FC116: The Grandmother Hypothesis

Plus, time cells, bionic gloves, the best seed-saving story you'll ever hear, and good news on COVID-19 vaccines, elephantiasis, landmines in the Falklands, and a massive new reserve in the Atlantic Ocean.

Plus, time cells, bionic gloves, the best seed-saving story you'll ever hear, and good news on COVID-19 vaccines, elephantiasis, landmines in the Falklands, and a massive new reserve in the Atlantic Ocean.

So here we are. Launch!

It's a bittersweet moment. On the one hand we're excited to press the button, and officially convert this thing from an experiment into a sustainable platform for great solutions journalism. At the same time we can't help but feel a sense of loss. The way the world consumes media is shifting and we're having to shift along with it, but after running this newsletter as a public resource for almost six years it just feels weird to be disappearing behind a paywall.

To those who've already become paid subscribers, thank you. Not only have you helped us stay afloat, you've helped many others too. In the last three months you've been responsible for sending irrigation solutions to farmers and communications equipment to conservationists in Mozambique, funding a makerspace for girls in Afghanistan, buying a drone for a tribe in the Amazon, and satellite phones and a laptop for a group of doctors helping remote communities in the same region. As you'll see a little later you're about to help another amazing charity too, this time on the Turkey/Syria border.

To everyone else, we trust you've enjoyed all the stories we've dug up. There have been some extraordinary moments of love, ingenuity and beauty out there, even during the darkest of times, and it's been great to discover them with you. In a world of information overload, we think it's important to find people you trust, to dig the signal out from underneath the noise. We hope you agree.


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Can I give a subscription away to someone else as a gift?

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Alright, enough selling. Doesn't come naturally to us. Let's get into it.

Good news

Buckle up, there's more than usual this week.

In January 2020, the only thing the world’s scientists knew about the novel coronavirus was its genetic profile. 300 days later, we're on the brink of a major victory after vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna cleared large scale trials. This is a triumph for science: vaccines normally take a decade from inception to market, and less than one in five that enter human trials get to the finish line. Bloomberg

Humanity is winning its fight against elephantiasis, a horrible parasitic disease causing irreversible disfigurement, and the second leading cause of disability in the world. In the last 20 years, the number of people infected has dropped by 74%, from 199 million to 51.4 million, and last year three countries, Malawi, Kiribati and Yemen, eliminated it altogether. The Lancet

Cambodia has made huge inroads in its fight against malaria this year. In the first nine months of 2020, the country saw a 70% decrease in malaria cases compared to the same period last year. “This is a proud achievement for Cambodia, and our biggest step made so far to eradicate the disease.” Khmer Times

A UNICEF report on the Swachh Bharat Mission, India's massive sanitation drive, has shown that it brought major benefits to poor households across the country. The average benefit per household was US$727 per year, mainly from health savings such as reduced diarrhoea incidence (55%) and savings from sanitation access time (45%).

Argentina has broadened the use of medicinal cannabis, allowing it to be prescribed for any condition backed by scientific evidence, and letting people grow it at home. New rules also state that cannabis should be made available for free in the country’s public health system for patients without insurance. Yes, you heard that right. Publicly funded medical marijuana. The times they are a changin'. Vice

The Falkland Islands have been cleared of all landmines, nearly 40 years after the end of the war between Britain and Argentina. Tens of thousands of mines and bombs have been removed since 2009, as part of a UK-funded programme, a task carried out by a team of specialist de-miners, many of them from Zimbabwe. "We never thought the islands would be completely mine free, this is a momentous change." BBC

Mexico has changed its laws to prohibit holding migrant children in immigration detention centers. Under the changes, the country will shift responsibility for housing children and their families to the country’s family development agency, and away from those responsible for immigration enforcement and running detention centers. NBC

The British territory of Tristan da Cunha has created the fourth largest completely protected marine area in the world, and the largest in the Atlantic. The 687,000 km2 sanctuary will be a no-take zone, meaning fishing and other harmful activities will be banned to protect the wildlife found on and around the chain of islands, including albatross, penguins, whales, sharks and seals. Nat Geo

maps of conservation zones in the Atlantic

Florida has become the latest of 18 states and territories to ban the trafficking of shark fins. Federal prosecutors say it's a milestone in their efforts to stop the smuggling trade, as Florida had served as a key waypoint for international shark fin hauls. Mongabay

