I started this blog by calling it grumpy wisdom.  This represented the first few posts, which expressed my loathing for political language and economic illiteracy.  I don’t think I’m a curmudgeon at heart, and have found much to delight in family life, in history, in sport, in music and travel.

But sometimes the world calls you back to irritable grouchiness.  This week, it’s the modern tendency to sentimentalise and exaggerate how life actually is.  The wonderful Onion once ran an item in which a school kid who was accidentally killed was described as an unpleasant dimwit, in a satirical reference to the way premature death always happens to the glowing light of the school, who was going to choose between being the Nobel Physics Prize or centre-forward for Manchester United.  It seems that simple tragedy always has to be larded with nonsense.

The next paragraph is maybe not to be written on Remembrance Weekend.  OK, deep breath.  Have you noticed how all injured service personnel – sometimes all service personnel – have become ‘heroes’ ?  Now, I am terminally glad that I have never had to enter battle in my life – a wonderful bonus for most of my generation.  I am not a pacifist, and am glad that someone else does the fighting for me.  And war casualties are profoundly to be regretted, and deeply sad – and, to use a word that is overused, often tragic.  This doesn’t, however, mean that everyone connected with the armed forces needs to be covered in a sugar shell of sentiment or exaggeration.  The word ‘hero’ has a meaning, as I explain here.  You don’t have to be heroic to be injured, and you don’t have to be heroic to deserve the support of the nation in your rehabilitation, or in the support of your dependants.  Recently, the poppy campaigns seem to have become a plebiscite of support for the military, not a means of acknowledging the debt we owe to those who have suffered, and a way of raising funds for their support and rehabilitation.  Keep your eye on the prize: peace for the nation, and support for casualties.  The politicians who stand at Prime Minister’s Questions sonorously reading out the names of those killed in Afghanistan are the same ones who sack service personnel early so as to avoid paying them a pension, and who approve compensation that values amputated limbs lower than intercepted mobile phone messages.  Kipling had a poem for it.

At a different level of emotion, why are relatives now called “loved ones” ?  Why are all funds “hard-earned” ?  Why are all families “hard-working” ?  This seems to me to be a sign of the emotional incontinence that has soaked into everyday discourse, the Dianafication of life.  And maybe it’s part of the unattractive modern search for victimhood.


When I was in India, I met the family of our guide, which included a super-intelligent eleven year old.  He has e-mailed me, and asked me for a list of British scientists.  My draft is below, bulked out with comments for the passing adult.

I found it an interesting exercise for a non-scientist, because you tend to know the names but not exactly what they did or found.  So, scope for an afternoon on the internet.  There are more than 80 British scientists who have won the Nobel Prize, but of course the Nobel Prizes were not around in the days of Newton and Darwin.  So how to choose – particularly difficult for the non-expert.  Why leave out Hooke or Boyle or Halley ?  What’s the criterion?  Originality ? Hard to justify, because a lot of discoveries were simultaneously made in different countries by different people (e.g. the controversy as to whether Newton or Leibniz first discovered calculus), or occurred to different scientists at the same time (Darwin published The Origin of Species after Alfred Wallace had sent him a version of a very similar theory) .   Importance for the modern world ?   If so, why put Fleming in – because the antibiotic potential of penicillin was really released by Ernst Chain, Howard Florey, and unnamed American chemical engineers who worked out how to mass-produce the stuff. You could put in  Babbage and Turing – because although they were first to invent computers, the modern digital world came from somewhere else (and in any case a German scientist was doing similar stuff in the 1930s).

Anyway, here’s my list, arranged like a Channel 5 list show without the Jimmy Carr voice-over.  Comments, criticisms and additions welcome

