Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Solitary confinement

This is a small business. There's me and one other staff member who does Saturdays and fills in when required. Currently that's Riley. there aren't many times of the year when having two people in the shop would be useful, and that's handy in keeping running costs to a minimum. However - there are days when it's very, very quiet. No customers, paperwork finished, no postal orders to wrap. On those days the view from the counter can seem a little too familiar and the chair a little too uncomfortable.

I am often jealous of those with an office full of colleagues. You have people you can discuss problems with, share advice, and just generally chat about... stuff. I'm lazy, and when I'm not busy I can slip into a near-catatonic state. So if you see me slumped over the counter, come in and say hello.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Lost and found

There's a story today about two new ceratopsian dinosaurs, Kosmoceratops richardsoni and Utahceratops gettyi, bring found in the rich Cretaceous deposits of Southern Utah. Kosmoceratops in particular is an oddball, with fifteen horns including a strange 'fringe' draped from the top of its crest. The site - the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument - is an important site in a state packed with dinosaur localities. During the Cretaceous, what's now Utah was part of Larimidia, separated from the bulk of the rest of North America (called Appalachia) by a shallow sea.

Most people are familiar with ceratopsians; Triceratops has always been among the dinosaur favourites. It's a large group, though, with a range of sizes and ornamentation. 'New' dinosaurs are found surprisingly frequently, adding to the pile. Sadly, though, earlier this year the ceratopsians lost one of their number. The mighty Torosaurus, which had an enormous skull and weighed in at around six tons, was identified in 1891, only a couple of years after Triceratops, and from the same Hell Creek deposits. The paper in July suggests Torosaurus is simply a large adult Triceratops, stripping it of genus status.

This happens from time to time, and it's easy to see why. When working from incomplete fossils - almost always the case with dinosaurs - an animal can be described and named from a part of the skeleton. Different parts can be accidentally given different names. In cases like these, the name used first gets seniority and the more recent gets consigned to history's dustbin. Since Linnaeus, natural sciences have had their lumpers and splitters. Splitters are those who would find some small anatomical difference - say, a seagull that had a larger head than its friends - and get all excited.

"A brand new type of seagull! Wow! I'm going to call it the Mekon Gull and publish a paper!"

The lumper tends to dismiss it as simply a gull with a big head.

"Ha ha, Look at that seagull. It's got a big head."

At times, the names allocated on evidence of slightly dubious strength have stuck. Later, these can collapse, the genus or species status retracted and old bighead gets to be a normal seagull again. In dinosaur terms, one of the biggest departures is that of Brontosaurus. Everybody loved Brontosaurus, the thunder lizard. Then one day it was discovered he had been an Apatosaurus all along. I think many of the other sauropods had had their suspicions for some time. Still - what happens in the Jurassic, stays in the Jurassic.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Papal bull

Today the Pope is visiting Edinburgh. He's having lunch with the Queen in Holyrood and then being driven along Princes Street and up Lothian Road. Police are expecting 100,000 people to come and wave. I'm not expecting there to be a big overlap of our target markets. If there was a Venn diagram of Mr Wood's customers and Pope wavers, it might look like Pluto and the sun. Quiet day for me, probably.

Aside from the visit affecting my business, it's not really a subject that is suitable for the blog, but I did read about Cardinal Walter Kasper's views of the United Kingdom and his subsequent withdrawal from the trip. He likened Britain to a third world country due to the variety of people he sees after landing in Heathrow. I can't think that living such a strange, insular life in the Vatican helps build much of an understanding of the world as a whole, so perhaps it's good the Pope is getting out and about. He might be able to update the church's archaic views on homosexuality and contraception that are so damaging to the third world countries Cardinal Kasper finds so unsettling.

Welcome to Edinburgh. Multicultural and proud.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Politicians are human too

We're used to the odd mistake by our MPs - some more odd than others, obviously - but Conor Lenihan, Ireland's Minister for Science has taken the the oatcake. Tomorrow night in Dublin, there is to be a book launch, at which Mr Lenihan will be the speaker. A great many people in Ireland are wondering what on Earth he's doing by appearing at the event - a Gorillas and Girls party - at all. Hopefully, by this morning, Mr Lenihan is too.

The book he's launching is by John J. May and called The Origin of Specious Nonsense. Now, you may have guessed from the title, but John J. May has a bit of an issue with Charles Darwin and the whole Origins of Species thing. He seems very angry about it. He bills his book as 'the most controversial book in decades' and it doesn't take much digging to find a few examples of the specious nonsense alluded to in the title. Kindly, John May has filled his site with hilarious rants and pages of senseless, dribbling bilge. It genuinely is worth a dredge through if you have the time, if only so you can comfortably discount almost everything the man has to say. He's not the most literate of men, but he points out that he was self-educated and can at least communicate his deranged points clearly enough.

