New ways of looking at fossils

“You can see a lot just by looking.” –Yogi Berra

by George Wilkinson

The formation of a large body fossil is a complicated process involving rapid burial of the remains and chemical and physical interaction of the body with the forming rock bed. The final, discovered, fossil contains an amalgamation of chemical signatures of the original creature and of the bedrock in which it is embedded. Recent application of imaging methods derived from analytical chemistry has accentuated the composite nature of these fossil objects. If the fossilization process preserves the analyte in question, these methods can reveal structures that are not apparent in visible light, show the distribution of trace metals or biogenic compounds– and of course, a positive result reflects on the fossilization process itself. These palaeometric methods further allow the team to map fossils non-destructively, which means they can take a fresh look at even precious or fragile specimens.

Ultraviolet light has been used for analysis of organic compounds and microscopic fossils for some time. Fossils from some rock beds will fluoresce under UV illumination, yielding a much greater contrast with the surrounding rock compared to visible wavelengths. Improvements in the ultraviolet illumination and in fluorescence detection have allowed the use of UV light to detect otherwise hidden features of fossils, including traces of soft tissues. In the example at the link, ultraviolet light imaging of a feathered non-avian dinosaur fossil was able to show preserved attachments between flight like feathers and the legs, raising the possibility that this creature glided using all four limbs. A great profile of Helmut Tischlinger, the scientist behind many ultraviolet spectrum images, is here.

Another of Smaller.fcgi my favorite recent examples used synchrotron generated X-ray imaging to confirm that the fossilized impression of Archeopteryx feathers contains chemical residue of the feathers themselves. The outlines of the feathers were previously simply conceived of as deformations of the rock matrix, but these areas in fact have residual chemical signatures consistent with known composition of modern bird feathers. The shafts of the feathers show readily detectable phosphorous and iron signatures.

Finally, infrared imaging can reveal the presence of amides and thiols, remnants of proteins, within well preserved samples. Fossilized reptilian skin, but not fossilized leaves from the same rock bed, shows characteristic infrared absorption peaks—as does skin from modern amphibians.

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Spoken For: On Dictation, Desire and an Elephant

by Mara Jebsen

” I deface the classroom walls and abuse french verse”

2485981741_2e91aa562f_z There's a shadowy black-and-white room crammed with schoolboys in Francois Truffaut's film 400 Blows. You've got to keep your eye on the boy who is not the principle character; the boy who is squinch-faced and clench-knuckled; the irrepressibly clumsy one whose inkpen just exploded. He rips out page after page of inky, sloppy copy and hides them beneath his desk. But all around, hypnotized, elbows crooked at identical angles, the other boys’ pens move in steady waves, drawn forward by the pull of the schoolmaster's voice.

At some point I'm about thirty and standing in a tweed skirt in front of a classroom in New York with a poem in my hands. “Stop all the clocks/Cut off the telephone” I say. W.H. Auden first penned these lines in England at least 40 years ago. Now, fifteen hands move in unison, following my voice and Auden's beautiful, long-dead mind.

I used to hate dictation. The first time someone tried to educate me that way it was in Lome, Togo, on the coast of West Africa, and in French, an impossible language I barely spoke. I was fourteen and I was introduced to the process not long after my American mother married a Togolese professor and we abandoned our apartment in Philadelphia to start life anew in Lome. The way I felt about French and dictation got mixed up in my mind with a conviction that something was horribly askew with all the grownups I met. Jokey, warm and tough, my new Togolese family seemed nevertheless to all have a headache. It was like they had had a headache since before I was born.

My teachers were similarly afflicted. I wish I could describe the expression of my French professor when she came upon my first page of dictation. She seemed offended right down in her gut by my panicky, phonetically interpretive loops! By the haphazard perversions of good french verse she’d so carefully delivered!

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by Kelly Amis

Img035 Twelve years ago, during the last days of a Washington, D.C. summer, I met a tiny boy who left a big impression.

I was volunteering at a day-in-the-country event for low-income D.C. kids; Malik was one of many who had climbed on a bus that morning to spend a day chasing ducks, dipping his feet in a pool and eating lunch on a vast green lawn.

Malik had just turned five. He was ridiculously cute, with a round little head and huge dark-brown eyes. We hit it off, and at the end of the day the event director asked if I would be interested in becoming Malik’s “big buddy.” A short time later, it was official. We were buddies.