  1. Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) most famous for the theory of gravity, explaining planetary movements through the three laws of motion, but “he advanced every branch of science he worked in” – for example, optics. His later years were not very scientific at all.  He was appointed Master of The Mint, supervising the issue of coinage, he did endless research into biblical matters, and also dabbled in alchemy.  Though he was the second scientist to be knighted, it is said that he was actually knighted for political reasons.
  2. Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) published The Origin Of Species, showing how different plants and animals evolved through natural selection.
  3. Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) made many discoveries in the field of electromagnetism – his discoveries led to the development of electrical motors. But he was also a chemist, discovering benzene. Einstein kept a picture of Faraday on his study wall, and the SI unit of capacitance is called a farad in his honour.
  4. Ernest Rutherford (1871 – 1937) was a New Zealander who worked in Britain. He won the Nobel Prize for his research on radiation, and built on that work to develop modern atomic theory.  I’ve visited the laboratory in the University of Manchester where he first split the atom – it is like a school lab from the 1950s, all wooden benches and sash windows, and it is still radioactive. He had a way with words – “we haven’t got the money, so we’ve got to think”; “all science is physics, or it’s stamp collecting” – but famously called atomic power “moonshine”.
  5. Henry Cavendish (1731 – 1810) discovered hydrogen, measured the composition of the air we breathe, and the water we drink. He also calculated the density of the earth (very accurately) in 1797.  He lived in south London, very near where I used to work.  I once had a Polish visitor to my Clapham office who was keen to see where Cavendish worked: I weakly pointed him to an undistinguished stretch of road just off  the South Circular called Cavendish Road.
  6. William Thomson (1824-1907) – later ennobled to become Lord Kelvin – did important work in mathematical physics and created the laws of thermodynamics. He was also a very good electronic engineer, and made a lot of money from improving the electric telegraph.  I like theorists who make a packet – it seems to me that it gives a certain credibility to their ideas.  Example – John Maynard Keynes made himself a fortune whilst publishing his economic theories.  Kelvin also realised that there was an absolute zero that was as cold as it was possible to get – now named 0° Kelvin after him.
  7. James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879) brought all the theories of electricity, magnetism and light together. He worked on the behaviour of gases, researched the rings of Saturn and had time to create the first colour photograph !
  8. Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804) discovered oxygen, and wrote a book about electricity that was used by Volta (who made the first battery), Herschel (who discovered infra-red radiation) and
  9. Hans Krebs (1900 – 1981) came to England as a refugee from the Nazis in 1933. He became an eminent scientist, and Professor at the University of Sheffield.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the Krebs Cycle, which explains how life-giving energy is set free in cells by oxidation of glucose to carbon dioxide and water.
  10. Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955) discovered penicillin, which opened the way for all the antibiotic drugs that have helped modern medicine save millions of lives around the world. His discoveries – made at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, where my daughter trained – were the start of work by Ernst Chain, Howard Florey

Who are the runners- up who did not make my list ?  Well, that must include

  • Hooke, who got involved in everything from watch-making and astronomy to early ideas of evolution and town-planning, built microscopes and air-pumps and argued with almost everybody from Isaac Newton downwards. His first biographer described him as ‘despicable’.
  • William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood and the pumping action of the heart.
  • Robert Boyle, who showed the relation between the volume and pressure of a gas
  • Crick and Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA, allowing us to understand the building-blocks of life
  • Any one of a number of astronomers – Flamsteed, Halley, Ryle, Airy, and of course Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus, its moons, and the moons of Saturn.
  • Britons involved in the development of computing – starting with Charles Babbage and his mechanical computer of 1822, Alan Turing who designed the first electronic programmable computer to break German military codes in the Second World War, and Tim Berners- Lee was central in developing the internet.

Footnote – interesting how many scientists we revere as British were born elsewhere, and came to Britain either because it was the centre of the Empire (Rutherford, Florey, Wilkins, Klug), or a place to escape Nazism (Krebs, Chain, Bondi, Gabor, Perutz, Kroto).  Paul Dirac was born in Bristol to Swiss parents: Herschel came here when Hanover was under the British crown.  Kelvin, Bernal, Boole and Boyle were Irish.  I guess this is early evidence of the Mo Farah Syndrome – if you’re good enough, then you’re British enough.

Fair trade

As you’ll see from earlier posts, I’ve just got back from India after a two week fair trade tour – meaning not just that we visited five fair trade producers (and paid them for our visits), but that the hotels we stayed in were Indian owned, and the organisation was by travel agent and guides committed to its principles.  Most of the people on the trip ran fair trade stalls and networks in the UK, often through a local church.  Even an old atheist like me needs to acknowledge that religious groups (like the Mennonites and Church of the Brethren) were around when fair trade ideas started.

