Review: Ten Technologies to Save the Planet by Chris Goodall

Review: Ten Technologies to Save the Planet by Chris Goodall

Commentary THEA BRINE Mindfields A. C. Grayling Sleep, the elixir of health? ARE we humans hard-wired to keep making a very distinctive kind of mist...

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Mindfields A. C. Grayling

Sleep, the elixir of health? ARE we humans hard-wired to keep making a very distinctive kind of mistake, namely, to think that the “figure” is always more important than the “ground”? I allude here to the capacity of animal visual systems to differentiate individual objects from their backgrounds, thus enabling attention to be paid to significant things – food, predators – in an environment. Natural camouflage, such as the leopard’s spots and the zebra’s stripes, exists to combat figureground differentiation, making the struggle for survival an incidentally decorative matter. I’m using the figure-ground concept figuratively, to draw attention to what we miss because of our propensity to think that what dominates our attention is necessarily the most important. Familiarity breeds invisibility. This is why Wittgenstein insisted that philosophy must include reminding ourselves of what we know so well that we ignore it. Think of your skin. It is the largest organ in the body, and it performs a variety of functions crucial to health and indeed life 44 | NewScientist | 3 January 2009

itself. It breathes, combats wouldbe invasive organisms, absorbs nutrients, senses the environment, lubricates itself, excretes, and stops us from exploding, leaking, drying up and getting too hot or cold. It is even credited with a mind of its own, as it is an intelligent part of the neuroimmuno-endocrine system of

“The real action on health may be taking place in the silent background of night” the body, able to monitor itself and the environment and adjust accordingly. Without it we should fall apart, in all senses. Another example of the importance of the familiar is sleep. We think of waking life as where the action is, and sleep as a sometimes welcome, sometimes inconvenient, interruption to the main story. For some time, however, researchers have known that this is far from the case in the psychological realm, and have suspected that sleep has a crucial

Bookends role to play in the physiological realm too. The latter has now been emphatically illustrated by the discovery of a connection between sleep deprivation and type 2 diabetes. Several large-scale genomic studies published last month in Nature Genetics (vol 40, p 1399) have revealed a link between blood sugar levels and the biological clock that cues our sleeping and waking cycles. The link is very significant given that type 2 diabetes is increasing dramatically in the developed world, while average amounts of sleep are decreasing. The research suggests that the link is a protein that recognises the sleep hormone melatonin. It’s clear that the less one sleeps, the less insulin one produces, though exactly how melatonin affects the insulinproducing cells in the pancreas remains to be worked out. The intriguing possibility is that this is somehow related to the fact that sleep-poor individuals also tend to be at increased risk of obesity and immune problems. Even more intriguing, could these physiological pathologies be directly linked to psychological pathologies caused by sleep deprivation? There is ample evidence that having too little sleep degrades mental function: sufferers perform tasks more slowly, are forgetful, and at the limit become confused and even psychotic. Chronic sleep deprivation is not only associated with poor learning skills but typically with depression. If so, the physiology of sleep may hold the key to combating depression, enhancing learning and problem-solving, and discovering the reason for memory problems in old age. It is an exciting prospect. The real action on health and mental welfare might be taking place in the silent background of night, not in the noisy foreground of day. A key player in the well-being of body and mind may turn out to be melatonin, so far underrated and reserved for the occasional long-distance flier. ●

A natural selection Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, Oxford University Press, £14.99, ISBN 9780199230846 Reviewed by Rowan Hooper

ASIDE from the title, the first “why” that occurred to me is “why do we need another book on evolution?” We need one, Jerry Coyne says, because creationist explanations are spreading and creationism is like a roly-poly clown that pops back up when you punch it. Coyne does not punch: he seeks to persuade, by carefully leading us through the evidence, that evolution is a fact. The audience is those uncertain about explanations of life’s diversity, not those who hold faith-based positions; but even if you know the arguments and accept evolution, much here is new, stimulating and refreshing.

We can fix it Ten Technologies to Save the Planet by Chris Goodall, Profile Books, £9.99, ISBN 9781846688683 Reviewed by Fred Pearce

HERE is a simple truth: there are technical fixes for climate change. We have viable technologies that can deliver the energy we need without warming the planet. They are not expensive and they don’t require us to abandon our ways of life, but they do require some reorganisation of our economies. Another simple truth is that there is no one fix. So Chris Goodall’s brilliantly concise and clear-eyed account of the top 10 – from covering the Sahara in solar farms to burning wood in your boiler – has it about right: 10 technologies could save the planet.