From deities to data - "For thousands of years humans believed that authority came from the gods. Then, during the modern era, humanism gradually shifted authority from deities to people... Now, a fresh shift is taking place. Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was legitimised by humanist ideologies, so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data." [more inside]
In his follow-up to Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari envisions what a 'useless class' of humans might look like as AI advances and spreads - "I'm aware that these kinds of forecasts have been around for at least 200 years, from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and they never came true so far. It's basically the boy who cried wolf, but in the original story of the boy who cried wolf, in the end, the wolf actually comes, and I think that is true this time." [more inside]
"When he was alive, Lonesome George was a captive reminder of biodiversity loss. One 2006 book called him 'the only one of his kind left on earth—a symbol of the devastation man has wrought to the natural world in the Galápagos and beyond.' After his death, Washington Tapia, a researcher with the Ecuador National Park Service, told the New York Times it was like losing his grandparents. But even for people less intimate with him did his life and demise serve as a reminder of the mass extinction of species currently underway—the sixth in earth’s history but the only one caused by humans." - Human Error: Survivor guilt in the Anthropocene
Al Fry is an old-school eccentric, mostly from the pre-internet days. He lives (or lived) out in Idaho, which was his home-base for distributing Fry's Incredible Inquiry's Catalog, covering "technology, alchemy, weird science (PDF), Tesla, anti-gravity, occult, crystal power, and other fascinating fringy topics." And then there are his videos, including Hidden World History and Strange Beings 1, narrated by A. H. Fry himself. His videos have been collected a few times over on YouTube (1, 2). And he has written about making tipis.
The mysterious and useful Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a plant whose ripe seed-pods yield tiny live lambs. Or was it a plant growing in the shape of a full-size lamb, but with an umbilical tether to the ground? (Oh, and do you know about the barnacle goose?) A tale from the medieval science grapevine. [more inside]
The most unusual colors from Harvard's storied pigment library include beetle extracts, poisonous metals, and human mummies
The Surprising History Behind Leap Year by Brian Handwerk [National Geographic]
The ancient Egyptians did it, and so do we. Here's how a leap day—which occurs Februrary 29—helps keep our calendars and societies in sync. It's that time again: This Monday, February 29, is a leap day, the calendar oddity that occurs (almost) every four years. For centuries, trying to sync calendars with the length of the natural year caused confusion—until the concept of leap year provided a way to make up for lost time.[more inside]
Welcome to WorldPopulationHistory.org, an interactive site that lets you explore the peopling of our planet from multiple perspectives – historical, environmental, social and political. It is about the 2,000-year journey of human civilization and the possible paths ahead to the middle of this century.
Breeding Improved Honey Bees was originally printed in 1951, in The American Bee Journal. It is an informative and often dryly amusing introduction to the history and arts of bee breeding. "The honey bee has a definite place in our modern world. Its products of honey and wax are useful to man, although perhaps not essential to all men." Those histories and arts are, as you might expect, covered in bees.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari - "The book delivers on its madly ambitious subtitle by in fact managing to cover key moments in the developmental history of humankind from the emergence of Homo Sapiens to today's developments in genetic engineering." Also btw, check out Harari on the myths we need to survive, re: fact/value distinctions and their interrelationships.
The word algebra stems from the Arabic word al-jabr, which has its roots in the title of a 9th century manuscript written by the mathematician Al-Khwarizmi. The Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wal-muqabala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) was a pioneering piece of work - offering practical answers for land distribution, rules on inheritance and distributing salaries. This treatise also underpins the science of flight and the engineering behind the fastest car in the world. via
"It isn’t easy to discover new podcasts. There are just SO many out there. Sometimes the best approach is to simply turn to a friend and say, 'Hey, what are you listening to these days?'" So, NPR has created earbud.fm, a "friendly guide to great podcasts."
Earlier this month, Youyou Tu was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for her discovery of artemisinin, also known as qinghaosu. She is the first Chinese Nobel recipient for work that was done in mainland China. Dr. Tu's studies were done in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, a politically precarious time for Chinese academics, which adds a layer of historical complexity to her work. It is difficult to overstate the importance of artemisinin to anti-malarial efforts. Unfortunately, artemisinin-resistant strains of malaria are already beginning to appear only thirty years after the drug was introduced.
The Role of Writers in a STEM Obsessed Society
“As writers, it’s easy to think of how we matter to literature classrooms, but what the appointment of writers-in-residence in hospitals, history classrooms, foreign language learning spaces, and cooking schools reminds us is that we are relevant wherever there is humanity—which is to say, wherever humans are with their stories. Writing is healing. Writing is art. Writing is learning. As such, writing across the disciplines matters. Many models of artist residencies depend upon the retreat model, wherein the artist sequesters herself away with a small community of other artists. While these models have value, especially when considering how solitude relates to the creative process, it’s heartening to me to see more models catch on that value the place of the writer in society, rather than hidden away from it.”