The richest person in the world has announced the first 16 recipients of his Earth Fund, who will receive $791 million in donations. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defence Council, Environmental Defence Fund, and the World Resources Institute will each receive $100 million, with more to come. Verge

Kopenhagen Fur, the world’s largest fur auction house, has announced it will close its doors within the next three years, citing the impact of COVID-19 and years of steep drops in pelt prices and stockpiles left unsold. It could signal the beginning of the end for the global fur trade, preventing millions of animals from suffering in the future for the fickle whims of fashion. HSI

In the Pacific Northwest, the Yurok tribe has begun the reintroduction of the Californian Condor to its ancestral lands along the Klamath River. The program, a partnership with 16 different federal agencies, private companies, and conservation organizations, will restore North America's largest bird to parts of the country where it hasn't been seen in more than a century. Audubon

That's not all. The same tribe - the Yurok - just signed a historic deal to remove four dams from the Klamath, the largest dam removal project in US  history. This will free up 600km of waterway and spawning grounds for salmon and other migratory species like steelhead trout and Pacific lamprey. “These efforts are as much about ecology as they are to right the wrongs that took place in this country for the last 200 years.” BBC

...and finally, to round up the good news, we had to put this in here. After four years of no pets in the White House (the longest stretch since 1840) two German shepherds, Champ and Major, are moving in. Major will be the first 'First Dog' from a shelter, reflecting a growing embrace by Americans of shelter dogs—more than 1.6 million were adopted last year, and forced euthanasia has fallen by more than two thirds since 2011. Nat Geo

dog sitting on a porch
A real wags to riches story.

Indistinguishable from magic

Amidst the election drama, you might have missed a far bigger story from the world of astrobiology. NASA just confirmed there are at least 300 million Earth-like planets in the Milky Way - rocky worlds that orbit stars like our Sun and might have surface water. Doesn't guarantee there's life out there, but it certainly makes it a lot more likely (and speaking of life in space, how good is this?)

New century = new, less deadly weapons of war. In the 44-day conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, unmanned drones were decisive, allowing Azerbaijan to destroy Armenia’s conventional artillery, and negate its superior air force. Meanwhile, it looks like China used microwave weapons in its Himalayan standoff with India, leaving soldiers temporarily incapacitated without using live ammunition.

A Japanese company has made a sweater with material that comes from a bioreactor, not an animal. The new material—'Brewed Protein'—was originally developed as a biotech version of spider silk, and is made by putting microbes, sugars, and minerals in large tanks, drying them into a fiber, and then spinning that into yarn. Fast Co

Neuroscientists have identified 'time cells' in our brain that place a time stamp on memories as they are formed, allowing us to recall events or experiences in the right order. They're not like clocks though; instead, their ticks and tocks are constantly speeding up or slowing down, depending on factors like mood. We guess that explains why lockdown feels like such a time warp. NPR

The promise of metagenomic next-generation DNA sequencing has finally been realized, after Californian scientists developed an incredible new sequencing technique to detect multiple pathogens from any type of body fluid. This means a single clinical laboratory test can now zero in on bacteria, viruses, or fungi causing infections in hospitalized patients in as little as six hours. UCSF

Rebirth through technology, and the return of lost dreams and old loves. Brazilian pianist, João Carlos Martins, long considered to be one of the greatest interpreters of Bach, has not played with ten fingers since losing the use of his right hand in 1995. Now, thanks to a pair of $100 3D-printed bionic gloves, he's at the piano again and recently shared a video playing one of his favourite Bach sonatas.

old man playing piano in gloves
He'll be Bach (sorry couldn't resist, we'll stop now)

Give a damn

This week we're heading to Turkey, where we've discovered an amazing group called Sirkhane, who are on a mission to provide hope and beauty through circus, music and arts for children affected by war. One of their many projects is something called DARKROOM, a mobile photography workshop for vulnerable and underprivileged kids in Mardin, a few kilometers away from the Syrian border.

