Archive: Apr 2013

Book Review: Until Darwin

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Until Darwin, Science, Human Variety and the Origins of Race Author: B. Ricardo Brown Published: 22nd September 2010 Publisher: Pickering & Chatto Summary: A fascinating insight into the early nineteenth century scientific consensus which Darwin’s Origin utterly transformed. The history of science is the history of forgetting. That is the beauty and the utility of science, a theory is no longer supported by evidence is left behind to die an obscure death. Except when it doesn’t. The theory that has refused to die is the idea that Homo sapiens can be divided into races. B. Ricardo Brown is Professor of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute in New York and in his acknowledgements explained he “never wanted to write on the subject of ‘race’”. The idea of race as an objective division of humankind has been comprehensively debunked, recently with two books published in 2011, for example, Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth by Ian Tattersall and Rob …

Phobias and society

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I’m sure all of us are a little afraid of something; be it something small, something big or even something exceptionally common. Take Arachnophobia for example: research shows that 50% of all women in the US suffer from the fear of spiders, and it’s the most common phobia in the UK. However, not one species of native UK spider is classified as deadly. So we have to ask ourselves, in general, are phobias rational or irrational? It was Walter Bradford Cannon who first coined the term ‘fight or flight’. Cannon was a physiologist who studied the response of animals when faced with an immediate threat. As well as acceleration of heart rate, increased breathing and loss of peripheral vision, the body releases a series of hormones (including adrenaline and noradrenaline) to prepare itself for danger. Now, as humans, we’ve evolved from our prehistoric roots; we no longer face the terrible dangers of times past, yet we still undergo that same fight or flight …

Shark Teeth Weapons

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Natural History Museum collections have been used for a novel study: the past biodiversity of a remote collection of Pacific coral islands. Joshua Drew from Columbia University and colleagues have just published a paper (see below) reporting on their identification of shark teeth used in weapons made by Kiribati people from the Gilbert Islands over a hundred years ago and now in the collection of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Having no metal, but a tradition of hunting the plentiful sharks, the I-Kiribati people used shark teeth to edge coconut wood weapons, both swords and fierce-looking tridents. While the team found plenty of teeth from species of sharks that still roam the local coral reefs, like tiger sharks, two species were represented that no longer exist around the Gilbert Islands, dusky and spottail sharks. The team were excited that museum collections could be used to shed light on past ecosystems, and to highlight changes in those ecosystems over time. …

Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better

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  A few months ago I wrote a piece on some of the most amazing scientific predictions to come out of classical literature. From IVF to space travel, it seems that an unexpected number of major technological innovations have been proceeded by the imaginations of great historical authors. But, if amazing scientific breakthroughs can be predicted before they happen, then surely the reverse must also be true. Indeed, history must be littered with examples of respected authorities confidently postulating the possibility of a discovery one minute, before shame-facedly back-pedalling in the next. So, with that in mind, here’s a run-down of science’s top-5 greatest hypothetical hick-ups.   5) Theory: Planet Vulcan, Proponent: Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier During the 1800s, astronomers were struggling to explain certain peculiarities in Mercury’s celestial orbit. Several scientists, led by Le Verrier, suggested that these disturbances arose due to the existence of another planet or  moon, which was named ‘Vulcan’, after the Roman god of fire. The theory drummed …

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