In the mid-1800s, a snail spent years glued to a specimen card in the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum) before scientists realized it was still alive. What became of this snail? Ask Metafilter found out! [more inside]
The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts presented cleanly (without advertising or excessive layout) for educational use. The main sourcebooks cover ancient, medieval, and modern history. Subsidiary sourcebooks cover African, East Asian, Global, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Lesbian and Gay, Science, and Women's history.
She got off to an inauspicious start when she was born in poverty and then was struck by lightning as a small child. But when her father died when she was ten, leaving her family without any means of support, Mary Anning made her own luck with her skill at fossil finding. Her first big find came when she discovered the first complete skeleton of an Icthyosaur at twelve years old. She went on to discover pivotally important skeletons of plesiosaurs, pterosaurs and a fossil fish which was hailed as the "missing link" between sharks and rays. Despite being self taught, she was widely regarded as one of paleontology's greatest experts in the world when she died. Previously.
Frank Wilczek: Physics in 100 Years [pdf] - "Here I indulge in wide-ranging speculations on the shape of physics, and technology closely related to physics, over the next one hundred years. Themes include the many faces of unification, the re-imagining of quantum theory, and new forms of engineering on small, intermediate, and large scales." [more inside]
Mary Putnam Jacobi challenged Clarke’s thinly veiled justification for discrimination with 232 pages of hard numbers, charts, and analysis. She gathered survey results covering a woman’s monthly pain, cycle length, daily exercise, and education along with physiological indicators like pulse, rectal temperature, and ounces of urine. To really bring her argument home, Jacobi had test subjects undergo muscle strength tests before, during, and after menstruation. The paper was almost painfully evenhanded. Her scientific method-supported mic drop: “There is nothing in the nature of menstruation to imply the necessity, or even the desirability, of rest.”
Today if you ask someone to name a woman scientist, the first and only name they'll offer is Marie Curie. When Silvia Tomášková, director of the Women in Science program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, brings up famous female scientists with her students—and this has been happening since she started teaching 20 years ago—she gets the same reaction: “Marie Curie.” Tomášková always tries to move them on. “Let's not even start there. Who else?” [more inside]
Science once communicated in a polyglot of tongues, but now English rules alone. How did this happen – and at what cost?
Douglas Starr, in Blood, quotes the British Secretary of War, asked in 1937 what the nation proposed to do about a mass blood supply. The secretary was dismissive. Blood could not be stored for long or in great quantities, he said. On the hoof was better. “It was more satisfactory to store our blood in our people.” Janet Vaughan did not agree, and Janet Vaughan did something about it. Her medical director gave her £100, and she sent off her assistants in taxis to find all the tubing that London shops could provide.Longreads profiles Janet Vaughan, a British scientist who found better treatments for anemia than arsenic using herself as a test subject, was a major force in creating London's first blood banks using cheap tubing and ice cream trucks, studied emergency nutrition in a post-liberation concentration Nazi death camp, and continued active research into blood and radiation into her eighties, while occasionally serving as a model for Virginia Woolf characters.
According to the laws of Newtonian physics, capillary action occurring in Earth's atmosphere should be able to lift water 10 meters high at most. For centuries scientists struggled to ascertain how, then, trees were able to lift water considerably higher. Finally, in 1894, Irish plant physiologists H. H. Dixon and J. Joly proposed the cohesion-tension theory which remains the leading theory today, though it is still not fully understood (PDF).
On the topic of Newton and his physics, a recently unearthed note from Isaac Newton's college days shows that he had it figured out 200 years before anybody else.
On the topic of Newton and his physics, a recently unearthed note from Isaac Newton's college days shows that he had it figured out 200 years before anybody else.