For the next few years, I spent two or three Sundays a month taking Malik, and usually his two sisters, all over the city, to parks, movies, the occasional heavily-negotiated museum. I had been a teacher and tutor before becoming Malik’s “big buddy,” but this program was less about academics and more about getting kids out of their neighborhood to have some fun and new experiences.

I had never thought to visit Malik’s school or meet his teachers, and was angry with myself for not doing so when I learned that he was in a special education class at school. I only discovered this because he happened to show me his class photo: there were only five or six children in it (a regular class would have had 24 or more) and one of them had Down’s Syndrome.

I tried to hide my dismay from Malik. I knew the Washington, DC school district was notorious for over-identifying students—especially black boys—as “special ed” but it had never occurred to me that Malik might be one of them. Why was this perfectly intelligent and capable little boy in what appeared to be a special-education-only class?

Malik’s mother (who assumed the school was doing what was best for him) gave me permission to investigate and helped me set up a meeting with his teacher.

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An Open Letter to the Left on Libya

Juan Cole in Informed Comment:

Juan-cole-headshot As I expected, now that Qaddafi’s advantage in armor and heavy weapons is being neutralized by the UN allies’ air campaign, the liberation movement is regaining lost territory. Liberators took back Ajdabiya and Brega (Marsa al-Burayqa), key oil towns, on Saturday into Sunday morning, and seemed set to head further West. This rapid advance is almost certainly made possible in part by the hatred of Qaddafi among the majority of the people of these cities. The Buraiqa Basin contains much of Libya’s oil wealth, and the Transitional Government in Benghazi will soon again control 80 percent of this resource, an advantage in their struggle with Qaddafi.

I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed. I can still remember when I was a teenager how disappointed I was that Soviet tanks were allowed to put down the Prague Spring and extirpate socialism with a human face. Our multilateral world has more spaces in it for successful change and defiance of totalitarianism than did the old bipolar world of the Cold War, where the US and the USSR often deferred to each other’s sphere of influence.

The United Nations-authorized intervention in Libya has pitched ethical issues of the highest importance, and has split progressives in unfortunate ways. I hope we can have a calm and civilized discussion of the rights and wrongs here.

More here.

Eighteen: Portraits of young Arabs living in Israel

From lensculture:

Natan Dvir, an Israeli Jewish man, photographed and talked with 18-year-old men and women who are part of the minority Arab population that continues to live within a country that is largely defined by opposing religious beliefs.

Dvir-18_8 Although I grew up and spent most of my photographic career in Israel, I came to realize I did not truly know or understand its Arab society — over a fifth of the population consisting of hundreds of thousands of families who stayed within Israel's borders after it was established in 1948. This large minority, which is currently experiencing a challenging identity crisis, has been somewhat forgotten amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a highly political environment, I became interested in the stories of these people living as a minority in a country defined by its majority's religion. I wish to confront and dispute the widespread misconceptions and stereotypes of the people within my own country who I was brought up to consider more as foes rather than as allies. I decided to focus on Arab men and women at the age of eighteen, a crucial turning point in their lives, when they complete school, become legal adults, and earn the right to vote. Yet unlike their Jewish peers, most do not join the military. By photographing and portraying my so-called “enemy”, I hope to highlight the impact that cultural and internal conflict have had on these young men and women both individually and collectively.

More here.

Feeling angry? Say a prayer and the wrath fades away

From PhysOrg:

Anger A series of studies showed that people who were provoked by insulting comments from a stranger showed less and aggression soon afterwards if they prayed for another person in the meantime. The benefits of prayer identified in this study don't rely on divine intervention: they probably occur because the act of praying changed the way people think about a negative situation, said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. “People often turn to prayer when they're feeling negative emotions, including anger,” he said. “We found that prayer really can help people cope with their anger, probably by helping them change how they view the events that angered them and helping them take it less personally.”

The power of prayer also didn't rely on people being particularly religious, or attending church regularly, Bushman emphasized. Results showed prayer helped calm people regardless of their , or how often they attended church services or prayed in daily life. Bushman noted that the studies didn't examine whether prayer had any effect on the people who were prayed for. The research focused entirely on those who do the praying. Bushman said these are the first experimental studies to examine the effects of prayer on anger and aggression. He conducted the research with Ryan Bremner of the University of Michigan and Sander Koole of VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It appears online in the journal and will be published in a future print edition.

More here.

