Issue 07: The ideas start coming and they don’t stop coming

22nd April 2022

Plus: How polyester bounced back, why we duel, and our geothermal future.

Calum Heath illustrates the cover for this issue. He is a freelance illustrator based in Oxford, UK. You can follow him on Instagram here.

Hello from the Works in Progress team! In case you missed it, we’ve teamed up with Stripe. But more importantly, the seventh issue of Works in Progress is out! Read it here.

It features great new articles about polyester, motorways, dueling, and more. And stick around until the end of this email to hear about some of our other work this quarter, including Sam’s new BBC documentary and Nick’s blog prize, plus our other favorite links from around the web.

Sam, Ben and Saloni of the Works in Progress team live in London. Our lead piece tells the story of a plan to bulldoze through the heart of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods with a series of ring roads. Michael Dnes tells the story in London’s lost ringways. Camden Market, Brixton and Chelsea would all have been buried by new roads. London would be unrecognizable. Most readers will be glad the plan was scrapped, but the story is bittersweet: as unwise as the scheme now seems today, was there something to admire in such ambitious infrastructure plans?

Prizes might encourage new inventions in areas like climate change and antibiotics. But Anton Howes, of the Age of Invention newsletter, argues that we misunderstand and overhype prizes because of myths surrounding their history in Why innovation prizes fail. Instead, he argues, new innovation prizes should focus on incremental improvements, not giant breakthroughs.

Some of our favorite pieces of clothing are made of polyester: Nick’s Patagonia fleeces, Sam’s Uniqlo thermal wear, Saloni’s gym clothes. But just a few decades ago the fabric had become universally hated after once defining the vibrant psychedelic prints and disco wear of the 1960s and 70s. Why has this fabric had such a strange journey?

Virginia Postrel, author of The Fabric of Civilization, tells the story of How polyester bounced back. Advances in materials science allowed businesses to innovate with the fabric and give it new qualities to keep us cool in the heat and warm in the cold. It’s now a staple of most people’s wardrobes—often without them even realizing that it’s polyester that they’re wearing.

Krystell Bringas illustrates Postrel’s piece. She is an illustrator based in London and you can find more of her work here.

Are good ideas getting harder to find? The question underlies virtually every debate about stagnation, science, and societal progress itself. But our editor Ben Southwood argues that this elegant theory might be wrong, in Scientific slowdown is not inevitable. Instead, we might be getting worse at finding them. Ben has previously measured the slowdown in scientific progress with economist Tyler Cowen, and argued that we should bring back industrial R&D labs to speed it up again.

Dueling is a brutal institution, but William Buckner, author of the anthropology blog Traditions of conflict, explains that they have a social function in Why we duel. He describes how these encounters have permeated through hunter-gatherer societies and served as a way of managing violence, along with subtle rituals that mitigate the injuries involved.

Gas heating is a big problem for climate change. The total leakage from the gas network in the United States is so extensive that natural gas might damage the climate more than coal per energy unit delivered to people’s homes. But electric heating is an expensive alternative, and even heat pumps have problems. Audrey Schulman proposes a solution in her article Local warming: geothermal heat pumps and municipal heat networks that pipe hot water into people’s homes. Schulman also recently published a novel The Dolphin House, which is one of WIRED’s ‘15 Books You Need to Read This Summer’.

What we’ve been up to

Since our last issue, Sam hosted a documentary for BBC Radio 4, The End of Invention, on whether scientific progress is slowing and, if so, what we can do to fix it.

Nick launched the Effective Ideas blog prize, which is awarding up to five $100,000 prizes for the best blogs related to doing good over the long term. The site also includes a detailed guide on how to start a blog and start writing on the internet. Some of the bloggers participating include John Myers at Ziggurat and Joe Carlsmith at Hands and Cities.

Saloni joined Stripe Press as a contributing editor. Along with Press and Works in Progress (and finishing her PhD), she’s writing and researching for Our World in Data. Recently she has published a definitive guide to why randomized controlled trials matter and a post on how depression is being diagnosed earlier than in the past, thanks to improved guidelines and more openness to mental health disorders.

Ben published Create Mews with the think tank Create Streets. It proposes to allow urban residents to vote to turn some of the urban wasteland around their properties into new housing and other developments, creating new streets and blocks on under-used land. The plan complements earlier proposals Ben has worked on, including street votes and mansard votes.

Even more

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

  • Stuart Ritchie (no relation to Hannah) has started a new Substack, Science Fictions. His first post is on psychedelics and mental illness and his second is a rebuttal of a New York Review of Books review of Paige Harden’s new book The Genetic Lottery.
  • Dwarkesh Patel writes on the miracle of the mystery year: Why, even in the lives of highly productive people, certain years seem to be significantly more productive than others.
  • Aria Babu writes a defense of “Girlbosses”, on how the press seems to cover female company founders with unusual scorn.
  • Anonmugwump writes about the empirical evidence around “soft power” in international relations.
  • Skluug writes on how AI risk really is like The Terminator. Gavin Leech writes another compelling introduction to AI risk.
  • Some good news: This new paper from Nobel laureate Michael Kremer and colleagues finds that simply treating water with chlorination reduces child mortality by a massive 30%. It may be the most cost-effective health intervention ever.

That’s all from us this time. Have a great week!

– Nick, Saloni, Sam and Ben