Very unrelated topics, so it’s likely that not all of them will interest everybody, but anyway:
Dinosaur excavations live – Natural History Museum in Oslo, led by Dr. Jørn Hurum, is uncovering the past at Konusen north of Longyearbyen. The team is excavating three skeletons of Ichthyosaurs, giant marine reptiles that lived in the Svalbard waters 140-150 million years ago. These live, ongoing dinosaur digs and the information uncovered, will form the basis of a new documentary coming soon to the National Geographic Channel.
It’s still far from certain that it’s correct. But it’s the most credible attempt that I’ve ever seen, and it’s getting some preliminary favorable feedback from big-names in complexity theory. In fact, one of the biggest names in complexity theory, Stephen Cook, has apparently said that it should be taken seriously. If Cook thinks it’s credible, then it’s damn-well credible. It might not be correct, but it’s not just crackpottery either.
Time’s article Inside the minds of animals (link is to an abridged version; unfortunately, I only have the full version in paper) was a fascinating read and left a lot of questions hanging open to ponder. I especially liked how the bonobo monkey Kanzi formed the new words using those he already knew (kale = slow + lettuce, because it takes long to chew; pizza = bread + cheese + tomatoes; flood = big + water; …)
Lost in translation – does language influence culture? It appears it does quite a bit. For example:
To find out, my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left). Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. And many other ways to organize time exist in the world’s languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.
What can I tell you? The more languages you know…
Last but not least – for God’s sake, please breastfeed from Science section of New York Times. I’ve been meaning to write about this since I first read it last week (and it was the World Breastfeeding Week), but somehow I didn’t get to it until now.
A large part of human milk cannot be digested by babies and seems to have a purpose quite different from infant nutrition – that of influencing the composition of the bacteria in the infant’s gut… Dr. German sees milk as “an astonishing product of evolution,” one which has been vigorously shaped by natural selection because it is so critical to the survival of both mother and child. “Everything in milk costs the mother – she is literally dissolving her own tissues to make it,” he said. From the infant’s perspective, it is born into a world full of hostile microbes, with an untrained immune system and lacking the caustic stomach acid which in adults kills most bacteria. Any element in milk that protects the infant will be heavily favored by natural selection. “We were astonished that milk had so much material that the infant couldn’t digest,” Dr. German said. “Finding that it selectively stimulates the growth of specific bacteria, which are in turn protective of the infant, let us see the genius of the strategy – mothers are recruiting another life-form to baby-sit their baby.”