Thursday, June 08, 2006

Catching Up

I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way. ~Franklin P. Adams

I seem to have collected a number of unrelated items in my pending ideas bucket, so allow me to clean some of them out before they age too much further.

Among the great inventions of all time is farming. But it has proved difficult to determine how and when a bunch of nomadic hunter-gatherers got the idea to stop moving from here to there and set down roots -- literally. The "how" is still a mystery, but the "when" may be a little clearer after a discovery in Jordan. Ancient figs dating from 11,000+ years ago were found, and they appear to be of a variety that only be grown with "human intervention." Neolithic farming is remarkable to consider.

We take growing food for granted, but imagine if you didn't have any idea how plants came to grow. You had to draw a correlation from seeds that were dropped to the sprouts that appeared days or weeks later. That's a stretch for humans who probably had their heads on a swivel worrying about getting eaten by bears or wolves. Give thanks to the neolithic genius who picked up on that one.
Dwindling Impact Possibilities
Catastrophism freaks the world over are no doubt saddened to learn that the chance of Apophis clobbering the planet in 2036 are down to 1 in 24,000. This drops it to a "1" on the Torino Scale. Believe it or not, there is a ranking scale for objects and their likelihood to ruin your day. A "0" is an obvious miss; a "10" means "kiss your butt goodbye".

We already have the Fujitsu scale to tell us that tornado was a humdinger, the Saffer-Simpson to advise us that, yep, a hurricane with winds over 200 mph is gonna really wreck things, and even the Beaufort scale, which tells us the difference between a fresh breeze and a hurricane. I know we have a fascination for measuring and categorizing things, but sometimes I think we get obsessed.

Let's put it this way. If it's announced that some 20-mile wide block of rock has a 1 in 3 chance of hitting the Earth, it's not going to mater to me that it's a 9 or 10 on the Torino Scale. I'm cashing in the IRA based on those odds.

Where The Permian Critters Went
Thanks to some fascinating measurement methods, a crater formation has been found under the ice in Antarctica that makes Chixulub look like a dimple on a golf ball. They used a combination of gravity fluctuations and airborne radar to determine that there was a crater with a diamter of 300 miles hiding down there. It's speculated that this rock arrived explosively at about the time of the Permo-Triassic extinction, and, oh by the way, may have resulted in the formation of Australia.

The probable causes of the P-T extinction have generally been thought to be massive volcanism combined with intense climate change, probably caused by the volcanoes. The Siberian Traps have been thought to be a candidate for this event. Interestingly, this places another impact and volcanic outburst into the same time frame. Chixulub and the Deccan Traps in India are thought to have occurred at roughly the same time. Could there be a connection with massive hits on one side of the planet with major vulcanism on the other? I have no idea, but it sounds like a good show for Discovery Channel to produce.

The Bosnian Pyramids: Could They Have Found Something?
If you have read my post about Osmanagic's Bosnian Adventure on Gog's Blog (and why haven't you?), you know what I think. But, just to churn the pot a bit, Sam Osmanagic found a genuine Egyptian to look at it and announce that, by golly, that thing there's a pyrmaid. The Egyptian, Dr. Aly Abd Alla Barakata, is not from the Supreme Council of Antiquities, but from Egyptian Mineral Resource Ministry. He claims, among other things, that the sand between the rocks is similar to that used in ancient Egypt. If he's implying that the blocks were cemented together, he's barking up the wrong tree. Ancient Egyptians used gypsum cenemt, not sand-based cement. Check out the linked article has a nice summary of the news and some healthy skepticism.

Of course, finding sand between rocks and drawing the conclusion that they were assembled into a pyramid is like finding sawdust between some fallen logs and determining that Fort Apache was in the woods behind your house -- in Duluth.

Was Grandpa a Neanderthal?
Well, maybe, but it's not because he was related to one. Scientists have managed to extract some mytochondrial DNA from a Neanderthal tooth and have found that these ancient humans were a lot more diverse than has been thought. But it doesn't mean that they were interbreeding with Cro-Magnons. Yet, the Neanderthals lasted for around 200,000 years, a milestone we've got a ways to catch, which means they had to have something going for them. Keep in mind that they succeeded under far harsher conditions than our own ancestors had to deal with. Even though there was a period of coexistence, it seems that the Cro-Magnons came from friendlier climes while the older group survived the tougher surroundings of Europe.

Of course, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon remains have been found in the same caves, some in more termperate areas. The ongoing question is: Did the Neanderthals die out because they couldn't adapt or because the Cro-Magnons wiped them out? Given what we know of human nature, the latter is not unlikely. The picture gets a little more complicated by finding that their genetic diversity was greater than previously assumed. To me this speaks against dying out just because conditions changed.

Something Else for the Mars Rovers to Look For
Stromatolites are fossilized bacteriological life. And they're really, really old. Now some have been found in Australia that date back to 3.43 billion years ago. But, as with the legendary Martian meteorite, scientists are debating whether these stromatolites are really formed by biological processes or merely by chemical processes. Some stromatolites are known to be biological, because they're still alive today. But, as the article acknowledges, similar structures can arise without the intervention of any living organisms.

The new finds approach the age of rocks in Greenland dated to 3.75 billion years ago that have the appearance of biological activity, which is also argued to be inorganic by some. Since, if this is biological activity, it arose so soon on Earth that the probability of some sort of life arising on Mars, even briefly, seems to be higher.

The intriquing bit about this concept is that it would neat if the Mars Rovers managed to stumble on to a stromatolite or two on Mars. Of course, it wouldn't settle anything because the whole chemistry-vs-biology argument would fire up again, but it would certainly provide some interesting cirumstantial evidence. The main problem, though, is finding one in the first place. Even on Earth, you don't find stromatolites on every beach, or former beach. Often they're buried and hard to recognize. So hoping the Rovers can find one is a bit like hoping to find a twenty-dollar bill lying in the street. It could happen, but it's unlikely.

If a Rover does happen to locate one, we'll have to hope it's Opportunity. If Spirit happens to find one, it can't drill into it for a sample, because its rock drill has worn down. That sucker has done a serious amount of work for a machine whose warranty expired a long time ago.

But, then, you almost have to feel if there are stromatolites on Mars, the plucky Rovers will somehow locate them. They just seem to keep redefining "unlikely".

Hobbit Pets?
Well, no, but a new dwarf dinosaur apparently has been identified (dinosaurs would have been long gone by the time of Homo floresiensis, otherwise known as the hobbit). This little fellow is a diminutive theropod (that's as in apatosaurs), a mere 20 feet long. Now that seems large, but compared to his gigantic cousins, that's pretty diminutive. It does add evidence to the idea of dwarfism occuring because of isolation on islands, which is the argument used by those supporting the theory that the Indonesian hominids are dwarf Homo erectus.

In the case of the dinosaurs, a new technique has been developed to determine whether these are adult animals. Basically, this involves examining the bones for growth marks that would identify whether the animal had reached adulthood (by measuring the spacing between the marks; older animals have marks that are closer together). Since theropods had puny brains, I doubt there will be an issue of microcephaly with these creatures.

So dwarf dinosaurs look like a fact. An entire species of dwarf hominids is still up in the air.

On the other hand, we finally have a good idea of what Fred Flintstone's dog was like.

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