The coming depopulation

My brother and his wife were recently in town for a surprise visit (my birthday). At one point, over lunch, the conversation turned to population growth and the woes of the world. I pointed out that all was not lost, since the Earth’s population was going to peak in this century and shrink for a long time to come thereafter.

I was challenged on this point and asked to provide a little support for my assertion.

The most forceful description of this situation that I’ve come across is Phillip Longman‘s talk at the Long Now Foundation entitled The Depopulation Problem. He’s written the entire speech out as a PDF file. It’s worth reading. It’s got some startling facts in it. It’s reasonably well known, for example, that industrialized countries like Japan and Italy are producing children at below the replacement rate, which is to say, they’re shrinking. Russia is shrinking at the incredible rate of three quarters of a million people every year. That’s nontrivial shrinkage.

People who are aware of this phenomenon in rich countries still generally believe that it’s more than made up for by high fertility in poor countries. But this isn’t true. Here’s what Longman says.

In no industrialized nation today is fertility high enough to prevent declining population. In countries as diverse as Italy, Japan, Spain and Korea, fertility rates are so low that population loss on the order of 30 to 50 percent per generation are in the works… Yet what is even more surprising is the rapid decline in fertility now seen in the developing world. The phenomenon of sub-replacement fertility has by now spread to ever corner and continent of the globe.

In short, Longman actually paints a gloomy picture of what a depopulating world may look like. That part is controversial, but the basic demographic premise is not: we’re done doubling the world’s population.

As further evidence of this point, look at the organization called Zero Population Growth, an organization that was founded by Mr. Population Bomb himself, Paul Ehrlich. That organization is not even called Zero Population Growth anymore. It’s called Population Connection. They still have plenty of good work to do with overcrowding and environmental issues, but even they agree that the population curve is flattening this century.

For all the wretched things going on in the world, that’s a pleasant thought.

Flying in the bird suit

Despite the long line of disappointed, broken, and more or less dead people who have tried to fly like a bird, it seems reasonably likely that eventually someone will succeed. They will do this not so much by flying like a bird as by safely landing like a bird. What defines flying like a bird is a matter of a pinion (sorry), but Rick sent me this NY Times video about a guy who’s making a pretty good case. He’s got a black bird suit that lets him drop from an airplane rather less like a rock and rather more like a flying squirrel. It’s a start. He still lands with the help of a parachute, but at some point he plans to dispense with that. I wish him luck. And I wonder how much his health insurance costs.

It turns out he’s not the only one perfecting a bird suit. Via tingilinde I came across this great video of someone who specializes in zipping down mountainsides, BASE jump style, in his bird suit.

Stick a cape on that man and call him a super hero. That’s got to be a serious rush.

The earliest sunset is here!

Every year this time I am compelled to point out the day in December with the earliest sunset. Where I live, that day is December 9th, which means I am now safely on the far side of the solstitial crepuscular cusp. Since I’m not an early riser, that means I’ll be seeing a little more of the sun every day from now until next summer. That, in my opinion, is worth a stiff drink and some seasonal good cheer.


I refer you to if you’re puzzled as to why the earliest sunset does not coincide with the solstice. Celebrating the earliest sunset is a nicely localized tradition, since (unlike the solstice itself) the day varies dramatically depending on your latitude. Speaking of analemmas, APOD recently featured this lovely animation of the sun’s seasonal progress over New Jersey.

Also, in news astronomical, I’m glad to report that my Sky Clock is back in business again. The data source I use to locate the planets,, was offline for a while, but it’s healthy again. I made an animation to show how the Sky Clock changes over one day, one month, and one year. Below is the animation for a year. Notice the arm-like lines that indicate sunrise and sunset. You can see them closing like a caliper in late December before releasing us for another year. Thank goodness.


Pictures of the New York Stock Exchange

Whenever there’s some news about how the stock market was really awful or especially busy, you see the picture. The picture is a shot of men on the trading floor displaying the essential emotion of today’s market. On good days you get the picture on the left. On bad days you get the one on the right.


There something really funny about these pictures. I always wanted to interview the photographers on this beat. I like to imagine them sitting around the newsroom, smoking cigarettes and playing gin rummy until they get the call: The market is melting down, boys! Hop down to 11 Wall and score me some pictures, pronto! But the truth is the pictures always look the same (aside from slow variations in hair style and machines visible in the background): the busy trader or the glum trader, take your pick. I secretly suspected the editors just went to the filing cabinet and pulled out the shots they needed.

Now I read in Paul Kedrosky’s blog that the trading floor is emptying out. However good it looks on TV, computerized trading means you don’t need to have guys yelling orders at each other. Pretty soon there will be no one left to photograph. But the funny thing is that the New York Stock Exchange really wants somebody to stay on the floor, because it’s good marketing. People, consumers of news, need to put a face on the market. They need to see those desperate, disheveled traders elbowing each other out of the way in order to believe something important happened. Kedrosky helpfully suggests that they hire actors to do the job.

I think the answer is simpler. What we need are stock market emoticons. Chat programs already replace the humble smiley :-) with the jazzier regular_smile.gif. We just need a Dow Industrial feed that displays Mr. Busy or Mr. Glum depending on the motion since the opening bell.

This is only a leading indicator, of course. It’s safe to say that we’ll all be portrayed by actors some day. You’ll still want to see a tall pilot-like character in the cockpit of your computer-operated plane. So also with surgeons, architects, real estate agents, and so on. Walt Disney saw it all coming years ago. At Disney World, there are no employees, only cast members.

Cellular pornography

We live in some kind of golden age of microscopy. In the old days, people relied on stains that made cells look like this.


Useful, but not too pretty. It kills the cells too, but more to the point, no matter how useful it is, a picture like this is never going to land you on the cover of Science or secure your next grant. Not anymore. Why? Because the bar has gone way way up. This is what cellular imaging looks like now.


Va-va-va-voom! It’s like some kind of crazy Post-Impressionist fruit bowl on black velvet. That picture has my vote in the 2008 presidential election.

If you want to see some racy, juicy-looking cellular images, look at the winners of the latest Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition. The honorable mentions are just as good. Look, for example, at this brainbow image and keep in mind that individual brain cells have been genetically induced to color themselves distinctly. Not only are they able to live in this state, you simply couldn’t get this kind of cell-by-cell contrast with the old heavy-handed staining approach. As a result, you can draw maps of the interconnections of individual brain cells.

I know the colors are all pumped up with computer graphics, but still, look at those pictures. I am simultaneously impressed with the image-making capability and the thing being imaged. Leeuwenhoek would be proud.