The ‘A-Word’ in Hebron

Letty Cottin Pogrebin in Forward:

Images Since the 1970s, radical settlers have been reclaiming properties in Hebron that were owned by Jews prior to the establishment of the state in 1948. Today, there are signs everywhere proclaiming the settlers’ God-given right to the city, citing the words of the Torah (“The children have returned to their own border.” Jeremiah 31:17) and recalling the 1929 massacre of 66 Jews by their Arab neighbors.

I saw no mention of the 1994 massacre that took place at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Israeli doctor, opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125. When the streets of Hebron erupted with rage, the Israel Defense Forces imposed a curfew on the Palestinians, confining them to their homes for all but a few hours a day to buy food.

First we’re massacred, then we’re punished, was the incensed Palestinian response. Why not put the Jewish extremists under curfew? Why does the burden of Jewish security always fall on us?

More here.

Pawning the Chernobyl Necklace

Valerie Brown in The Phoenix Sun:

Atomic_blast_wave-3 As the world gapes mesmerized at the nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan, those not at risk of exposure to the radiation bless their good luck and wonder what it must feel like to be the unlucky ones – the ones who can’t escape that invisible blanket of fear.

Let me tell you what it feels like.

On a spring day in 1975, the first words I heard as I rose through the fog of anesthetic were “it was malignant.” I was twenty-four years old. A couple of months earlier during a routine physical my doctor had found a mass on my thyroid gland. X-rays and ultrasound had failed to clarify whether the mass was a fluid-filled cyst or a solid tumor. The only choice was surgery. The tissue analysis during the operation confirmed a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. The surgeon removed one lobe and the isthmus of the barbell-shaped gland at the base of my neck. I was informed that I’d take thyroid hormone for the rest of my life because if my own remnant gland were to start functioning again, it might grow itself another cancer. And so I have taken the little pill every morning for thirty-six years. It took a long time for the screaming red scar around my neck – the kind that was later dubbed the “Chernobyl necklace” – to fade.

I was very lucky. I can say that now, after so many years without a recurrence. But it has been thirty-six years of ever-present fear and not a few physical problems, along with an increasing sense of outrage, as the likely cause of my trauma has gradually been revealed to me.

More here. [Thanks to Bill Brooks.]

Pakistan vs India: On Risk, Strategy, and Design in Cricket

As the subcontinent is gripped by cricket fever (Pakistan plays India in the semifinals of the four-yearly Cricket World Cup in Mohali, India, on Wednesday and the prime minister of India has invited the prime minister and president of Pakistan to come and watch) Anjum Altaf lays out some of the strategic calculus behind the game in The South Asian Idea:

India-pakistan-cricket-match Cricket is emblematic of South Asia. It distinguishes the region qua region from almost anywhere else – East Asia, West Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe. So at this time when three of the four teams in the World Cup semifinals are South Asian, it is opportune to wrap some thoughts about risk, strategy and design in the metaphor of cricket.

In an earlier article (Achievement and Risk-taking) written quite some time back, I had used illustrations from cricket to make the point that the propensity of an individual to take risks is not a function of personality but an outcome of strategic calculation. In other words, individuals are not born with a given attitude towards risk; they can decide when it makes sense to be cautious or bold.

I have now found an academic presentation of this perspective. In A Primer on Decision Making, James March, a leading authority in the field, frames risky behavior as a reasoned choice:

Individuals can be imagined as rationally calculating what level of risk they think would serve them best. Consider, for example, risk-taking strategy in a competitive situation where relative position makes a difference. Suppose that someone wishes to finish first, and everything else is irrelevant. Such an individual might want to choose a level of risk that maximizes the chance of finishing first. In general, strategies for maximizing the chance of finishing first are quite different from strategies for maximizing expected value.

An extreme example would make this clearer. If winning a particular contest were all that mattered, an individual might take the gamble of cheating. If the long-term reputation mattered more, the risk calculus would change reducing the attraction to cheat.

More here.

Why Chess May Be An Ideal Laboratory for Investigating Gender Gaps in Science

MungBrainWars_HL Holly Capelo in Seed:

Because chess is competitive and mentally demanding, yet objectively measured, the resulting studies of gendered performance can potentially be more conclusive and less contentious than other approaches to this subject have been. Often, comparisons of male and female brains appear to pathologize the female condition in a manner reminiscent of the Victorian-era pseudoscientific sexism and racism that persisted in opposition to 19th century minority-rights movements. One argument, famously posed by Simone DeBeauvoir and periodically reinvented to support women’s equality, claims that the industrial revolution rendered superfluous the physical strength that long justified masculine dominance. Areas like sports and combat are reminders of male physical advantage, and lead to questions as to why there should not be a corresponding mental advantage.

