A lament to a past that might have been but never was

Conventional wisdom pins the invention of agriculture down to the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East. Possibly starting in Chogha Golan some 11,700 years before the present.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the end of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

This was where humanity started on its journey to the current world of climate change, extinctions, pollution and over-consumption. However, new research suggests agriculture was also invented much earlier by the Gravettian culture who flourished during an inter-glacial period, around what is now the Black Sea, maybe 33,000 years ago. Humans around this time also domesticated dogs – the oldest evidence has been found in Belgium, dated 32,000 years before the present.

That interglacial was apparently brought to a sharp end when New Zealand’s Taupo super-volcano exploded and knocked the world back into a new sequence of Ice Ages, also apparently nipping the agricultural revolution in the bud.

But suppose it hadn’t – that the climate had stayed warm. How would the world be today, 33,000 years after the agricultural revolution instead of about 11 or 12000? There was nothing inevitable about the way technology emerged – if you look at general tech, by which I mean everything from energy harnessed to the things people had in their homes, like combs, pots, pans and so forth, we find little real difference between (say) the Roman period and the Medieval period.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

A lot had to do with energy sources – which were limited to wind, fire, falling water, and human and animal power. Even the invention of gunpowder did not much change the calculation: it was not until steam came along that things took off.

The industrial revolution was product of a unique diaspora that combined the thinking of the ‘age of reason’ with a climatic downturn that seemed to prod people into new innovations, financed by a rising band of new-rich Englishmen who’d made their fortunes on Carribean sugar and had money to burn.

Don’t forget – this was partly a result of chance. The Chinese never industrialised despite being just as smart, just as resourceful, and having similar opportunities. The Romans didn’t, either, earlier on, though they had a society as complex and urbanised as our modern one.

The point being that our alternative Gravettian timeline might have rolled along with what we might call the ‘Roman/Medieval’ level, forever. Or they might have industrialised. Steam engines and a moon programme 28,000 years ago? Why not?

There are other dimensions, too. Back then, Neanderthals were alive, well and living in Gibraltar. Sea levels differed – anybody heard of ‘Doggerland’? Or ‘Sahul’?

Whichever way things went, odds are on that if the glaciations hadn’t done for that agricultural revolution 33,000 years ago, we’d be rag-tag bands back in the stone age again now, this time without easily-scoopable fossil fuels and metals.  Pessimistic, but when you look at the way the world’s going now – where else are we going to end up? We lost the space dream, and we’re busy smashing each other and using the resources we’ve got as if there’s no tomorrow. Which there won’t be, if this carries on.

Do you think the Gravettian world might have been different?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Busy busy busy busy…with science!

Last year I signed a contract with Penguin Random House to write a science book on a subject close to the hearts of everybody around the Pacific Rim.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

OK, I’m a geek. I have three computers (temporarily) on my desk with “2001-esque” wallpaper. Headphones by Sennheiser deliver Nightwish at high volume. Click to enlarge.

A science book? I’m known as a historian. And I can legitimately call myself one if I want – I have post-graduate academic qualifications in that field. Indeed, the Royal Historical Society at University College, London, elected me a Fellow, on merit of my contribution. Which I very much appreciate, it’s one of the highest recognitions of historical scholarship worldwide.

However, I don’t label myself ‘a historian’. Nor is it my sole interest or qualification; I spent longer learning music, formally, than history – and my home field always has been physics. I began learning it aged 4, as I learned to read. Seriously. When I was 16 I won a regional science contest prize for an entry on Einsteinian physics and black holes, which I hadn’t learned at school – I had to read the papers and then deduce the math myself, without help, aged 16. (I am not Sheldon…really…)

What all this adds up to is an interest in understanding stuff – in seeing the shapes and patterns and inter-relationships between things and fields. And so – a book on science. Time was tight, but I wouldn’t have agreed to the contract if I thought quality might be affected. All writing has to be fast and good. If you’ve ever been a journalist (another of my jags) you have no option. The key is having writing as second nature – and planning. Good plans also have built-in capacity to adapt to circumstance, which meant that one weekend I had to sit down with a pile of science papers and:

1. Read those science papers. These included content such as: “Our estimate based on the seismic moment equation of Aki & Richards (2002, p. 48) (Mo = (X x D x RA; where Mo is seismic moment; (X is the rigidity modulus, D is fault plane displacement and RA is rupture area.”

