Issue 01: Welcome!

Words by Saloni Dattani
16th September 2020

If you’ve subscribed to our newsletter, you’ve probably already read some of the writing in our first issue. But what is this project all about? Who are we? And who is the man in the icon of our website?

Newsletter

Our project started last year with two friends based in London. Sam Bowman was concerned that public shaming and hostility on social media were causing thoughtful people to retreat into private channels, taking their perceptive ideas with them. He wanted to popularise insightful and original ideas that could make the world a better, happier place.

Saloni Dattani was interested in how science was communicated and used by innovators and in policy. In order to solve real world problems, how could we gather transparent and sound knowledge of science, and communicate it to people who could apply that knowledge?

We decided to fuse our interests into a website: an online magazine that would publish writing about people who solved difficult social, scientific and economic problems and galvanized progress, along with writing about ideas that could spark that progress once again.

We applied for and earned a grant through Tyler Cowen’s Emergent Ventures to fund our idea. And with time, we had more friends join us: Ben Southwood, who brought his expertise in economic and policy research to the table, and Nick Whitaker, who brought his managerial skills and aptitude for in-depth discussions with experts.

Together, we make the team of Works in Progress.

Theme

Our first issue surrounds the theme of state capacity. That is the ability of the state to fulfill its goals of collecting taxes, enforcing law and order, and providing public goods to its citizens, as described by the historians Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson.

Illustration by Rosie Leech

And what better way to represent this theme than with a revamped illustration of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes? We commissioned the illustrator Rosie Leech to turn our dream into reality, which resulted in this beautiful cover art for our first issue.We’ve had lots of praise for the aesthetic of our website as well. It was designed by the brilliant team at And–Now, who also designed the signature icon of Viktor Zhdanov for our logo.

What’s new in this issue?

Central to this issue is a work by Mark Koyama, an economic historian at George Mason University. Now over eight months into a global pandemic, we’ve been surprised and distraught by the stumbling and sluggish response to Covid-19 by many Western liberal democracies. Does a desire for freedom interfere with our ability to keep citizens safe?

Koyama takes us through the historical relationship between health and freedom, and offers a sharp perspective on how states can untwine this relationship and make the best of both worlds, in his weighty piece entitled Epidemic disease and the state.

In parallel, we wanted to introduce the subject of state capacity to the world. How did the modern states we see today develop? How did they begin to tax their citizens, enforce the law and provide public services? Anton Howes, an economic historian, explores the challenges that states faced while developing this capacity in a witty piece called How to build a state.

Branching out from this, we wanted to offer perspectives on how countries could provide able governance if they faced vast poverty, corruption and slow growth. Mark Lutter and Jeffrey Mason explain the role of charter cities in helping states escape from this trap in Build state capacity by building charter cities. They are director and research associate respectively at the Charter Cities Institute.

Along with these three pieces, which explore the topic of state capacity, we also recruited writers on important and divergent topics.

We had a stellar piece called Practical veganism by Diana Fleischman, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Portsmouth. Fleischman introduces the concept of an “animal suffering footprint,” which refers to the amount of suffering we inflict on animals due to meat consumption, akin to a carbon footprint. She delivers practical advice to reduce our animal suffering footprint, acknowledging the unpopularity of veganism and the fact that many of us find it hard to change our habits.

We also had a now-viral piece called The rise and fall of the industrial R&D lab by Ben Southwood, our editor. Southwood sheds light on an era during which R&D labs were concentrated in large corporations, rather than in small firms. For example, Bell Labs was a focal point of research in the mid 20th century – 14 of its staff went on to win Nobel prizes and 5 won Turing awards. Southwood explains how these remarkable R&D labs arose and why they have now largely faded away.

Lastly, we had Adam Hunt, a PhD researcher, write for us in a comprehensive piece called The evolution of psychiatry. Why does mental illness exist? Hunt describes historical attempts to answer this question – such as Freudianism and behaviourism – and thoroughly explains why evolutionary theory provides a better framework for understanding mental illness.

Viktor Zhdanov


We’ve chosen a scientist named Viktor Zhdanov as our mascot. Among other accomplishments, he instigated the global eradication of smallpox in 1958.

Astoundingly, even until the 1950s, the disease was infecting around 50 million people every year. But two decades later, it became the first disease that was completely eradicated across the entire world.

Saloni Dattani writes for us on this extraordinary undertaking, and how Zhdanov’s attitude to progress parallels our own.

Even more

Outside of Works in Progress, we’ve also been reading and listening to other talented thinkers from around the web.

One is Bartosz Ciechanowski, a graphics artist and blogger. He has a phenomenal blog that explains concepts in mechanics and engineering intuitively, with interactive visuals. His latest post is all about light – how it works, how it casts shadows, and how it produces colours. Check it out here!

Next are Dr Kelly Emanuel and Laur Hesse Fischer from MIT, who have an impressive animated primer to climate science. It takes you from the basics of climate science to the risks of climate change. What were the earth’s sea levels like three million years ago? What do isotope ratios tell you about climate in prehistory? You’ll find out here.

That’s all for our first update.

Stay safe and have a great week!

– Saloni, Ben, Sam and Nick