The scandalous thing here is not that another woeful attempt to 'debunk' the theory of evolution has been published. If anything the content of the book only serves to strengthen the case of its target. The problem lies with the presence of the Minister for Science at the launch of an anti-scientific book. And it's not like he may have been taken in by the subtlety of May's attacks. From the front cover all the way through it's an all-out assault on one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in history. Darwin's idea is demonstrably supported by overwhelming amounts of observable evidence from countless fields of study. The fact that May's book is a pitiful attempt to undermine it for religious reasons is neither here nor there. The only way Lenihan can save face is to show up for the event and use his speech to highlight the piles of inaccuracies and misdirections in the book. That would be both rude to the author and undignified for a politician. He's really dug himself into a hole here. Interesting to see how he tries to get out.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Not a fan

A group of four women are outside the door peering in. Three are keen to have a look around. One is not. Her friend attempts to persuade her.

‘But don’t you like fossils?’

‘No I don’t.’

She points at the amethyst geode near the door.

‘What about that one? Don’t you think that’s beautiful?’

‘No I don’t. I think it’s disgusting. I hate it.’

‘But what about the smaller ones?’

‘The smaller ones are alright. I’m going to the hat shop. Come on.’

A man looking around couldn't help but laugh and I was a little lost for words. One of the four bravely stayed to have a look around, and I was very tempted to ask if her friend was always so... rude. I didn't, though. It was a strange over-reaction. The big geode is the one thing that people tend to love most, and this was the first time I'd heard anyone express their dislike at all, let alone so vehemently.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Polar opposites

Every so often throughout the history of the Earth, its geomagnetic field has switched. Magnetic North and magnetic South swap seats. There's no discernible occurrence pattern - gaps between flips range from a few thousand years to tens of millions of years. The process usually takes quite some time, say 4,000 - 10,000 years, as the field weakens slowly, then switches and regains strength at a faster rate. Rocks in a site in Nevada appear to show the process can happen far more quickly, though, and this is not the first such find. A 1995 paper on a site in Oregon showed similar findings, but the suggestion has proved controversial.

The field is generated by the movement of iron-rich molten rock beneath the Earth's surface. There is a system of convection currents moving the magma around and changes in the flow may result in disruption to the magnetic field. The flow can be influenced by the absorption of subducted slabs of crust material, but also possibly by meteorite impacts, major episodes of vulcanism, earthquakes and so on. There may be another, weaker field produced by the iron in the crust layers, too.

Currently, the field is weakening and has been for over 100 years. The rate of weakening has risen recently and this may suggest we are heading towards a flip. Or it may not, as it may just regain strength. Again, these fluctuations happen all the time, and it is still well within 'normal' limits. As it seems to be completely random, we cannot say we are due for another soon, but there is a theory that it will happen in 2012. Seems far too specific to me, and unlikely for that reason alone.

Whether in two years or not, it will happen at some point. How is it going to affect humanity? Some think the weakened field will expose the Earth and all its inhabitants to harmful cosmic radiation. Safe to say that - as we are all still here - humans have survived many flips in the past and there's no reason to expect dramatic changes in our life. Like death rays from space. There don't appear to be any extinction events linked to any previous flip. We may have to abandon our compasses for a bit, that's all.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

El canĂ­bal

Since 1994, bones have been collected from a cave system in the Atapuerca Mountains of Northern Spain. Around 800,000 years ago, the caves were home to Western Europe's earliest known Homo species, though there is still debate over whether they belong to H. heidelbergensis, H. erectus or even a new species, H. antecessor. The bones from the spoil heaps bear the signs of butchery. There are score marks from stone tools and breaks where they have been broken apart to get to the marrow. In Gran Dolina these butchered bones are of bison, deer, sheep and at least eleven humans.

These proto-Spaniards were cannibals. The butchered human remains are found regularly - amongst those of other animals - in layers covering a span of at least 100,000 years, so the idea that cannibalism may have been a last resort in hard times has been discounted. The climate would have been mild and the landscape suitable for many rich food sources. It looks like the dead folk were just another source of nutrition. The way the bones are discarded and mixed suggests there was no ritual attached, as there is in many more recent cases of cultural cannibalism. Signs show that the skulls were cracked open and brains eaten, too. Nice.

One other - speculative - possibility is that it was routinely carried out as part of a turf war. If the surrounding area was prime real estate, there may well have been rival groups competing for territory. So far, all the cannibal victims look to have been children or teenagers. Weak, easy targets? Early natural deaths? It has so far proved impossible to determine whether the dinner was related to the diners - that might eventually provide a big clue as to what was going on. In any case, cannibalism is far from unusual in palaeocultures. There is a fairly strong track record of it, and probably the tendency not to be looking for the signs of it might mean it's even more prevalent through hominid and human history than currently thought. Ask Sawney Bean.

In other caves of the Atapuercas, bones of lions and bears were found. Sounds like a rubbish place to live. If the lions and bears don't get you, your neighbours might.