2. Write a draft that drew from this and a lot of other stuff, in English pitched for a general reading audience. I did end up writing occasional sentences like: “This is known as the phase velocity, and is determined by the equation v = √g x d , where v is the velocity of the wave, d is the depth of water, and g is the acceleration of gravity.”  No other way of explaining fluid dynamics, you see… and well, this is science!

3. Revise that draft to clean up the wording. Final word count added to the MS in this 48-hour burst? A shade over 7000. That’s researched and mostly finished for publication. Think about it.

What got sacrificed was social media. That week and most others. I kept this blog going because I’d stacked posts. I’ll be back full force. Soon. What’s more, I’m going to share how to write quality, write accurately and quickly. There is, dare I say, a science to it. More soon.

The book is already being promoted on Random’s website. Check it out.

Science! A good word, that. Sort of thing the late Magnus Pyke might say. Science!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

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Finding another Earth isn’t easy. Unfortunately.

Are you looking for a second Earth? We need to – humanity is on the fast track to ruining our one.

Simulated Exo-Earth. A picture I made. Apart from the fractal artefacts, does anybody notice what's wrong with it?

Simulated Exo-Earth. A picture I made. Apart from the fractal artefacts, does anybody notice the science issue that I didn’t correct?

Of course it’s not an easy task. A planet discovered the other week with the help of Kiwi astronomers underlines the problems. Four astronomers here in New Zealand contributed data to the OGLE microlensing follow-up network program in 2012. The results were published recently – and the good news is, OGLE found a planet.

OGLE, incidentally, stands for ‘Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment’. An apt acronym. It works by exploiting a quirk of Einstein’s theory of relativity – that mass distorts space-time. Massive stars bend light around themselves, acting as ‘lenses’ and enabling us to point a telescope at the massive star, and so detect faint objects passing directly between us and them, that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to observe. The gravity lens around the distant star is known as an ‘Einstein Ring’, and the method is usually used to pick up planets orbiting in the ‘halo’ of a star – the debris orbiting it, like our Oort Cloud. These are known as Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOS). Cool or what?

Anyhow, back to the news. The planet is called OGLE-2013-BLG-0341LBb, and it’s about 3000 light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia.

The good news?

- It orbits its sun at 0.8 AU – nearly the distance of Earth (yay!)

- It’s about Earth sized – mass is thought to be only twice ours (yay!)

- That doesn’t imply twice our surface gravity (yay!) [I can't calculate it unless I know the radius and density of the planet, which I don't, but if density is the same as Earth, average 5.5 g cm <exp>3, then the surface gravity won't be double because surface gravity is also proportional to the radius. Just saying.]

- It’s orbiting just one star in a binary pair (Tattooine, sort of – yay!)

Let me illustrate mass vs surface gravity. Although it has a mass 14.5 times that of Earth, 'surface gravity' on Uranus is just  89 percent that of Earth. That's because the radius is about 4 times Earth's. I made this picture with Celestia.

Let me use Uranus to illustrate mass vs surface gravity. Although it has a mass 14.5 times that of Earth, ‘surface gravity’ on Uranus is just 89 percent that of Earth. That’s because the radius is about 4 times Earth’s. I made this picture with Celestia.

So is this Earth 2? Well, if I were you I’d take warm clothes. The bad news is that the star is a red dwarf, 400 times less energetic than the Sun, so the planet has a surface temperature of 60 degrees Kelvin – in centigrade, a chilly -210 degrees. (Booooo!)

The search for Earth-like planets has got exciting lately as we’ve developed the tech to discover them. Problem is, the gear is not good enough to image them directly. We can’t learn much other than the size and orbital distance – from which we can derive its year, mass and temperature. If we’re lucky, we might also get a handle on its atmospheric makeup, via spectrography as it transits its sun.

For these reasons, usually when we detect a planet that’s otherwise in the ‘goldilocks’ zone, we don’t know whether it’s actually like Earth. It might be like Venus - runaway greenhouse with sulphuric acid, crushing atmosphere and oven-like temperatures. We don’t know. Don’t forget, if astronomers 3000 light years away were using the same techniques to analyse our solar system, they might conclude there were two Earths here from the planetary mass and orbital data.

