At least five interesting things for the middle of your week (#9)
Room temperature superconductors, Chinese economic gloom, geoengineering, consumer confidence, and YIMBY victories
I’m back from my week in Japan! Usually when I go, I write about Japan and talk to some people there, but this time I was showing friends around, so unfortunately didn’t have time to do that. So now I’m annoyed with all the fun stuff I didn’t get to write about while I was away, and I’m racing to catch up!
First, the fifth episode of my Econ 102 podcast with Eric Torenberg. In this one we talk about the future of higher education. Here’s Spotify:
Anyway, on to the weekly roundup.
It was good to get excited about room temperature superconductors
The saga of LK99, a material that some researchers claimed was a room temperature and ambient pressure superconductor, appears to be drawing to a close. As physicist Michael Fuhrer explains, sagas like this one rarely end with a conclusive disproof of the initial claim; instead, they slowly peter out as replication attempts fail. Often, seemingly anomalous or strange results seem to pop up around the material or method in question, but they’re rarely the same strange results, and they don’t represent the kind of conclusive confirmation that a real breakthrough would quickly generate.
This seems to be exactly what’s happening with LK99. Replication attempts have all either failed or claim partial success or unexplained anomalies. Now a team of researchers from Peking University has published a preprint of a very careful replication attempt showing that LK99 isn’t a superconductor, just a ferromagnet. The apparent levitation of some pieces of the material was apparently just good old ferromagnetism. This paper appears to have convinced many of the online hypesters that LK99 isn’t a superconductor. (Update: Another paper finds no superconductivity, but does find a phase transition that can explain many of the anomalies other teams are finding in the material.)
Meanwhile, general optimism about replication has collapsed:
A room-temperature ambient-pressure superconductor would be an amazingly useful thing, but we don’t appear to have one yet, and we don’t seem closer to getting one than we were a few weeks ago.
Which leads to the natural next question: Was this all just useless hype? Well, no, I don’t think so, for two reasons.
First, the episode introduced a lot of people to the scientific process firsthand. When two chemists claimed to have produced cold fusion in 1989, the public was simply a bystander to the process; when replication failed, most people either just read about that in the papers, or just forgot about the whole thing. But with the LK99 saga, people got to see firsthand how scientists approach claims of big breakthroughs. Social media gave them crucial background knowledge, quickly corrected myths and disinformation, and let people observe the replication attempts in real time. The fact that the candidate material was pretty easy for even hobbyists to make at home allowed some regular folks to participate in the replication attempt. That kind of broad scientific literacy seems like a good thing to me.
Second, the LK99 episode got people excited about rapid technological progress. Techno-optimism is one of the big themes of this blog, and it’s nice to see people amped up about a floating rock instead of about the latest culture-war food fight. And it’s not like there’s any shortage of real scientific breakthroughs out there to balance out the false alarms. Amazingly effective anti-obesity drugs seem to have been invented for the first time. MRNA vaccines are suddenly making big inroads against everything from cancer to malaria. Recent progress in generative AI and cheap space launch have been stunning. And even without world-transforming leaps, there are tons of significant advances being made in materials science all the time.
So hopefully LK99 will serve as a gateway drug to general techno-optimism.
China’s economy just keeps looking weaker
I’ve written about China’s economic slowdown a fair amount, but the negative news just keeps coming. Foreign investment in China is cratering at a rapid pace, as inflows collapse and outflows stay strong:
FDI is now back to 1990s levels in dollar terms — which will be much much less as a percentage of GDP.
There’s a good WSJ story about how local Chinese governments are going around begging foreign investors to invest, but few are biting. Some excerpts:
For Chinese leaders, keeping pressure on foreign firms while simultaneously trying to get them to invest is becoming an evermore precarious balancing act…
A trade official in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern Sichuan province, recently embarked on an investment-promotion trip to Europe. He returned empty-handed…A senior official in a county of southern Guangdong province…told a visiting American trade group recently that the county would reward any U.S. corporate “decision maker” investing there 10% of the value of the promised deal…The trade group turned down the county official’s offer, which in the U.S. would constitute an illegal bribe[.]
Why aren’t companies investing in China? In a word, risk. The biggest risk is the risk of war, but as the WSJ details, the country’s central government is already cracking down on foreign businesses in various ways, and the risk of companies getting their technology stolen has become more apparent. It’s important to remember that China’s successful industrial policy in the 1990s and the early 2000s was almost entirely local rather than national; it was a bunch of local governments going around and wooing foreign investors, and making sure their investments paid off. That’s not working anymore, because now the central government (i.e., Xi Jinping) has stepped in and started messing with the formula.
Plummeting FDI is far from the only piece of bad news for China. Exports are now falling, after a brief post-Zero-Covid bump:
Some countries, such as the U.S. and Japan, are diversifying their sources of imported goods. U.S. imports from China are down 24% just over the past year, despite the booming U.S. economy. Mexico has replaced China as America’s top trading partner. (Of course, in value-added terms this shift is smaller, since some of the stuff that other countries are exporting to America contains Chinese components inside.)
Meanwhile, China’s local governments are deeply in distress, with debts they can no longer pay. Most of these governments appear to be insolvent, since they don’t raise property taxes and can thus only pay back their debts with land sales, which doesn’t work very well during a real estate bust. They will probably have to be bailed out, but even then, their future ability to fund themselves.
How is Xi Jinping’s government responding to this flood of bad news? Exactly as you might expect an insecure dictator to respond:
Beijing is restricting local economists from discussing the country’s economic woes despite all signs pointing to rocky waters ahead.
Researchers at universities and think tanks and brokerage analysts told the Financial Times that they are being pressured to present economic news positively in order to increase public confidence. This coincides with earlier reporting from Reuters detailing how Chinese firms have been ordered not to discuss risks in offshore listing documents or face losing approval for IPOs.
Meanwhile, Chinese companies are being forced to consume ever more “Xi Jinping thought”, for up to hours a day.
Every day, my assessment of Xi’s general competence receives further support.
OK so maybe geoengineering works
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