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“There are too many of us, he thought. There are billions of us and that’s too many.”*…




Ever since Thomas Malthus got it started in 1798, people have been warning that population growth, given enough time, would lead to famine and environmental destruction. There would eventually be too many mouths to feed. But now a new study, published in The Lancet, forecasts new threats to the economic and social order caused by precipitous population decline.

Damned if you do (it), damned if you don’t.

The world population is now 7.8 billion, up from 3.5 billion less than 50 years ago. Previous estimates suggested we wouldn’t reach “peak humanity,” the point at which things start going to hell, for generations. The most recent United Nations projections see population growth stopping at around 11 billion people near the end of the century. This new study from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found that the population might peak at 9.7 billion around 2064 — much sooner than previously predicted — and then fall to 8.8 billion by 2100.


On the face of it, this seems like good news. There’s no doubt that fewer people would relieve pressure on the environment, especially if there were fewer meat-eating, car-driving, computer-buying people. Not as many people taking long-haul flights and buying houses means that a smaller portion of the earth will be devoted to filling the human maw. The authors of this new paper acknowledge that their findings are good news for those who seek to reverse climate change and save orangutans. Moreover, if the world met the UN’s sustainable development goals — educating kids, stamping out disease, providing access to contraception, and spreading prosperity — the planet’s population would likely fall even more abruptly. It’s now clear that improving people’s lives — not population control measures — have been key to driving down fertility rates.

In the future described by this study, richer countries like Japan could age into insignificance, while Nigeria might grow to become a vibrant power broker. By 2100, the populations of Japan, Spain, Italy and South Korea could be half the size they are today. The United States treads water in this projection, buoyed by immigration. Rich European countries like Germany and the Netherlands might stop restricting immigration and begin competing with each other to attract migrants.

So what’s the problem? Picture millions of confused seniors wandering around without enough youngsters to corral them. In 2100, if the paper’s projection prove correct, there will be five people over 80 for every one kid under the age of five, and fewer people with jobs than without. There would be a big increase in elderly folks grasping for pensions and healthcare as the number of taxpayers covering the cost of these benefits dwindle. Economies would sputter and choke…

The risks, spelled out: “The population bomb didn’t detonate. Turns out there’s a new problem.”  See also “Fertility rate: ‘Jaw-dropping’ global crash in children being born.”

But to balance the dystopian sci-fi take in the title quote, this one, which would seem to suggest that fewer might be better:

Beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true of humans as it is of gas molecules in a sealed flask. The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who so survive.   – Frank Herbert, Dune

* Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


As we study senescence, we might send well-armored birthday greetings to a man who did his part to combat population growth, Samuel Colt; he was born on this date in 1814.  An inventor and the proprietor of Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company, he popularized the Colt 45 revolver (and other firearms) and made the mass production of revolvers commercially viable.

Colt’s manufacturing methods were sophisticated: his use of interchangeable parts helped him become one of the first to use the assembly line efficiently.  But as impactfully, he was a pioneer in Barnum-like salesmanship and self-promotion.  His innovative use of art, celebrity endorsements, and corporate gifts to promote his wares made him a pioneer of advertising, product placement, and mass marketing.

220px-Samuel_Colt_engraving_by_John_Chester_Buttre,_c1855 source



“I have had my results for a long time, but I do not yet know how to arrive at them”*…



Andrew Wiles gave a series of lectures cryptically titled “Modular Forms, Elliptic Curves, and Galois Representations” at a mathematics conference in Cambridge, England, in June 0f 1993. His argument was long and technical. Finally, 20 minutes into the third talk, he came to the end. Then, to punctuate the result, he added:

=> FLT

“Implies Fermat’s Last Theorem.” The most famous unverified conjecture in the history of mathematics. First proposed by the 17th-century French jurist and spare-time mathematician Pierre de Fermat, it had remained unproven for more than 350 years. Wiles, a professor at Princeton University, had worked on the problem, alone and in secret in the attic of his home, for seven years. Now he was unveiling his proof.

His announcement electrified his audience—and the world. The story appeared the next day on the front page of The New York Times. Gap, the clothing retailer, asked him to model a new line of jeans, though he demurred. People Weekly named him one of “The 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year,” along with Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, and Bill Clinton. Barbara Walters’ producers reached out to him for an interview, to which Wiles responded, “Who’s Barbara Walters?”

But the celebration didn’t last. Once a proof is proposed, it must be checked and verified before it is accepted as valid. When Wiles submitted his 200-page proof to the prestigious journal Inventiones Mathematicae, its editor divvied up the manuscript among six reviewers. One of them was Nick Katz, a fellow Princeton mathematician.

For two months, Katz and a French colleague, Luc Illusie, scrutinized every logical step in Katz’s section of the proof. From time to time, they would come across a line of reasoning they couldn’t follow. Katz would email Wiles, who would provide a fix. But in late August, Wiles offered an explanation that didn’t satisfy the two reviewers. And when Wiles took a closer look, he saw that Katz had found a crack in the mathematical scaffolding. At first, a repair seemed straightforward. But as Wiles picked at the crack, pieces of the structure began falling away…

How mistakes– first Fermat’s, then Wiles’– reinvigorated a field, then led to fundamental insight: “How Math’s Most Famous Proof Nearly Broke.”

* Karl Friedrich Gauss


As we ponder proof, we might we might spare a thought for Josiah Wedgwood; he died on this date in 1795. An English potter and businessman (he founded the Wedgwood company), he is credited, via his technique of “division of labor,” with the industrialization of the manufacture of pottery– and via his example, much of British (and thus American) manufacturing.

Wedgwood was a member of the Lunar Society, the Royal Society, and was an ardent abolitionist.  His daughter, Susannah, was the mother of Charles Darwin.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

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