Light bulb moment: the flaw in the petrol car ban

This week, writing in the Daily Mail, Matt Ridley produced a devastating takedown of the government’s 2030 ban on the sale of new conventionally powered cars. He plans to pre-empt the ban himself by buying a brand-new petrol car in 2029. Innovation happens gradually and delivers its benefits unevenly – therefore it is stupid to impose it on everyone all at once  I thought he was right about almost everything, except perhaps that final prediction. He’s right to be sceptical about the environmental benefits of electric cars – especially in countries such as China (and, to a lesser extent, Germany) where electricity is largely generated from the filthier forms of

Alive with innovation: British art between the world wars

When I mentioned the subject of this book to someone reasonably well-informed about 20th-century British art, the response was: ‘Isn’t that all portrait and still-life paintings?’ Well, perhaps if you’re looking exclusively at the contents of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions – and even there landscape was another popular choice. But actually the period was alive with innovation – with abstraction and surrealism infiltrating and balancing out a new kind of realism. Art was a melting pot of competing attitudes, drawing equally on native traditions and stimulating foreign influences, principally Cézanne and Picasso. In her enjoyable new book Frances Spalding identifies ‘a recurrent tension… between a precarious stasis on the

Sense and sensibility: Steven Pinker and Rory Sutherland on reason vs instinct

Steven Pinker’s latest book is called Rationality. Rory Sutherland is The Spectator’s Wiki Man. We arranged for them to meet at the Cucumber restaurant, where they discussed the logic of monarchy, gender-bending, and why academics are unreasonably obsessed with wine. Steven Pinker: Part of the reason I wrote Rationality was to ask, how there can be so much irrationality in an era that has the resources for unprecedented rationality. We invented a vaccine for Covid in less than a year. So why do people today believe in conspiracies like QAnon? Rory Sutherland: Conspiracy theories aren’t always irrational, and instinctive responses can serve you well. An instinctive person with no knowledge

Here’s a clue: we should all be doing cryptic crosswords

I was once asked by a previous editor of the Times how to increase sales of the paper. I was slightly more circumspect, but the thrust of my argument was: ‘Don’t bother with all that news and opinion malarkey — just teach more people how to solve cryptic crosswords.’ My argument was simple. There are now 40,000 different places where I can obtain global news and metropolitan opinion, but there is only one Times cryptic crossword. ‘Play your cards right.’ I suggested, ‘and you can be the Bernie Ecclestone of cruciverbalism.’ Revive crossword-solving as a craze; create apps whereby two people can co-operate remotely on a single grid; run live

The 31 inventions that Britain really needs

‘Get Brexit done, then Arpa’ read Dominic Cummings’s WhatsApp profile. Arpa was what’s now the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Mr Cummings has departed, but our very own British Arpa has arrived. Downing Street has tweaked the Yankee acronym to ‘Aria’ — the Advanced Research and Invention Agency. Its aim? ‘High-risk, high-reward’ scientific research. The cost? £800 million over four years. Ludicrous, no doubt: one of those fast-forgotten ‘eye-catching initiatives’ beloved of our leaders. But it got me thinking. We’re responsible for so many of the world’s great technologies and inventions. Steam engines, electric motors, television, telephones, incandescent light bulbs, the jet engine, computers, the world wide web, penicillin…

The Egyptians knew the value of accidental discoveries

The government has plans to fund a new research agency to back ‘cutting-edge science’. Ptolemaios (Ptolemy) I (367-282 bc), the first Greek king of Egypt, had a similar idea. When Alexander the Great died in 323 bc, his ramshackle ‘empire’ fell apart, and the generals he had left in charge of each region promptly turned themselves into autonomous kings. Egypt’s new king Ptolemy I decided to make Egypt’s ‘capital’ Alexandria the greatest cultural and scientific centre in the world, and the resultant ‘Museum’ became the world’s first scientific research institute. Wielding their cheque-books, the Ptolemies persuaded the finest minds of the day to sign up. These included Euclid, who invented

Is it time to reopen technology’s cold cases?

One of the staples of crime drama is the ‘cold-case squad’. This allows programme-makers to add period detail to the scenes set in the past, while the present-day scenes can show implausibly attractive forensic scientists hunting for clues in a creepy location such as a long-abandoned children’s home (an activity obviously best performed during the hours of darkness by two people who separate in mid-search for no apparent reason). I have often wondered whether it is worth establishing a cold-case squad for technology and science, to investigate those lines of inquiry that went cold 50 years ago but would now repay further investigation; or inventions that suffered from a miscarriage

Why I won’t patent my brilliant idea

In the past 30 years, I have driven about 8,000 miles in France in right-hand-drive cars. And I would be lying if I denied that one or two of those miles hadn’t been driven on the left-hand side of the road. This scared the life out of me. One second’s inattention elevated my risk of dying in a gruesome accident to levels previously experienced only by 1950s racing drivers or country and western singers. Yet driving on the other side of the road is surprisingly easy — provided you start out on the other side of the road. The error occurs in the first minute of driving: setting off at

The problem with the Tory obsession with DARPA

Dominic Cummings’s two catchphrases ‘take back control’ and ‘get Brexit done’ have transformed British politics. Now the PM’s top aide wants to do the same with the British economy through the creation of another ARPA. But will it work? The first Advanced Research Projects Agency was created in the US in 1958. The previous year the Soviets had launched the world’s first artificial orbital satellite, Sputnik, which made Americans fear that the USSR’s economy was about to overtake the US’s. The thought was that only if the US immediately copied the brilliant engineers who ran the Soviet Union could the West hope to keep up. ARPA was the outcome. Intended to