Issue 06: The gift of life

21st January 2022

How to build taller skyscrapers, halt plagiarism, avoid housing bubbles, and give more women the chance to have children.


Hello and Happy New Year from the Works in Progress team! Our latest issue focuses on three themes that are very close to our hearts: how to build more of the houses and offices that people want to live and work in; how to make science as open and productive as possible; and how to make it easier for women to have children as and when they want to.

Our lead article is about artificial wombs. These are less far-fetched than they may sound: they have already successfully brought animals to term, and while there is still a lot of work to do to make sure that they are safe for humans, they may be closer than many people realise. Aria Babu discusses why these will be so important for many women who cannot have children, in her article Womb for improvement.

On that theme, the artist Michael Driver illustrated the cover of this issue of Works in Progress. You can find more of his amazing artwork here.

New technology may reduce some of the cost of having children, but society still free-rides on women to a significant extent, argues Ellen Pasternack. While women have had little choice historically but to go along with this, as they have acquired more freedom and choices, the relative cost of having children has gone up. The result has been a steady decline in the birth rate in most developed countries, leading to side effects that affect us all. The solution, Pasternack argues in her article Parenting as a public good, is for the costs of child-bearing and -raising to be shared more broadly, to reflect the positive externalities of parenthood to the rest of society.

Ireland’s housing boom, and the bust that followed, has become famous worldwide as an example of “what not to do” in getting more housing. And yet Ireland now, particularly in Dublin, is facing a housing shortage as bad as that of almost any other city in the world. How could a bubble be followed so quickly by a shortage? To explain this apparent paradox, economist Ronan Lyons delves into the causes and history of the Celtic Tiger housing boom, in his article Why Ireland’s housing bubble burst, and refutes common myths about what went wrong.

Why aren’t skyscrapers taller? Brian Potter, author of the newsletter Construction Physics, discusses the barriers to building higher — physical, engineering, economic and regulatory. With this he explains how we might be able to overcome these barriers and use existing urban land more intensively, in his article Why skyscrapers are so short.

While traditional buildings tend to be more popular than modern ones, maybe that’s just survivorship bias. The ugly old ones get torn down as time goes by, so the only old buildings we ever see are the ones pretty enough to survive. Samuel Hughes argues Against the “survival of the prettiest” — that the theory, while elegant, cannot explain why so many old buildings seem nicer than newer ones.

One of the six panels of Eduard Gärtner’s 1834 Panorama of Berlin

Finally, Stuart Ritchie tackles what might seem to be a simple question: Who cares about plagiarism? But while it might feel instinctively bad, Ritchie considers arguments that plagiarism is just a part of the creative process — that it is, in Bob Dylan’s words, something that only “wussies & pussies” would object to. But norms to punish plagiarism serve a valuable role in science, says Ritchie, and abandoning them would reduce the incentives individual scientists have to take risks.

Even more

What else have we been upto since the last issue? Sam wrote for The Guardian on the importance of building more homes and was interviewed for BBC Radio. Ben wrote for Create Streets on how South Tottenham eased their housing crisis with terraced extensions.

Nick blogged about the relationship between the Effective Altruism community and Progress Studies. And Saloni wrote for the New Statesman on the risks of Covid during pregnancy and the safety of vaccines.

Here’s more we’ve enjoyed from around the web:

If you enjoy this issue, please do tell your friends about Works in Progress, and tweet, post, email and otherwise share your thoughts. We have some exciting projects we’ll be announcing over the coming months.

– Sam, Ben, Nick and Saloni