Fall Foliage

November 3, 2019

Here is an interesting view of the types of fall foliage available in various parts of the US; it is from the Washington Post.  I looked and looked for a similar chart for Canada without success.

Select image for a closer look.

Babylonian Northern Lights

October 27, 2019


There are many wonderful sights to see in northern Canada, and one of the great joys are the Northern Lights.  But as new research reveals, these majestic celestial shows have been fascinating people for thousands of years — and thousands of kilometres from the Yukon.

The earliest records of the aurora have now been identified as coming from the middle of the 7th century BC — almost 3,000 years ago — and from the royal archives of Nineveh in the Assyrian Empire.  Three separate observers — known by cuneiform specialists for their regular and accurate astronomical observations — report “red glow”, “red cloud”, and “red sky” in reports to their royal masters. Exact dates are elusive, but they appear to be from about 660 BC.

We may wonder how the “Northern” lights could be seen in the Middle East.  The researchers explain:

“the Middle East was closer to the north geomagnetic pole in the Assyrian epoch. While the north geomagnetic pole is situated near the region of North America today, it was situated in the region of Eurasia in the mid- to early 7th century BCE due to the secular variation of the geomagnetic field.”

When we are lucky enough to witness these sky dances, we are sharing the pleasures and excitements of hundreds of generations of those who have gone before.

Seven Million Years of Human Evolution

October 13, 2019

This is a 6-minute video that does really well at explaining the evolution of hominds/humans since we split from chimpanzees seven million years ago.


Best seen on full screen.  Well worth the time.

Cultural Evolution

October 3, 2019

Edward O. Wilson

It is worth reading Edward O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth” in which he ditches the prevailing kin-selection theory (“the selfish gene”) of evolution’s natural selection in favour of a mix of kin-selection and group selection.  In particular, he proposes that cultural and social evolution is propelled by group selection.

“In the search for ultimate causes of the human condition, the distinction between levels of natural selection applied to human behaviour is not perfect. Selfish behaviour, perhaps including nepotism-generating kin selection, can in some ways promote the interests of the group through invention and entrepreneurship … Group selection in its turn promoted the genetic interests of individuals with privilege and status as rewards for outstanding performance on behalf of the tribe.

Nevertheless, an iron rule exists in genetic social evolution.  It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.  The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme.  If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve.  If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies.”

He persuaded me, a layman, with logic and good scientific examples. I am amazed that this is still considered an heretical view within biological science.

Wilson was particularly interesting on the development of religion as a human-origined phenomena requiring no external power. I was disappointed, however, with what I saw as his assumption that the homo sapiens of today is the ultimate outcome of evolution, as if evolution has now ceased.  Perhaps I read him wrong, but I had this thought at several points in the book.

Well worth reading.

Young Blue Eyes

October 2, 2019


Did you know that before 6,000 to 10,000 years ago all human beings had brown eyes?  A single gene mutation in a single individual created the change, and so those of us with blue eyes all have that individual as our ancestor, according to a major study by the University of Copenhagen:

“Variation in the colour of the eyes from brown to green can all be explained by the amount of melanin in the iris, but blue-eyed individuals only have a small degree of variation in the amount of melanin in their eyes. “From this we can conclude that all blue-eyed individuals are linked to the same ancestor,” says Professor Eiberg. “They have all inherited the same switch at exactly the same spot in their DNA.” Brown-eyed individuals, by contrast, have considerable individual variation in the area of their DNA that controls melanin production.”

They also note:

“The mutation of brown eyes to blue represents neither a positive nor a negative mutation. It is one of several mutations such as hair colour, baldness, freckles and beauty spots, which neither increases nor reduces a human’s chance of survival. As Professor Eiberg says, “it simply shows that nature is constantly shuffling the human genome, creating a genetic cocktail of human chromosomes and trying out different changes as it does so.”

Happy Tau Day!

June 28, 2019

I have for many years enjoyed celebrating each 14th March as Pi Day, in honour of pi = 3.14….  However, I have been persuaded that Tau Day is at least as important if not more so.

The value of Tau = 2pi and is thus celebrated on 28th June (6.28).  Why this is important is explained in this good short piece from ScienceNews.

“The simplest way to see the failure of pi is to consider angles, which in mathematics are typically measured in radians. Pi is the number of radians in half a circle, not a whole circle. That makes things confusing: For example, the angle at the tip of a slice of pizza — an eighth of a pie — isn’t π/8, but π/4. In contrast, using tau, the pizza-slice angle is simply τ/8. Put another way, tau is the number of radians in a full circle.

That factor of two is a big deal. Trigonometry — the study of the angles and lines found in shapes such as triangles — can be a confusing whirlwind for students, full of blindly plugging numbers into calculators. That’s especially true when it comes to sine and cosine, two important functions in trigonometry. Many trigonometry problems involve calculating the sine or cosine of an angle. When graphed, the two functions look like a series of wiggles, shaped a bit like an “S” on its side, that repeat the same values every 2π. That means pi covers only half of an S. Tau, on the other hand, covers the full wiggle, a more intuitive measure.”

So, Happy Tau Day to you all!

How Cooking Made Us Human

March 21, 2019

I just finished reading Catching Fore: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. It makes an interesting case that food — and the cooking of food — helped drive the evolution of human beings.

Following a detailed energy analysis comparing raw and cooked food, Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard, posits that homo erectus evolved out of autralopithecines around 1.8 million years ago primarily as a result of the introduction of cooking.  The softness of processed food drove the visible changes between the species in jaw and tooth structure and gut size, while the increase of energy imparted to the food by cooking helped accelerate the massive growth in cranial capacity in erectus.

He also suggests that the evolution of homo erectus to homo heielbergensis (a precursor to homo sapiens) around 700,000 years ago is contemporaneous with evidence showing a more complete control of fire.  Moreover, he argues that the societal and cultural changes introduced through the security of fire and the sharing of cooked food are implicated in the emergence of the big-brained homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago.  These are big claims which he backs up with considerable evidence from both the paleo-archaeologcal record and studies of modern hunter-gatherers.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly and I learned a great deal.  However, Catching Fire was published in 2009.  In the decade since, there have been enormous strides taken in our knowledge of the human family tree. In that time we have discovered the Denisovans, re-evaluated the Neanderthals, and added homo naledi and homo floriensis to the list of our forebears, along with much else.  I’ll need to see how Wrangham’s arguments stack up against the new discoveries.

Whatever the result of that comparison, Catching Fire is well worth the read for anyone interested in the origins of humanity and food.