The way things are going, of course, we’re likely to end up with two Venuses. Venuses? Venii? You know what I mean.

And it’s a worry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Science: Nil. Stupidity: 1,000,000,000

It was Albert Einstein, I believe, who suggested only two things were infinite. The universe and stupidity. And he wasn’t sure about the universe.

According to media reports, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tinkering with the H1N1 flu virus that triggered a pandemic in 2009 and killed 500,000. Apparently, he’s altered it to take away human immunity built up since 2009. There are solid scientific reasons for doing so – we learn how to make better vaccines. Excellent motive.

Except – e-e-e-except…the modified virus poses a threat if it escapes. Estimates of casualties range from a billion people down to  merely 400,000,000. Kawaoka’s effort has been criticised as irresponsible, and response generally, seems critical.

I’m not a virologist. But I know what happened when the Justinian plague and the Black Death hit Europe, or when Europe’s diseases hit the Americas and Australasia. I know what happened in 1918-19. Diseases to which humans had no immunity. And I think if someone shows something can be done, somebody else will repeat it on that knowledge alone.

What worries me is the wider trend towards tinkering with viruses in labs. We can, I fear, only get away for so long without an accident. Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, of the Virology Department at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is reported as using more direct terms. ‘If society understood what was going on,’ he was quoted in the Independent, ‘‘they would say “What the F… are you doing?”’

Quite right, too.

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Remembering ROMBUS and days of future passed

They were heady days, the 1960s. Back then nothing seemed too big to engineer on Earth. Or off it.

Launch of Apollo 11, atop a Saturn V booster. One of the readers of this blog's Dad was the pad safety officer for Apollo 11. How cool is THAT? Public domain, NASA.

Apollo 11 departs by Saturn V. Public domain, NASA.

When the moon race began in 1961, humanity had barely begun to step into space. But the job was done – twice. The Soviets had a serious programme, but started late, were under-funded, and work was divided between rival bureaux. Then Sergei Korolev died. With him died any chance of their N-1 moon booster working. The US equivalent, Wernher von Braun’s Saturn V, won the day.

Both derived from technologies von Braun pioneered in the 1930s. The Saturn V was a direct descendant of the V-2, with the same arrangement of  traditional rocket engines and massive fuel tanks.

Project Deimos departs Earth orbit with one of Bono's colossal ROMBUS boosters. Public domain, NASA.

ROMBUS leaving for Mars, 9 May 1986. Public domain, NASA.

What that added up to was weight. It’s why a conventional single-stage rocket can’t make orbit with useful payload; too much mass is taken up in structure. Von Braun’s Saturn V managed a mass-ratio of 22 because it had three stages. The problem was that each stage was discarded after one use. Costs were astronomical.

However, they weren’t the only way ahead. In 1964, Douglas Aircraft engineer Philip Bono proposed a ‘plug nozzle’ engine that did away with the combustion chamber and complex cooling systems. Fuel (liquid hydrogen) was stored in jettisonable external tanks, with the oxidiser (liquid oxygen) inside the booster.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away for landing, late November 1986. Public domain, NASA.

Bono called it ROMBUS - Reusable Orbital Module-Booster & Utility Shuttle. The design he and his associates came up with was enormous, with a launch mass of just over 6,300 tonnes. That was nearly twice the mass of a Saturn V, but the mass-ratio available in ROMBUS was good enough to fly to orbit in one hit, dropping external tanks along the way. What’s more, it could re-enter using the plug as a heat shield, pumping residual fuel across it as a coolant. And fly again, up to five or six times per booster. It was a different approach from carpeting the bottom of the Atlantic with dead Saturn stages.

Bono calculated that ROMBUS could put 450 tonnes into low Earth orbit, nearly four times that of Saturn V. The Moon was within reach of the system – and then Bono came up with a plan for flying one of his colossal boosters to Mars and back.

Mars Excursion Module docking with the huge ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit. Public domain, NASA.

Mars Excursion Module docking with the gigantic ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit, September 1987. Public domain, NASA.

Bono estimated that ROMBUS could be flying by 1975 and drop launch costs to $12-per-pound to orbit, in 1964 terms. That compared wonderfully with the $150/pound of Saturn. Development costs were estimated at nearly $4.1 billion in 1964 dollars, this when the entire Apollo project was budgeted at $18 billion.

Technical issues relating to the plug nozzle would likely have taken some solving. Still, we can imagine the what-if scenarios. Project Selena looked towards a 1000-person lunar colony by 1984, and – providing ways could be found of stopping the cryo-fuels from boiling off during the 800-day mission – Project Deimos would have landed six astronauts on Mars by November 1986.

Bono’s huge rocket was a vision of its age – a vision of the 1960s, a vision of the era before humanity lost the dream, when anything seemed possible. But it never came to pass – and I can’t help thinking that today, that vision simply isn’t there.

What happened?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Flying saucers and other aerial crockery

A UFO was caught over the South Island the other week by an Australian film crew. By “UFO” I mean “unidentified object” which was “flying”. We don’t know what it was – and the objects could have been an artefact of the video.

Jupiter rising over Io - a picture I made with my Celestia installation

Jupiter rising over Io – a picture I made with my Celestia installation

Needless to say, I am certain they weren’t alien spacecraft, any more than any other UFO is.

I can hear the howling. ‘But the universe is big, surely other planets must have life?’

Sure. Space is enormous.  No doubt life’s emerged elsewhere. But – again – it doesn’t follow that the aliens have developed civilisation, jumped into spacecraft, and flown here. It particularly doesn’t follow that they’ve done so merely to lurk mysteriously on the edge of our vision, violating cows, revealing themselves to lone witnesses on dark country roads, and so on. Or that they’d be big-headed, big-eyed, child-bodied versions of us with an ethical view that fixes the faults of western society.

The fact that lay-people presented with partial evidence can’t explain an observed phenomenon doesn’t prove it’s an alien spaceship. The fact that science can’t explain it from partial data doesn’t, either. That’s false-premise logic.

I’ve seen plenty of weird aerial stuff myself. The best was over Wellington in April 1986, when I spotted a slow-moving fireball parallel to the southern horizon, shedding sparks. I knew what it was. The thing was moving in the direction I’d expect from the usual orbital paths, the only ‘unidentified’ part was whether it was US or Soviet.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. New Zealand is below - North Island to the right, South to the left. My house is directly under the aerial centre-frame. Photo: NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

To me the phenomenon of ‘space aliens’ is a product of the way western culture is conditioned to think. The trigger was the mid-twentieth century assumption that Earth was archetypal and that every world capable of supporting life would bear one intelligent species, probably a bipedal hominid. In due course, this would become civilised, space-faring and visit other worlds. Just like Europe’s explorers during the age of exploration.

It is no coincidence that we decided aliens were visiting just as we began to take spaceflight credibly. The idea emerged in June 1947 when US pilot Kenneth Arnold reported nine boomerang-shaped objects paralleling his aircraft near Mount Rainier. A journalist misquoted that as ‘saucers’, which promptly became the shape of the interlopers thereafter. The origin of that shape as a journalists’ misquote was rather lost amid the flood of blurred photographs of aerial lampshades that fringe enthusiasts were subsequently able to provide as proof of their own encounters.

Blue sunset on Mars - for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. An approximately true colour image by the Spirit rover at Gusev Crater, 2005. Photo: NASA/JPL, public domain.

Blue sunset on Mars – for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. NASA/JPL, public domain.

These 1950s-era aliens came from Mars or Venus and looked like us, only with handy super-powers such as telepathy. Alas, the Mariner and Venera probes of the 1960s revealed Venus was a runaway greenhouse oven – and Mars was a cold, cratered world without breathable air. Luckily it turned out, after that discovery, that the aliens really came from well-known stars on the school science curriculum, like Aldebaran. Then in 1978 Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit the cinema, and the current alien trope followed.

You get the picture.

My take? We have had civilisation for an eye-blink against the age of the Earth. It may only last another eye-blink, by that scale. Who says aliens have the same capability at the same time? They might have flourished and gone a billion years ago. Or their time might be a billion years in the future.

Space is also immense. Who says they’d find us anyway? Or that we could be important? To give that a sense of proportion, our sun’s invisible, without telescopes, from just under 60 light years.* I’ve heard it argued that ‘they’ could hear our transmissions – TV, radio, radar and so on. Actually, we’re just as invisible that way too. In theory I Love Lucy – which began transmission in 1951 – has just reached the planet we photographed, orbiting Beta Pictoris, 63 light years away. Actually our broadcasts, even high-frequency radars, don’t get that far because of the inverse square law, coupled with natural background radio noise. Our stuff’s lost in the static. Yet our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. Feel small? You should. And if aliens did arrive, would we recognise them as life? Or be able to communicate? They’re alien, remember. Maybe they’d be too busy talking to their own kind – you know, other algae.

Put another way – sure, we see stuff in the sky we can’t explain. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t explicable. Or that ‘aliens’ are among us.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

* Geek time. Muahahahaha. Stellar brightness is measured by magnitude, an inverse scale in which lower is brighter. The true magnitude of a star is its absolute magnitude. But this fades with distance (inverse square law), so its visual magnitude, the brightness we see from a distance, is less. This is known as the apparent magnitude. Any star of apparent magnitude greater than about 6 is invisible to the average naked eye. The distance where the apparent magnitude (m) fades to invisibility can be calculated from the absolute magnitude (M) using the distance modulus equation r = 10<exp>((m-M)/5+1) where r is the distance in parsecs. If you apply that to the Sun, absolute magnitude 4.83, you discover it fades to apparent magnitude 6 at about 57 light years, which is about 0.057 percent the diameter of the galaxy.

 

 

It’s true. New Zealand Moa once flew. Cool.

The latest science suggests that the Moa, New Zealand’s giant and extinct flightless bird, may not always have been flightless.

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell - son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  From the collection of the New Zealand National Library, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22299292

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell – son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. From the collection of the New Zealand National Library, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22299292

Yup, Moa once flew. Setting aside the prospects of what might happen to anybody caught underneath one of these giant ratites at the moment when they decided to release one of their commensurately plus-sized dollops of Moa-guano , it also raises the question about what they might have been called. Flymo, perhaps?

Moa died out very soon after humans arrived in New Zealand. We’re lucky enough to have specimens of moa tissue – mummified skin and feathers, found in dry caves. I still recall being able to examine some of these, close up, behind the scenes at the Otago Museum. A great privelige. Anyway, the latest DNA analysis suggests the likely closest relative, which definitely still flies, is the South American tinamou.

We’ve already discovered that Kiwi probably also flew – in fact, may well have flown here after New Zealand broke away from Gondwanaland, near the end of the Cretaceous period.

Both they and moa lost the power of flight, once here, because there were no predators – no need to keep flying, in fact. Along the way, moa split into several distinct species. Not as many as we once thought; they seem to have also had extreme dimorphism – what settler-age analysts thought were separate species, we now know, were actually males and females of the same species.

It’s pretty cool. We’re learning more and more about these extinct creatures every year. And it is also, I think, time to put one issue to rest. The debate over whether they died out for natural reasons – or because they were hunted to extinction.

The actual answer is that they were hunted to extinction. And fairly quickly. The archaeological evidence is extremely clear. New Zealand was the last large land mass in the world reached by humans. They arrived late in the piece from Polynesia – the Cooks and Marqueses islands, mainly – around 1280 AD, probably at the Wairau bar. And a biota that had been largely stable for hundreds of thousands of years suddenly changed.

It was the last great collision between humans and Pliestocene megafauna – and the result was the same in New Zealand as it was elsewhere. Moa, in particular, were unafraid of humans; had no evolved response to them.  And they were slaughtered. Hunting parties would roam the high country, snacking on moa eggs and killing the birds. Often they would partially butcher them on the spot, then carry the choicest cuts downstream to great ovens near the coasts.

All of this is very clear in the archaeological evidence. And the hunters didn’t have to kill the last moa. All they had to do was reduce the population below breeding viability. It didn’t take long. By the fifteenth century at the latest they were largely gone. It is possible that relict populations may have survived a little longer in places like Fijordland, but soon they too were gone.

The fact that this happened has been ideologically difficult to accept; the arguments have raged back and forth, mirroring the way that indigenous populations have been re-invented in post-colonioal vision as greener and more eco-friendly than our own. Which they were, to a large extent. But that doesn’t reduce the clear evidence of an orgy of slash-and-dine in fourteenth century New Zealand. We have to accept the point. Moa died out not because their population was much in decline, not because of sudden climate change – but because they were delicious.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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OK, so I’m 1.8 percent Thog the Caveman. Cool.

