Where’s the (synthetic) beef?

There’s an interesting story in the Guardian today about the production of the world’s first synthetic beef burger[1. It came to my attention because much of the funding came from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, but although the Guardian leads with this fact, I think it’s the least interesting part of the story.], which is great news for anyone (like me) who’s attracted to vegetarianism for ethical and environmental reasons, but who would struggle with a meat-free diet.

A team led by physiologist Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University [grew] 20,000 muscle fibres from cow stem cells over the course of three months. These fibres were extracted from individual culture wells and then painstakingly pressed together to form the hamburger that will be eaten in London on Monday. The objective is to create meat that is biologically identical to beef but grown in a lab rather than in a field as part of a cow.

“Cows are very inefficient, they require 100g of vegetable protein to produce only 15g of edible animal protein,” Dr Post told the Guardian before the event. “So we need to feed the cows a lot so that we can feed ourselves. We lose a lot of food that way. [With cultured meat] we can make it more efficient because we have all the variables under control. We don’t need to kill the cow and it doesn’t [produce] any methane.”

I’m excited by this because it’s been a long-term promise of synthetic biology to improve food production efficiency by skipping the time-consuming phase of beef production known as “walking around farting and eating grass”.

In 1798 Thomas Malthus observed that population growth must be expected to ultimately outstrip humanity’s capacity to produce food (which goes by the gloriously dramatic name of the “Malthusian catastrophe“). The common expression of this idea is that population grows geometrically (doubling at a fixed rate) but food production only grows arithmetically (increasing by a fixed quantity in a given time). This supposition makes some amount of intuitive sense. Food production would seem to be bounded by available space, while person production grows with the number of people. So like most people I accepted the idea as obvious when it first crossed my attention.

If this cow had a chance, she'd eat you and everyone you care about.
If this cow had a chance, she’d eat you and everyone you care about.

As it turns out though, food production has historically grown geometrically. The world population has grown sevenfold in the last 200 years, and although we haven’t been as successful as we might have been at ensuring its fair distribution, we’ve had no trouble keeping up with production. In fact the amount of food produced per capita is increasing, and has been for some decades.

The trend in global food production is reminiscent of other technological growth curves, notably the increase in computing capacity described by Moore’s law. In all cases the overall shape looks like a continuous geometric curve, as if driven by an endless and increasing stream of very small advancements. But these curves are actually better viewed as the sum of a series of more significant developments.

The effects of most new technological developments can be viewed as a logistic curve. This is a sort of stretched S shape — it starts off looking like a geometric curve, but at a certain point the growth slows an then it flattens out asymptotically. Think of the initial large improvements brought about by a new technology, followed by a levelling off as it approaches its maximum usefulness. What’s interesting is that If you overlay these logistic curves on top of each other, in aggregate they produce a geometric curve. That is, as long as the innovations keep coming.

The upshot of all of this is that so long as we can keep producing improvements to our technology, and applying that technology as widely as possible, we can keep up with the demands of population growth. With the most current estimates predicting that world population will top out at about ten billion (around the middle of this century) it seems well within our capacity to keep pace at least until then. This latest development, once it’s commercially viable, may reduce the energy requirements of meat production by 80% or more. It’s just the next development in the sequence, helping to maintain the exponential growth rate that humanity has maintained for centuries.

Has Traditional Medicine Let You Down?

One of the great things about living in London is that so much of popular entertainment is made here, especially television. If you’re interested in how television is made then it’s easy  to get free tickets to recordings fairly frequently. If you don’t care at all about what you see you could go to a different recording nearly every week, and even if you’re more selective you can still manage one every couple of months. You’d be amazed how many chat shows and game shows there are across all the channels we have now.

So it is that I get fairly frequent emails alerting me to new shows in production that are looking for audience members or participants. Most of them look pretty uninteresting, but I glance at them all so I don’t miss the occasional gem. Of course there also those special few that make me go, “WTF?”

A couple of days ago I got an email asking, “Has Traditional Medicine Let You Down?” It read as follows:

Hello there!

We thought that you might be interested to know that we are currently looking for people to become involved in a brand new series.


Outline Productions are making a ground breaking new series for a major broadcasting channel, and we want you to be part of it.

Are you one of the many in the UK who have Verrucas, Athletes Foot or Warts?

Has traditional, over the counter medicine not worked for you?

Or are you a male who would be interested in trying out an alternative, natural aphrodisiac to boost your sexual libido and performance?

If this sounds like you or someone you know please get in touch ASAP via our website

This email has it all: a Ron Burgundy-style misplaced question mark (“A new health series wants you?”); an overall tone reminiscent of Homer Simpson’s classic, “Hello sir! You look like a man who needs help satisfying his wife”; a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey approach to capitalisation. And of course the fact that they’re apparently genuinely making a television programme about curing warts with alternative medicine. What are they going to suggest, homeopathic doses of toad?