Despite Western anxieties over Muslim conquest, traditions of Islamic astronomy and the portability of ritual space in Islam find Muslims at home among the stars. [more inside]
Wild Ones Live is an arresting reading accompanied by music, a collaboration performed as part of a live magazine by author Jon Mooallem, a science and nature writer whose book Wild Ones ruminates on the strange, ignorant, hopeful and poignant ways humans imagine other animals, and the musical project Black Prairie. Listen at your desk if you must, but if you can, pop in your earbuds and go outside for a long walk while you take it all in. [more inside]
The AMNH team preserving Lonesome George for display. As the last known Pinta Island tortoise, Lonesome George became a worldwide icon of conservation decades before he died from natural causes in the Galápagos in 2012. When Lonesome George arrived at the American Museum of Natural History in early 2013 to be preserved as a taxidermic specimen, Museum scientists and a master taxidermist faced a number of crucial decisions as they worked to prepare a mount that was both scientifically accurate and beautiful. [more inside]
Neither Thucydides, Gibbon, von Ranke, nor Braudel ever cited a paper appearing in Geophysical Research Letters. They did not worry themselves about fluctuations in the Siberian High or the Southern Oscillation. The vast majority of more recent historians also remained untroubled by such concerns. However, in the past five years, a handful of highly distinguished historians have come out with new books that put climate at the center of historical explanation. What on Earth is going on? [more inside]
Every year in Uto, a remote town at the Southern tip of Japan, a festival is held to celebrate a woman known locally as the Mother of the Sea. Dr Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker died without knowing her research would save the Japanese seaweed industry and lead to a world multi-billion dollar obsession with sushi. The story of nori in Japan.
Shelf Life is the first episode in a new video blog from the American Museum of Natural History, in which scientists, curators, and collection specialists take you behind-the-scenes at the Museum. Bonus interview: Atlas Obscura.
Black laboratory technician Vivien Thomas was paid a janitor's wage, never went to college or medical school, and was one of the pioneers of open heart surgery.
A timeline of diseases and vaccines [warning: graphic photo of cutaneous diphtheria at year 1975]. Categories are: diphtheria, measles, polio, smallpox, yellow fever, and 'others'. You can select one keyword to view only that subject's timeline. From the History of Vaccines website (about page | FAQ). Similar timelines at the same site for pioneers, science and society, and there's an En Español timeline, too. [more inside]
"Novels are no use at all in days like these, for they deal with people and their relationships, with fathers and mothers and daughters or sons and lovers, etc., with souls, usually unhappy ones, and with society etc., as if the place for all these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time." [more inside]
Dinosaurs were lumbering, stupid, scientifically boring beasts—until John Ostrom rewrote the book on them.
Art forgeries have long been the stuff of thrillers, with fake da Vincis or Vermeers fooling connoisseurs, roiling the art world, and moving millions of dollars. We don’t think of ancient books driving such grand forgery, intrigue, and schadenfreude. This is changing thanks in part to a clever forgery of Galileo’s landmark book Sidereus Nuncius, published in Venice in 1610. Arguably one of the most extraordinary scientific publications of all times, Sidereus Nuncius turned Galileo into the brightest new star of Western science. Four centuries later, a faked copy of this book has disarmed a generation of Galileo experts, and raised a host of intriguing questions about the social nature of scholarly authentication, the precariousness of truth, and the revelatory power of fakes.
"TrowelBlazers is a celebration of women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists who have been doing awesome work for far longer, and in far greater numbers, than most people realize." [via]
"If the phone rang and you were in another room, you had to come running: in that immediate sense, and in a way that now seems comical, your phone controlled you. And before the ‘90s, there was no caller ID, an inconvenience which ensured, for that benighted first century-plus of the instrument’s analog existence, the first premise of phone horror—that you could never know for certain whose voice, or what sound, would issue from the other end of that raised receiver." - HiLoBrow is in the middle of a series exploring the tropes and history of Phone Horror. Of particular note is the brief historical connection between the telephone and the world of occult crypto-science - The Atlantic explains further.
You may have heard how sounds travel farther during a temperature inversion, when air near the ground is cooler than the air above. But do you know how this phenomenon is related to the 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico? [more inside]
The American Museum of Natural History will unlock thousands of old photos from their vault, they announced this week. The new online image database (officially launching on Monday the 28th) will take you behind the curtain, delivering images that span the 145-year history of the Museum. The collection features over 7,000 images—many never before seen by the public—and includes photos, rare book illustrations, drawings, notes, letters, art, and Museum memorabilia. They say "it’s like stepping into a time machine and seeing a long ago NYC or just catching glimpses of ghosts from a forgotten world now seen only by researchers and Museum staff." Previously. [more inside]
The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown is a nine-part series posted by sci-fi author and statistician Michael F. Flynn to his blog last year, covering the historical conflict between heliocentrism and geocentrism, with a special focus on Galileo. They are based on an article (pdf) by Flynn which originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Analog. [more inside]
"....many a tragic episode in family life is superinduced by the baleful influence of a tortured stomach. Mighty is the hand that holds the ballot-box, but mightier is the hand that wields to advantage the pepper-box, the salt-spoon, and the sugar-shaker." read the entirely of Maud C. Cooke's, Breakfast, Dinner and Supper; or, What To Eat and How To Prepare It (1897) online and enter a world of home remedies, large scale recipes, sound advice, leftover wizardry, squirrel stews, scientific digestion, and horrible things done to vegetables.