It’s official. A paper published last week argues that Neandertals were just as smart as we are.

Wright_NeanderthalWhat gives, you say? Isn’t human history a glorious ascent from rats to car salesmen to politicians and finally to humans? A linear progress in which ‘advance’ is by brain size and where stupid Neandertals were doomed to be out-competed by us?

Actually…no. That’s nineteenth century thinking, which mashed period free market principles into evolutionary theory. A misconception perpetuated by that trope of walking apes, deriving from the ‘March of Progress’ that Rudolf Zallinger drew for Time-Life books in 1965.

It’s good news for me. As someone of European descent, I apparently have up to 1.8 percent Neandertal genes. I always thought that explained why I spend up to 1.8 percent of my time swilling beer, belching, dropping wheelies in my car, and head-butting large concrete objects while grunting ‘ugh ugh, Thog bring mam-muth steak to wo-man.’ But if Neandertals were as smart as us, I guess I’ll have to find another explanation. Probably the Cro Magnon coming through, I suppose.

A diagram I made of where we think everybody was, mostly, using my trusty Celestia installation and some painting tools.

A diagram I made using my Celestia installation and some painting tools.

So how did this come about? Scientific thinking has moved past nineteenth century market philosophy. Paleo-anthropologists like Stephen J. Gould argue that evolution isn’t about ‘directional advance’, still less measured by the increasing size of a body part. It’s about change through time, which isn’t directional.

Current theory suggests the human template hasn’t changed since H. erectus appeared around 1.8 million years ago. This hominid, fossil evidence indicates, spread from Britain to Java, and isolated populations survived up to 140,000 years ago. Remains show that H. erectus was like us from the neck down ( ‘post-cranial morphology’), had command of fire and made tools. The archetypal fossil is KNM-WT15000, ‘Turkana Boy’, a 9-11 year old male who might have grown to 6’1″ had he lived to adulthood. A trove of H. erectus skulls recently discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia, suggests that contemporary species previously thought separate – H. antecessor, H.ergaster, even H. habilis – were actually H. erectus.

Studies indicate that about 700,000 years ago a new species, H. heidelbergensis, ‘Heidelberg Man’, diverged from H. erectus and also migrated out of Africa – probably a side effect of following favourable climatic zones. They had brains within the modern size range.  The increase has been attributed, paleoanthropologists argue, to tool-making and reduction in jaw size that came about as a consequence of cooking. Later, theory goes, Heidelberg Man speciated into us – H. sapiens – in Africa, Neandertals in Africa and Europe, and Denisovans in Siberia. Neandertals had a bigger brain than ours, and were physically more than twice as strong. Trying to rank these species as ‘advances’ on each other is like saying lions are more advanced than tigers.

I’ve seen it argued that all represented different ways of being human.

Neanderthal family group approximately 60,000 years ago. Artwork by Randii Oliver, public domain, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Neandertal family, 60,000 years ago. Randii Oliver, public domain, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

According to the genetic record, Europeans have Neandertal genes because Neandertal men got frisky with Sapiens women in the Levant, 60,000 years ago. It was Neandertal men with Sapiens women because, if it was the other way around, the genes wouldn’t have been passed to our species. Genetic evidence suggests male progeny would have been sterile. Nor were Neandertals the only ones up for it. Recent genetic studies point to interbreeding between up to four close-related human species, back in the paleolithic.

This hasn’t reduced the genetic quirk about every modern human. Genetically, we are unusually close by biological standards. There is far less variation than has been observed in other primates. We are so close, in fact, that if we were dogs, we’d be the same breed. I prefer to think Labradors rather than those foo foo French things. The reason is that, around 75,000 years ago, we came very close to extinction – thus, we are all descended from a tiny and genetically homogenous group. Because Neandertals and Denisovans, genetically, were 99.5% identical to us, a small intrusion of their genes makes no difference.

I don’t know I’d want to meet a Neandertal. We were wimps – ‘gracile’. With upright foreheads and diminutive jaws, we’d have looked like children (‘neotony’). We were the geeky looking ones who would have got the atomic wedgies.