My previous trip to India was at a beach-front hotel in Goa, which was great but not exactly a gritty view of the real India.  This time, I wanted to get a bit below the surface and learn more about India, whilst acknowledging that I am too soft (and my knees too bad) to do a back-packing, 24 hour train-riding, hostel-sleeping tour.  Also, the economist in me wanted space and evidence to think about development and aid issues.  I went with a belief that I retain with greater force than before – that the way forward for poor countries is economic growth, more than aid or charity.  Growth is the only prospect of generating the volume of wealth needed to raise people out of poverty in a way that aid will never do; and charitable transfers are even smaller, and carry the wrong message that the fate of the poor should be determined by the preferences of the rich.


So where does fair trade fit into this ?  The World Fair Trade Organisation has been going for more than twenty years, and the arguments seem familiar – that free markets favour the rich and developed and stacks the odds against the poor producers.  There are those who put forward arguments against fair trade, some of them quite respectable.  I wondered whether a price premium might make producers uncompetitive and take away the main asset they have in international trade, which is low costs.  My view has changed on that, partly from the knowledge that ‘low cost’ can mean child labour or appalling work conditions.  Not that I can be an expert after a few days away, but here are some reflections that might be of interest:


  • The fair trade benefit is not only about letting producers have a higher price to live a little easier. It also involves making sure kids get an education, workers can save for old age, women are not exploited, work conditions are healthy, a surplus can be available for micro-finance and the environment is undamaged.  A major (arguably the major ?) benefit is the increased confidence and optimism it gives to groups and communities, especially empowering women.
  • Fair trade retailers in the west sell at a considerable mark-up compared to the prices they pay the producers. Our guide, Ranjith Henry, a former manager in a multi-national, reckons that a ratio of 5:1 is not uncommon, and we saw bigger mark-ups in some fair-trade catalogues.  This isn’t exploitation, as a margin is needed to maintain the infrastructure (and pay for transport & marketing), but you do wonder whether there is the opportunity for a lower ratio.
  • Fair trade is gaining ground in mainstream retail outlets and supermarkets – it used to be hard to buy (e.g.) fair trade coffee and tea, but it is now on every supermarket shelf. However, the sales of the outlets devoted to fair trade (and the producers we met in India) are flat or declining.  Some producers have had to lay off workers. This may be because …
  • … there are issues about the product range and design, of craft products especially. There are only so many hemp bags, soapstone candle holders or hippy necklaces that can be sold.  I guess the answer is to get into areas where there are repeat sales (foods and snacks, cosmetics) but those are very competitive.  Managers at Sasha pointed out that there are now a very large number of firms producing ayurvedic cosmetics.  Another approach is to use fashionable western designers, and we saw this happening to an extent.
  • Which is the role for capacity building. In the west, this can be a dishonest term – I had a dose as a technical college principal of agencies cutting our budget to pass to meddlers who wanted to get involved, invariably less well and at higher cost.  But in less developed economies, fair trade producers need to be developed, to understand the standards and deadlines needed to develop western consumer markets, and put in touch with promising outlets.
  • The least encouraging project we saw was the pineapple juicing plant in Kerala. This was a very smart modern factory, packed with state-of-the-art stainless steel equipment made in Milan, and funded by the EU and supported by the state government.  However, it is financially challenged, and doesn’t work for most of the year.  Local pineapple farmers grow for the table, which is a different variety than pineapples for juice.  The alternative product is ginger, but orders there have been slack since farmers were encouraged to plant the crop.  The moral, I guess, is to support local ideas and initiatives, rather than imposing grand ideas from outside.  The other worrying piece of evidence from our visit was the news that the factory was dropping out of one fair trade line because the cost of accreditation – including visits from European assessors – were too high.  Replacing exploitative middlemen with costly bureaucrats seems a less than useful exchange.
  • And this will work. Indians are endlessly entrepreneurial.  A group of very poor women in Delhi started to market second-hand shoes, using micro-finance to clean and repair discarded items and sell on.  This has the additional advantage of creating and exploiting a local market, rather than being dependent on American, Austrian or British organisations to order.
  • Which I think implies that government aid should be about infrastructure not second guessing the market.  Donors could help ensure that there are decent roads to move products, inexpensive but healthy homes for workers, secure electricity, clean water, and effective garbage disposal.  Creating real things might also get around the propensity for corruption in aid.


Anyway, the views of an utter non-expert who will now look more closely at the labels in Waitrose.  There may be a price premium, but knowing about the levels of income in India (where living on dollar a day is not uncommon) it’s worth it.


Those wishing to know more can pick up a good primer in Fair Trade: A Beginners’ Guide by Jacqueline DeCaralo.