Operation War Diary is the newest crowdsourced science effort from Zooniverse, cataloging WWI British soldiers' war diaries from the Western Front. Participants can help tag dates, locations, people, and events from 1.5 million pages of war diaries from the Western Front. Entries range from the uneventful (October 24 | PONT DU HEM | 5:30 am | Occupied same position. Did not fire all day) to the eventful (A & B cleared the village and the regiment eventually captured the convoy in the wood about a mile on after it had been headed back by a returning movement of 12th Lancers. In all 200 prisoners). [more inside]
This Video Will Hurt
A detailed explanation of a fascinating field of science and medicine by the always interesting C.G.P. Grey.[more inside]
Settling in for a long winter's nap? In need of a memento mori to guard against the unbridled jollity of the season? Just want to explore the wonderful world of 3D scans, osteology, and bioarchaeology on the internet a little further? Sad that Santa probably isn't bringing you a T-Rex for Christmas? Well, just peak inside... [more inside]
"My subject is a barren one – the world of nature, or in other words life; and that subject in its least elevated department, and employing either rustic terms or foreign, nay barbarian words that actually have to be introduced with an apology. Moreover, the path is not a beaten highway of authorship, nor one in which the mind is eager to range: there is not one of us who has made the same venture, nor yet one Roman who has tackled single-handed all departments of the subject."Naturalis Historia was written by Pliny the Elder between 77 and 79 CE and was meant to serve as a kind of proto-encyclopedia discussing all of the ancient knowledge available to him, covered in enough depth and breadth to make it by a reasonable margin the largest work to survive to the modern day from the Roman era. The work includes discussions on astronomy, meteorology, geography, mineralogy, zoology and botany organized along Aristotelian divisions of nature but also includes essays on human inventions and institutions. It is dedicated to the Emperor Titus in its epistle to the Emperor Vespasian, a close friend of Pliny who relied on his extensive knowledge, and its unusually careful citations of sources as well as its index makes it a precursor to modern scholarly works. It was Pliny's last work, as well as sadly his sole surviving one, and was published not long before his death attempting to save a friend from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, famously recounted by Pliny's eponymous nephew Pliny the Younger.
Here is a reasonable translation that is freely available to download from archive.org for your edification.[more inside]
Recently Emily Graslie, of the fantastic natural history tumblr and youtube series TheBrainScoop, was asked a question about whether she had personally experienced sexism in her field. Her response is fucking amazing.
Inside is her goldmine of awesome female science educators online with channels that focus on Science Technology Engineering and Math. My work day is fucked.[more inside]
On March 22, 1621, a Native American delegation walked through what is now southern New England to meet with a group of foreigners who had taken over a recently deserted Indian settlement. At the head of the party was an uneasy triumvirate: Massasoit, the sachem (political-military leader) of the Wampanoag confederation, a loose coalition of several dozen villages that controlled most of southeastern Massachusetts; Samoset, sachem of an allied group to the north; and Tisquantum, a distrusted captive, whom Massasoit had brought along only reluctantly as an interpreter. Massasoit was an adroit politician, but the dilemma he faced would have tested Machiavelli. About five years before, most of his subjects had fallen before a terrible calamity. Whole villages had been depopulated. It was all Massasoit could do to hold together the remnants of his people. Adding to his problems, the disaster had not touched the Wampanoag’s longtime enemies, the Narragansett alliance to the west. Soon, Massasoit feared, they would take advantage of the Wampanoag’s weakness and overrun them. And the only solution he could see was fraught with perils of its own, because it involved the foreigners—people from across the sea.
The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school. But that wasn't enough to save them In addition to providing a beautifully written account of what happened, the article does something subtle but incredibly cool in using a Native centered perspective that really illuminates how dramatically silenced and othered Native voices are in other accounts.[more inside]
O’Bryan walked me slowly down the steep side of the mesa, to the desert floor, so I could see Star Axis in its entirety. The work’s centrepiece is a 10-storey staircase that lets you walk up through the rock of the mesa, your eyes fixed on a small circular opening that cuts through the top of the pyramid. The first section of the staircase is roofless and open to the sky, but the end of it has a stone overhang that makes it look and feel like a tunnel. This ‘star tunnel’, as Ross calls it, is precisely aligned with Earth’s axis. If you bored a tunnel straight through the Earth’s core, from the South Pole to North Pole, and climbed up it, you’d see the same circle of sky that you do when you walk through Ross’ tunnel. Gazing up through it in the afternoon glare, I saw a patch of blue, the size and shape of a dime held at arm’s length. But if the sun had blinked for a moment, fading the heavens to black, I’d have seen Polaris, glittering at the end of the tunnel, like a solitary diamond in the void."Embracing the Void," Ross Andersen, Aeon.