What the World Cup octopus tells us about life

The laws of nature often don’t see any reason to conform to logic.

In case you missed out on the most popular non-footballing story of the World Cup, an octopus called Paul, from Germany, became world famous for predicting Germany's results and the result of the final with a 100 per cent accuracy rate. The talented mollusc carried out his predictions by eating a mussel placed in a box decorated with the flag of the team he thought would win. Using his method, he foresaw a remarkable series of results, including a couple (Germany's freak loss to Serbia, for example) that very few humans would have predicted. Indeed, had the octopus been involved in the Watson Prediction World Cup alongside my siblings and Emily's, I would not now be sitting here as champion.

It was announced the other day that the visionary octopus would now be retiring, which means we can't have the fun ruined by him starting to get them wrong, but also robs us of the chance to see even more bizarre statistics unfold. I was thinking about the whole business while shopping for fruit. Here is what I thought.

First, not one of us believes that an octopus can possess psychic powers, and very few of us, I should think, even believe a human can. Without wanting to insult the prescient cephalopod, I doubt that he followed the competition with full understanding. Anyone who tried to make a case that this funny little story is evidence of supernatural goings-on would be laughed out of town. We're all well-trained rationalists these days and we don't think there are acts of God or telepathic beings in the sea. However, the world is a very odd place and what we should learn in the light of the octopus's performance is that although blatantly unscientific things shouldn't be believed in, the world quite often behaves in a way so bonkers that it is close to being unscientific itself, if you see what I mean.

The chances of the octopus getting it right were 50/50 each time, so the chance of him calling all seven matches accurately was, I reckon, 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 and so on. I could be wrong about this (I got a B at GSCE -- couldn't do graphs). But expressed as a percentage I imagine the statistical possibility would be somewhere the wrong side of 0.1%. Now, most things which had a 0.1% chance of happening, you would be virtually certain you could dismiss as impossible. I've had operations where there was a 0.1% chance of something going wrong, and not lost any sleep to the idea at all. If someone told you that your train would run on time provided that an octopus was able to forecast the results of seven football matches in a row, you would immediately start making alternative travel arrangements. If someone bet you a million quid that seven 50/50 events would fall into place consecutively, you'd most likely take the bet.

And more relevantly to me -- if the plot of a novel depended on a less-than-one-in-a-hundred chance, people would accuse you of contrivance. They'd say it was "unrealistic". The fact is, life is fairly often unrealistic. Science can't measure the tendency of the universe to throw you a genuine curveball.

How can this help us be optimistic? Quite simply, next time you're hoping for something highly unlikely to happen, think of the octopus and remember that logic is all very well but the laws of nature often don't see any reason to conform to it.

And on that note: after my boast of having eaten a Chomp bar with Dawn French, against any of my expectations, one commenter suggested that we set other doing-things-with-celebs targets, and I see if I can stretch my new-found optimism to imagine them happening, and then try to actually do them. His idea was "juggling with Alexei Sayle". I'm going to come out and say I think I can do that at some point over the next ten years. I'm also going to nominate a handful of similar targets:

- Singing with Paula Radcliffe

- Eating sandwiches with Steve Coogan

- Playing a board game with Adrian and Christine, formerly of the One Show.

Suggest similar doing-stuff achievements and I'll decide which of them are within the reach of my optimism, while still being just about as realistic. And feel free to set them for yourself as well. Anything is possible, if I can eat cheap chocolate with Dawn and a creature without the power of speech can know more about football than me, my brother and my dad put together.

This post originally appeared on Mark Watson's blog.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.