Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Frog Marrow, A Bulging Moon, and A Round Table

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. ~Dorothy Parker

I seem to have accumulated some interesting stuff over the last few weeks, so let's lay them out before they get too awfully stale.

Where are all the Jurassic Park references?
Preserved bone marrow has been found in frog fossils that are over 10 million years old. This is potentially exciting because it is just possible that DNA could be extracted from such material. I applaud the author of the piece for refraining from painting pictures of prehistoric frogs leapfrogging out of a lab somewhere.

The idea of resurrecting prehistoric beasts seems to strike a chord in some people. When a mammoth was found potentially intact in a block of ice in Siberia, the first program went on at great length how a possible breeding program could be undertaken to create a new generation of woolly mammoths. What we would do with a generation of mammoths when we can't seem to live with the elephants we have is debatable.

It's important to understand that, unless one could directly clone a creature from the past, any breeding with modern animals would result in an interesting animal, but it would not be a true representative of the ancient one. DNA recovery, even it is possible from the marrow, has not reached a stage where a clonable sample would be obtained. We should recognize how much we may be able to learn from what can be discovered from the preserved marrow, but we should keep in perspective.

So far, writers have.

The Moon is bulgy.
I don't know that most people realize how important the Moon is to life on Earth. It generates larger tides than we would have without it, it helped sweep space in our vicinity to cut down on the number of large rocks hitting our planet, and it helps stabilize the planet's axis wobble (it doesn't eliminate it, but it does make it smaller).

Scientists would be interested in how the moon came to be without all that going on, but considering that life may not have made it on Earth without it makes the issues of how it came to be somehow more important.

I think it is generally agreed these days that a Mars-sized rock smacked the proto-Earth about 4.3 billion years ago. The stuff that was ejected settled into an orbit around the planet and eventually coalesced into the Moon. Its composition has been a source of discussion for years. Its not so much what it's made of (no, not green cheese) as how its put together that has puzzled scientists.

The data from unmanned and manned missions to the Moon seemed to indicate that rather than having a single rocky core like our rock, the moon has lumps known as “mass concentrations” or “mascons” (which sounds like an office at the Defense Department). The Moon was sort of a “plum pudding” with large masses distributed in its interior.

(Ever notice how food seems to be a favorite analogy for astronomers and physicists? The Moon is a plum pudding; the universe's expansion is like raisin bread baking. These people are not getting enough nourishment. Send a cookie to a scientist today.)

The other theory is that the Moon has a bulge due to the extreme stresses that occurred during formation. This brings to mind an old B.C. cartoon, where B.C. and Peter are contemplating the Moon, when Peter says that no one has ever seen the “backside” of the moon. B.C. says, “Gee, I wonder what it looks like.” The last panel is of the moon as seen from space ... with buttocks.

Moving along ... A group at MIT has run simulations to see what could cause a bulge in the Moon's shape during formation. While they came up with several possible scenarios, the one they favor would have had the Moon's initial orbit being highly elliptical, rather than nearly circular, as it is today. This would have resulted in a remarkable set of views had there been someone around 4.3 billion years ago to see it. The Moon would at times appear huge in the sky, moving so fast that it would run through all its phases in one night. The next night it would be smaller as it moved rapidly away. The tidal effects would have been remarkable, not on water, since there was no liquid water at this point, but on the land itself, causing the land masses themselves to move and buckle.

Of course, it's not the only scenario, but it certainly does create some remarkable mental images, none of which involve “backsides.”

Is it THE Round Table?
The Time Team (which used to be shown on History International) has been digging around Windsor Castle in England and found a structure that could be linked to the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Now, if you've ever seen Time Team, one of my favorite programs, you know that, if they have a fault, it's that they have a tendency to draw rather large conclusions from small amounts of evidence. At least, host Tony Robinson does; his team of experts tends to be a bit more controlled.

In this case, what they think they've found is a circular room dating back to Edward III, a 14th century king of the realm. It was said to house a large round table around which the original 300 Knights of the Garter sat. The thinking seems to be that the setup may have helped give rise to the Round Table portion of the Arthurian legends.

Well, maybe. More interesting is that the Royal Family gave the Time Team unprecedented permission to dig around various royal dwellings, and the team didn't disappoint, finding pre-Roman flint and Victorian jewelry at Buckingham Palace, a 17th or 18th century seal used to stamp documents at the Queen's Scottish residence, and the aforementioned round building near Windsor Castle.

Most of these things may seem like small finds, but the Time Team has always done a great job of using their digs to paint a picture of the time that they are investigating. And small finds accumulate to tell us a great deal about what happened in the past.

I hope the publicity will give the H-I folks the thought that it might be time to bring the Time Team back to U.S. television. Their programs are wonderfully energetic and give lie to the idea of archaeology as some sort of dull, dry pursuit.

Besides, any show hosted by the Black Adder's sidekick has to be worth watching.

No comments: