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Science in The New Yorker

Michael Specter's report on water, "The Last Drop," in this week's New Yorker, is full of gee-whiz numbers. It is estimated that a person needs fifty litres of water a day, but Americans, on average, use more than any other people: between four and six hundred litres a day (but the figures have been dropping since the Seventies). It takes thirteen hundred gallons of water to produce a hamburger. The Hetch Hetchy Dam - which may be demolished - provides the Bay Area with 260 million gallons of water a day.

Then there's this: 

Water is precious, but not like oil, which, once burned, is gone forever. While there is almost no human activity that doesn't depend on water in some way, it never actually disappears: when water leaves one place, it simply goes somewhere else.

Water that dinosaurs drank is still consumed by humans, and the amount of freshwater on earth has not changed significantly for millions of years.

Mr Specter focuses on water problems in India, specifically in Chennai (Madras), where aquifers are challenged, insufficient, or no longer reliable for drinking water. On a bright note, he talks with hydrologist Peter Gleick, who takes heart from the rehabilitation of the Cuyahoga River, in Cleveland, so polluted that it caught fire in 1969 - it was covered with a layer of flammable fluids. The piece introduced me to the concept of virtual water: if it takes a thousand drops of water to make a drop of coffee, almost all of that water comes from the place in which the coffee beans are grown, and it is "virtually" exported to Starbucks and French cafés.

Rather less mind-bending, but actually quite fiendishly subtle, is Adam Gopnik's piece about Darwin. Mr Gopnik isn't interested so much in Darwin's great ideas as he is in Darwin's sly presentation of them.

Turning the pages, we realize that Darwin, the greatest Victorian sage, does not write like a Victorian sage. He writes like a Victorian novelist. Absent from his work is the pseudo-Biblical rhetoric, the misty imprecations favored by geniuses of a more or less reactionary temper, like Ruskin and Carlyle, or the parliamentary ponderousness of the writers of a more or less progressive sensibility, like Macaulay and Arnold. Darwin's prose is calm and exact and, in its way, witty - not aphoristic, but ready to seize on a small point to make a large one, closer to George Eliot and Anthony Trollope than to his contemporary defenders, like T H Huxley and John Tyndall.

Mr Gopnik notes that Darwin's explosive conclusion - "We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World" - might have been expressed in any number of less provocative and disturbing ways, and his unpacking of the sentence is fascinating.

Neither of these articles appears to have been uploaded to the magazine's site. In checking that out, I came across a video of one of the New Yorker Festival events, one in which, after a protracted silence, I asked the first post-reading question. Amazingly, they didn't just capture my voice. But keep listening, for George Saunders on pop culture.


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A good job you were looking so dapper, and not out in your backwards-turned baseball cap and baggy jeans, I guess.

Interesting readings, and some very interesting Q&As. Though I must confess I'm not entirely clear where George Saunders was going with his "wouldn't we be happier if we didn't know about the school shootings?" line - or what exactly that had to do with pop culture.

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