Marshall responded to this distinction, “In physical sports it’s obvious why there should be a separation. I don’t think that there’s something that shows that men’s and women’s brains are different in a significant sense. I don’t think that chess should be segregated.” She continued, referring to the highest ever Elo-rated players from their respective genders, “The top female player, Judit Polgar, has beaten the top male player, Gary Kasparov, but I don’t think that’s been done, say in tennis. But in chess, it’s been done.”

Though they apparently share equal intellectual potential with their male peers, women in chess and the physical sciences aren’t reaching the top ranks and receiving the highest honors with great frequency. Perhaps, if women were to participate in large numbers for a sufficient period of time, might there arise more prize-winning women intellectuals?

Egypt’s First Vote

GettyImages_CairoReferendum_jpg_470x313_q85 Yasmine El Rashidi in the NYRB:

[T]he debate on how to vote in the referendum intensified, on social network sites and TV talk shows. Even the popular youth radio channel 104.2 Nile FM—whose young hosts spin popular Western tunes and invite guests to talk about dating, love and movies—was discussing the constitution. Yes and No camps swiftly took shape. Activists and the upper-middle class were calling for No; they wanted a new constitution and more time to raise political awareness among the nation’s 80 million people. Those who felt the referendum was taking place too soon—a group of reformists that included presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei—hinged their argument on readiness. None of the opposition coalitions and movements had secured the resources or organization to mobilize large numbers in an effective way, and their supporters worried that a Yes victory would result in a parliament divided between the Muslim Brotherhood and members of Mubarak’s old patronage network. Moreover, such a parliament would then be free to redraft the constitution to its liking. “Bad news,” one activist told me. “We’ll all be dead.”

But the limited Cairo- and Alexandria-based campaigns of the No advocates had little chance of winning over the broader public. The Muslim Brotherhood, the ultra-conservative Salafis, and groups affiliated with the former party of Mubarak, the National Democratic Party (NDP), were endorsing the amendments and targeting their efforts at the working classes, laborers, and farmers. The Muslim Brotherhood—the largest and most organised movement apart, perhaps, from the remaining political network of the former regime itself—initially distributed flyers urging the Yes vote as a religious obligation. But activists and the media quickly got wind of this strategy—stirring up long-standing suspicions about an underlying Brotherhood agenda to turn Egypt into an Islamist state—and it adopted the more palatable slogan, “Yes is a vote for stability.” The day before the referendum, around noon, I could hear from my desk the distant sound of an Imam promoting Yes-for-stability in his Friday sermon; there were reports that the same was taking place at mosques across the country.

True Colors: Hair Dye and the Hidden History of Postwar America

My favorite Malcolm Gladwell piece:

In 1956, when Shirley Polykoff was a junior copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding, she was given the Clairol account. The product the company was launching was Miss Clairol, the first hair-color bath that made it possible to lighten, tint, condition, and shampoo at home, in a single step-to take, say, Topaz (for a champagne blond) or Moon Gold (for a medium ash), apply it in a peroxide solution directly to the hair, and get results in twenty minutes. When the Clairol sales team demonstrated their new product at the International Beauty Show, in the old Statler Hotel, across from Madison Square Garden, thousands of assembled beauticians jammed the hall and watched, openmouthed, demonstration after demonstration. “They were astonished,” recalls Bruce Gelb, who ran Clairol for years, along with his father, Lawrence, and his brother Richard. “This was to the world of hair color what computers were to the world of adding machines. The sales guys had to bring buckets of water and do the rinsing off in front of everyone, because the hairdressers in the crowd were convinced we were doing something to the models behind the scenes.”