It hurts my brain to think that some people might read this and think, yes, TV is clearly the way forward with addressing this annoying verruca problem that modern medicine has somehow failed to rid me of.

Taking the Mail’s side

Apparently it’ll cost you quite a substantial amount of money in the UK to be wrong about the specific mechanism a charlatan uses to scam vulnerable people out of their money. From the Guardian:

The Daily Mail has apologised and agreed to pay £125,000 in libel damages to a TV psychic it falsely accused of using a hidden earpiece to scam a theatre audience.

The article claimed that [Sally Morgan] had used a hidden earpiece during her performance in order to receive instructions and relay them on stage as if they were messages from the spiritual world.

I won’t go so far as to say I’m on the Daily Mail’s side — I’m sure they’ve done vastly more damage in the field of professional lying than Morgan could ever hope to — but they were particularly out of character by being in the right in this case. Hopefully the whole thing cost a fortune and the vast majority of the money will go to lawyers

Addendum: “Should I read the Daily Mail?”

You are not so smart

I made a new years resolution this year to read more books. It’s pretty likely you did too, if you’re the resolution type. I’m aiming to average a book every two weeks. According to Goodreads I’m actually a little ahead of schedule, having completed seven books in the last nine weeks or so.

One of the better books I read recently is You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. It’s about why you’re very likely wrong—or at least inconsistent—in a lot of what you think and do.

For example, if I offered to give you £50 now or £60 in a week then, besides being suspicious of my motives, you’d be pretty likely to take the £50 now. But If I offered to give you £50 in four weeks or £60 in five weeks, you’d most likely hold out the extra week for the £60. The two scenarios are logically equivalent, but our brains are configured to strongly prefer things that benefit us right now, even over things that will benefit us more in the future.

Or how about this? If you’re holding a hot cup of coffee when you first meet a person, you’re more likely to form a first impression of them as a “warm” person than if you are holding an ice coffee. Thousands of irrelevant contextual factors play into our impressions of other people, and we literally think in metaphors.

This trailer explains pretty accurately why I waited until late at night to write this blog post despite having had the entire late afternoon and evening to do it:

Chapter by chapter the book bounces through a whole host of ways in which our brains play tricks on us, confuse us, and ultimately fail us. Sometimes there are good reasons. For example our over-eagerness for seeing patterns would have been helpful for spotting predators on the savannah; and failing to see a pattern that is there—say the face of a tiger in the bushes—is potentially a lot worse than mistakenly seeing something that doesn’t really exist.

On the other hand, often our minds’ failings are just due to not being all that well put together.

Frustratingly, among everything else, there’s even a pretty good case made that I won’t succeed in my resolution to read more books.

You Are Not So Smart is based on the website of the same name which McRaney started in October 2009. He describes the website’s purpose thus:

The central theme here is that you are unaware of how unaware you are. There is branch of psychology and an old and growing body of research with findings that suggest you have little idea why you act or think the way you do. Despite this, you create narratives to explain your own feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and these narratives become the story of your life.

The book is well worth a read. Just be aware that if you put it on any kind of “to read” list with the intention of getting to it later then there’s a pretty good chance you’ll never get around to it. Because you are not so smart.

UCD offers certificate in jabbing people randomly with pins

Via Buzz, an Irish Times opinion piece about Irish third level educational institutions offering new courses in sorcery (or its modern-day equivalent):

The Graduate Certificate in Healthcare (Acupuncture) at UCD is aimed at those with a primary degree in health care, eg medicine or physiotherapy. This is a part-time course delivered over one year. The programme “provides education in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that will equip the healthcare professional with the necessary skills to assess and treat a broad range of acute and chronic musculoskeletal conditions”.

This reflects extremely poorly on the Graduate School of Life Sciences, which offers the course. Perhaps worse than that, it also implies that some significant number of graduates coming out of UCD’s undergraduate courses in medicine are unable to distinguish real medicine from quackery. Otherwise there would be no-one going into this new program.

Maybe if UCD had turned down the road of pseudo-science sooner I could have gone straight from my theoretical physics degree into a postgraduate diploma in intelligent falling.

Differentiating the Sexes

My higher level maths class for Leaving Certificate (the state exam at the end of secondary school in Ireland) was entirely populated with boys. I think there were one or two girls in the class at the beginning of the year, but they found the subject too time-consuming relative to the six or seven others that students study at that age; they dropped maths to ordinary level pretty early in the year.

My Leaving Cert. physics class was similarly populated.

In my first year of theoretical physics in university, one of my thirteen peers was a lady. In second year, she was no longer around. I studied almost entirely under male lecturers, and I graduated surrounded by male classmates.

My life is one big anecdote in support of the proposition that men are better at maths and hard sciences than women are. It’s particularly important, then, for me to always be aware of that wonderful assertion that “the plural of anecdote is not data”.

In that light, putting away my anecdote and replacing it with real data, we can find out the truth about gender and maths: that poor female performance in maths is strongly correlated with societal gender disparity; that stronger male performance in maths is accompanied by a corresponding weaker male performance in maths (i.e., that us guys push out both ends of the bell curve—for every genius there’s, well, someone less successful); and that young girls are more likely than young boys to inherit the maths anxieties of their teachers, setting them off on a course towards poor maths performance in later life. In short: women underperform in maths when they spend their lives being told that they will.

I’m delighted to see real results based on real data about maths performance. We will desperately short-change ourselves if we continue to discourage half of our potential mathematicians and scientists with baseless stereotypes. Not only that, but we’ll condemn more young men to an academic life devoid of the fairer sex. I moved out of physics into computer science for the girls, which gives you some indication of the sorry state of the physical sciences.

Maybe computer engineer Barbie will help.

A New Hope

Over the few days since my recent post about my hopes for 2020, I’ve come up with a few more ways in which I hope we can collectively improve our situation before this new decade is spent. Just like last time, these aren’t things that I necessarily expect to be fixed by 2020, but they are all things I am still idealistic enough to hope for.

Drug legalization

The UK Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, recently dismissed David Nutt from his position as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) because Professor Nutt had the audacity to quote scientific evidence that contradicted the government’s invented ideas about the dangers of certain illegal drugs. It spawned a movement to impress upon public officials what you would imagine to be the obvious importance of paying attention to what’s actually true when determining public policy.

I hope that governments of 2020 will be more evidence-based in their approach to drug laws. I hope they create laws that actually serve to decrease the danger from recreational use, but which also allow for the use of drugs by informed adults, especially in a medical context.

Nuclear power

Related to my hope that the Earth’s climate will continue to support human life in a comfortable manner, I hope that the public will have overcome its irrational fear of nuclear energy and will be willing to switch from dangerous, polluting, climate-altering fossil fuels to cleaner, safer, more sustainable nuclear power. Research and development in this area has been dreadfully lacking in recent decades due to an exaggerated negative public perception. Maybe one positive outcome of the climate crisis will be a public willingness to reevaluate nuclear energy.


I’m Irish. My family is Irish. Many of my friends are Irish, and I lived most of my life in Ireland. In years past I would have lived my whole life there, and would have been unlikely to have many non-Irish acquaintances. Not so now.

Now I live in the UK, with an American girlfriend. Unsurprisingly, none of my immediate colleagues are Irish; but the majority aren’t even from the UK. I have good friends from several continents, and living all over the world. With the Internet, I read about and talk about the thoughts and ideas and lives of people as geographically disparate as people have ever been.

International travel is cheap and widely available. It’s easier now for me to get to know people half way around the world than it was for my parents to meet people in the next county over.

This change has been rapid, and laws have not caught up. Gaining the right to live and work in another country can be ridiculously difficult, even for highly qualified and intelligent young people. Australia evicts travelers after a year. Ireland erects hurdles for hopeful Americans even as it begs the USA to make the tens of thousands of illegal Irish immigrants to that country legal. The UK has backlogs of tens of thousands of applications from prospective university students.

The level of restriction on immigration between first-world democracies is incongruent with the free flow of tourism and communication. I hope that permanent or semi-permanent movement between economically similar countries becomes significantly easier by 2020. The world is now too small to bear so many walls.

Bad Astronomy

There are two things right now that I’m quite unsure of. The first is how long I’ve been aware of the Bad Astronomy blog by Phil Plait. I know it has been at least a few years though. The second and more perplexing is why up until now I have been content to follow the occasional link to said blog without ever subscribing to it.

Well that situation has changed now. His recent post, “Anniversary of a cosmic blast“, about the December 2004 recording of the explosion of energy from a starquake on a magnetar, has finally prompted me to click that “subscribe” button:

The sheer amount energy generated is difficult to comprehend. Although the crust probably shifted by only a centimeter, the incredible density and gravity made that a violent event well beyond anything we mere humans have experienced. The quake itself would have registered as 32 on the Richter scale — mind you, the largest earthquake ever recorded was about 9 on that scale, and it’s a logarithmic scale. The blast of energy surged away from the magnetar, out into the galaxy. In just 200 milliseconds — a fifth of a second — the eruption gave off as much energy as the Sun does in a quarter of a million years.

The whole post is fascinating.