On the other hand, every other kind of human was wiped out by the deep cold and droughts of the last big glacial cycles. We weren’t. See what I mean when I trunk on in this blog about geeks winning?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

My hypothesis that English is a loose language

I’ve always thought English is a loose language. Take the words ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’, for instance. Even dictionary definitions sometimes mix their meanings up.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Scientifically, the word ‘theory’ means a ‘hypothesis’ that has been established to be true by empirical data. Take Einstein’s two theories of relativity, Special (1906) and General (1917). We call them ‘theories’, by name, but everybody with a GPS-equipped cellphone or GPS system encounters proof that Einstein was right, every time they use it.

This is because GPS satellite clocks have a correction built into them to cope with Special Relativity time dilation that occurs because they’re moving at a different velocity than the surface of the Earth. It’s miniscule –  6 millionths of a second loss every 24 hours. There’s also the need to cope with General Relativity time acceleration relative to the surface of the earth, because they’re in orbit, putting them further away from the mathematical centre of Earth’s mass than we are on the surface of the planet. That totals 45 millionths of a second gain every 24 hours.

If all this sounds supremely geeky and too tiny to worry about, millionths of a second count,  because its on differences at that order of magnitude that GPS calculates positions. If the net relativity error of 39 millionths of a second every 24 hours wasn’t corrected, GPS would kick up positional errors of up to 12 km on the ground. Einstein, in short, was totally right and if we didn’t use Einstein’s equations to correct GPS, we’d be lost. Literally. Yet we still call his discovery a ‘theory’.

Hypothesis,on the other hand, is the idea someone comes up with to explain something. Then they run tests to figure out the rules. Take gravity. Everybody knew it existed. However, Newton figured he could come up with rules – his hypothesis. Once Newton had a hypothesis, he was able to run experiments and sort out actually how it worked - creating his theory of gravity.

Neptune. A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation (cool, free science software).

Neptune. Discovered by mathematics, thanks to Newton’s theories. A picture I made with Celestia (cool, free science software).

One of the reasons why these explanations are called ‘theory’ is because science sometimes finds refinements. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is also a theory of gravity, integrating the extremes of time and space Einstein described in his Special theory. It replaced Newton’s theory. But that didn’t mean Newton was wrong in the terms he observed and described. On the contrary, his equations still work perfectly for the things around which he developed the theory.

So in the strictest sense, ‘hypothesis’ means ‘how we think things work’, while ‘theory’ means ‘how we’ve shown things to work’. Science sometimes creates supersets of theories, like onion skins, that explain things differently – but usually don’t invalidate the core of the earlier theory.

And my hypothesis, which I think should be elevated to theory status on this evidence, is that English is a pretty loose language. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion:

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Gallipoli ghost mystery solved

A couple of days ago, New Zealand’s online news site Stuff published a photo by one of their photographers taken at dusk, in a cemetery on Gallipoli.

It’s a haunting image – apparently literally. Someone’s sitting on a seat in the distance, and beside them – in just one frame – is the apparent shadow, half-obscured by a flower which the shadow matches in dimension and shape, of a ghostly soldier. I can’t show you the photo, but I can refer you to it – here:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/last-post-first-light/9969629/Gallipoli-ghost-captured-at-soldiers-cemetery

My take? Well, the spectral image could be someone from New Zealand’s tight and viciously exclusive military-historical in-crowd, at Gallipoli on a junket that, like their salaries, I’m funding through my taxes. But realistically it’s more likely to be that with a 2.5 second exposure you’ll get visual artefacts around the flowers on a CCD sensor – and that’s pretty much what the photo shows. No mystery there.

My photo of soldiers' graves at Tyne Cot, Flanders.

My photo of sokdiers’ graves at Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres.

To me, though, the image underscores the importance of remembrance. A century ago, young men from across the world died – they died in strange lands, they died often without being found. They were casualties of what happened when the dark side of human nature was given form by the power of industry – warfare on an unprecedented scale, warfare industrialised, warfare given hideous intensity by the ingenuity of nineteenth century invention.

The world we know and love today would not exist, as it does, without the sacrifices of these young men; and they exist today not because there are ghosts, but because we remember them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014