countries (per capita) in the world, has shrugged off attending COP26. “My first responsibility is to explain that to Australians, not to people overseas, at overseas conferences,” he said.
Meanwhile, some of the nations least-responsible for rising global emissions cannot even afford to send delegates to the conference. That Australia, one of the largest coal exporters in the world, would spurn the talks is scarcely believable.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week to COP26 delegates ahead of the summit, richer countries are faced with a choice: "We can either save our world or condemn humanity to a hellish future."
Spare a though for Mark Zuckerberg
It’s been a rough few weeks for the world’s fifth-richest man. First the Wall Street Journal obtained leaked internal documents that pinned all sorts of nasty things on Facebook. Then, on Sunday, the whistleblower who had leaked the documents, Frances Haugen , told a Senate hearing that Facebook repeatedly put ‘profits over people’. And after that, as though through an act of god, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp all went down for six hours. The outage cost the big F $7bn .
In a memo to staff , Zuckerberg claimed it was “difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives.” Why won't anyone give the benefit of the doubt to this organisation originally designed to help lascivious Harvard students rank each other by attractiveness? An organisation that has been shown to harm self esteem , sow division , and maintain a secret list of VIPs who are exempt from its rules. Never mind the internal research which shows that Instagram makes body issues worse for one third of the teenage girls who use it. Zuckerberg insists Instagram helps in "the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced."
It’s been a tough week for others, too. With WhatsApp offline , families couldn’t contact loved ones abroad. Vendors in Turkey and Kenya couldn’t sell their wares on Facebook and Instagram. In Colombia, a nonprofit organization that uses WhatsApp to connect victims of gender-based violence to lifesaving services found its work impaired. Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s digital czar, suggested that maybe it wasn’t a great idea to have one company responsible for the communication and commerce of 2.75 billion people . Vestager’s EU colleagues will soon vote on new laws that would limit the ability of tech companies such as Facebook to expand into new services.
Whistleblowers and global outages will come and go, but Zuckerberg’s biggest challenge is existential: kids don’t think Facebook is cool . This probably isn’t news to anyone under 35, but the internal documents leaked by Haugen ask an important question: would any company confident in its product need to “leverage playdates” and concoct growth strategies aimed at 10-year-olds? We'll leave that to the market to decide. In the meantime, in its 18th year of operation, Facebook still blunders around as though it has the underdeveloped frontal cortex of an 18-year-old.
The best of times
The world's first malaria vaccine
Mosquitos have a long and rich track record of killing us. Malaria, just one weapon in their arsenal, killed 386,000 people in Africa in 2019. This week, we won some reprieve. GlaxoSmithKline's Mosquirix vaccine , which has been in development since 1987, has been given the stamp of approval by the World Health Organisation. Despite its limited efficacy, it will ease the enormous burden that malaria places on African healthcare.
A lightbulb moment
A team at the University of California, San Francisco has created a brain implant that can turn long-term depression around. Up until now, treating severe depression had been difficult and required potent drugs. This new technology uses a deep brain stimulation device , similar to those used to treat Parkinson's or epilepsy. Having mapped the amygdala signals that correspond with depressive episodes, the implant sends back gentle electric signals to disrupt the brain's behaviour. In the words of the very first patient, it gave her back "a life worth living".
The worst of times
This week the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists dropped their latest exposé of hidden wealth, offshore tax havens, and money laundering. 600 journalists have spent the past year poring over millions of documents. The leaks included embarrassing details about how the ultra-wealthy avoid all those pesky taxes that we mortals are required to pay. Such behaviour is scandalous anywhere – but in Lebanon it's a precursor to the collapse of civil society.
'Dead because she was Indigenous'
The plight of Canada's First Nations people was a white-hot issue earlier in the year, before it was smothered by the election campaign. This week, it roared back into focus with a coronial inquiry that blamed the death of Joyce Echaquan on systemic racism. The Atikemekw woman died in Joliette last month after presenting to a hospital with chest pains from a complex pre-existing heart condition. Instead of treating her, the staff profiled her as an Indigenous woman and assumed she had taken opioids. Echaquan captured her treatment on camera, but to no avail – she died of pulmonary oedema.
"The case remains open and there is no new information to report"
– A Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesperson responds to The Case Breakers after the investigative group identified one Gary Poste as the Zodiac killer. They are miles off track. The real killer is... ❄︎♒︎□︎❍︎♋︎⬧︎ 🕈︎♒︎♋︎❒︎⧫︎□︎■︎.
A 3845% markup
- There is a lot of hype around Molnupiravir – Merck's antiviral pill to combat Covid-19. Clinical results suggest it could halve deaths or hospitalisations for vulnerable populations. America has purchased 1.7m courses of the 5-day treatment and Australia, South Korea, and Singapore are snapping up doses. The only issue is the price: research shows that it costs $17.74 to produce and is being sold for $700.
A £300m PR makeover
- This week the Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle United FC was finalised after the English Premier League received "assurances" that the Kingdom won't control the club. Whatever legal construct was required to gain approval, it's clear who the real owners are. Nothing spoils a good game of football like being reminded that your team is bankrolled by the authors of some of the most egregious human rights abuses this century.
"Pandora Papers: The disgraced cardinal, his moneyman, an Elton John biopic and Miami condos" – The Miami Herald . This is as good a title as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
The special mention
We commend the Nordics on their little award pageant but it goes without saying that our special mention is the accolade par excellence. This week we have a rare dual entry in the category of "People Who Never Have To Spell Out Their Surname". This week Rachele Mussolini – granddaughter of Benito – and Ferdinand Marcos Jr – son of the erstwhile Filipino dictator – stepped into the pubic sphere. The former won a thumping victory in Rome's city council elections. She insisted that she's worked hard to overcome her family name, which is a surprise given how many Italians still hold it in high regard. There's less apologia in Marcos the Younger – he just wants his dad's old job.
A few choice long-reads
- Brevity and audience interaction go a long way in this game. This headline from The Atlantic is a peach: Is Boris Johnson A Liar?
Tom Wharton @trwinwriting