Right now, the project is being run by a young Syrian photographer, Serbest Salih who himself escaped the war and arrived in Turkey as a refugee. When we spoke to him he told us they need money to get a new caravan to convert into a mobile lab, and digital cameras for children to be able to continue photography during lockdown. We're sending them US$5,000, which should be enough to cover the caravan and 150 cameras.

Thank you to all our paid subscribers. You made this possible! Most of these kids have no access to extra-curricular or cultural opportunities. Thanks to your generosity, hundreds of them will get to shoot, develop and print their own photography. It's a way to discover themselves, to learn new ways of thinking and creativity to make sense of their daily lives, fostering a sense of personal empowerment in circumstances most of us could never imagine.

Sirkhane DARKROOM is a photography darkroom on the Turkish/Syrian border, which teaches children how to take photos, develop and print their own analog photography. Youtube

Information superhighway

Psychologist Alison Gopnik unpacks what's known as the 'grandmother hypothesis': the idea that one of our strongest advantages as a species is the symbiosis between a long childhood, which allows exploration and learning, and old age, which helps childhood unfold and gives us time to pass on knowledge from one generation to another. This one's for you Mum. Aeon

After ten years of being repeatedly punched in the face, it's time for progressives, be they disappointed Democrats or bewildered Remainers, to have a long hard think about how to approach arguments. Scottish independence campaigner Eddie Barnes has some ideas. Less condescension and virtue signaling. More ideas like 'community assemblies' where you have to listen to a person from the other side of the political divide for 90 seconds without interrupting. Point taken.

Excellent long-form profiles of two of the most interesting media companies in the world at the moment. We hadn't gone down the rabbit hole on TikTok yet, so big thanks to Kyle Chayka for bringing us up to speed in 3,400 words. We get it now. Meanwhile this 5,00o word monster by Clio Chang about Substack is the best snapshot we've seen so far. As former users we've got some, uh, opinions.

This real life story honestly feels like it's straight out of the pages of a KSR novel. In 2014, Syrian scientists managed to get the seeds of some of the most important crops on Earth into a vault in the Arctic before war destroyed everything. Years later, against all odds, they've regrown 25-30 heirloom species in Morocco and Lebanon with the goal of eventually returning them to their homelands. Wired

How do birds fly over Mount Everest? Here's a masterclass in scientific storytelling, told by a grandfather to his granddaughter. We learned at least five new things, everything from how air travels through a bird's body and where coal really comes from, to how dragonflies and dinosaurs got so big hundreds of millions of years ago. Nautilus

Future Brunch

For our 10th episode, we celebrated with a special "Ask Us Anything". This one was fun, we answered questions about the arc of moral progress, how to find good news, how to stop feeling overwhelmed by the bad news, whether we think it's a good idea to have children, the power of scientific collaboration, things that have surprised us in 2020, the list goes on... oh! And we even gave away a prize :)

There's a video and a full transcript over here.


Two weeks ago, a group of rescuers put their own safety at risk in an epic rescue mission following Sri Lanka's biggest ever mass beaching of whales. A handful of short-finned pilot whales had washed ashore on the morning of the 2nd November on a beach near Colombo, and by dusk their numbers had swelled to over a 120. While authorities braced for mass deaths, volunteers from nearby villages joined members of the navy and coast guard to work through the night, battling crashing waves in the dark to pull the whales back into deeper water.

Pilot whales can grow up to six metres long and weigh a tonne so pushing them back into the surf was difficult and risky work. Much of it was done under headlights from jeeps, and at one point people started bringing in jetskis to tow the whales out beyond the wave breaks. The volunteers refused to give up and by the next morning had saved 120 whales. With only five whales reported to have died, it was one of the most successful rescue missions ever recorded.

Local environmentalist, Nayanaka Ranwella praised the workers for their resilience throughout the gruelling 16-hour mission. “Some rescuers had been in the water throughout the night. They were exhausted, but nobody wanted to quit until the mission was complete.”

people in surf rescuing whales
Rescuers work through the night in Sri Lanka to save hundreds of short-finned pilot whales. Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty

That's a wrap.

Thanks for being along for the ride. We really appreciate all the messages of support and the interesting links and the great conversations, keep 'em coming. We'll see you all again, in one way or the other, on the other side of the paywall.

Much love,


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