Miss Clairol gave American women the ability, for the first time, to color their hair quickly and easily at home. But there was still the stigma-the prospect of the disapproving mother-in-law. Shirley Polykoff knew immediately what she wanted to say, because if she believed that a woman had a right to be a blonde she also believed that a woman ought to be able to exercise that right with discretion. “Does she or doesn't she?” she wrote, translating from the Yiddish to the English. “Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” Clairol bought thirteen ad pages in Life in the fall of 1956, and Miss Clairol took off like a bird. That was the beginning. For Nice 'n Easy, Clairol's breakthrough shampoo-in hair color, she wrote, “The closer he gets, the better you look.” For Lady Clairol, the cream-and-bleach combination that brought silver and platinum shades to Middle America, she wrote, “Is it true blondes have more fun?” and then, even more memorably, “If I've only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” (In the summer of 1962, just before “The Feminine Mystique” was published, Betty Friedan was, in the words of her biographer, so “bewitched” by that phrase that she bleached her hair.) Shirley Polykoff wrote the lines; Clairol perfected the product. And from the fifties to the seventies, when Polykoff gave up the account, the number of American women coloring their hair rose from seven per cent to more than forty per cent.

Gender and the Philosophy Club

Women200 Stephen Stich and Wesley Buckwalter in The Philosopher's Magazine:

Once upon a time, a Club was started by some really clever people. It was a very prestigious Club whose members were thought to be some of the deepest thinkers in all the world. Since the members of the Club were lovers of wisdom, they were called “Philosophers”. To get into the Club, one had to be very bright and very well educated; one also had to relish argument and debate and be very good at it. The Club was founded a long, long time ago, back in the days when men got to do all the cool stuff, and women were treated as second-class citizens (or worse!). So there were no women in the Club.

In addition to being very clever, and very good at argument and debate, there was also another requirement for getting into the Club, and that will take a bit of explaining. In their arguments and debates, Philosophers frequently come up with rather odd hypothetical cases – thought experiments, as they are sometimes called – that pose interesting philosophical questions. Some of these thought experiments focus on whether a character in a hypothetical story really has knowledge of some proposition; others ask whether an action recounted in the story was just or morally permissible; still others raise questions about free will, personal identity, meaning and other matters. Here’s an example that focuses on knowledge:

Bob has a friend, Jill, who has driven a Buick for many years. Bob therefore thinks that Jill drives an American car. He is not aware, however, that her Buick has recently been stolen, and he is also not aware that Jill has replaced it with a Pontiac, which is a different kind of American car. Does Bob really know that Jill drives an American car, or does he only believe it?

Thought experiments like this one are called “Gettier cases” since a man named “Gettier” first proposed them. Philosophers often find that they can make spontaneous judgments about these questions. After hearing or reading a thought experiment, a compelling answer just pops into their minds. They have no conscious awareness of the psychological processes that lead to that answer. Nonetheless, the answer seems to be true.

My Brother’s a Keeper


“Honey, Shaka’s trending again!” I realize my brother has moved into a new phase of sports celebrity when his name—Shaka Smart—becomes a trending topic on Twitter, right alongside Rebecca Black. His name is being inserted into spam tweets from China (“ShakaSmart International IQ Test … Play Free Online”), and women are posting comments about … well, you know. A Tennessee Volunteers fan, whose team is in the market for a hot young coach, jokingly speculates on the fact that Shaka wore an “orange tie” against Purdue. (Actually, the tie was golden.) A confused Brazilian asks, in Twitter Portuguese, “Does anyone know what is Shaka Smart?” In his second year as the men’s basketball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, Shaka has become “one of the most talked-about young coaches in the game,” sayeth the AP. This all happened very quickly. First, VCU beat USC in the NCAA Tournament’s “First Four.” Then the Rams demolished Georgetown. Two days later, Purdue met a similar fate, and VCU entered the Sweet 16 as a media darling. By this point, anything Shaka did or said was a newsworthy event. After the Purdue game, a Sports Illustrated writer reveled in a courtside hug between my brother and my mom. When I called mom to ask about it, she said she’d just gotten off the phone with the Washington Post. “The reporter was asking about his early character-building experiences,” she said.

more from our own, dear J.M. Tyree at Slate here.

the universe, a clock


London before the mid-1600s was a general calamity. The streets were full of thieves, murderers and human waste. Death was everywhere: doctors were hapless, adults lived to about age 30, children died like flies. In 1665, plague moved into the city, killing sometimes 6,000 people a week. In 1666, an unstoppable fire burned the city to the ground; the bells of St. Paul’s melted. Londoners thought that the terrible voice of God was “roaring in the City,” one witness wrote, and they would do best to accept the horror, calculate their sins, pray for guidance and await retribution. In the midst of it all, a group of men whose names we still learn in school formed the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. They thought that God, while an unforgiving judge, was also a mathematician. As such, he had organized the universe according to discernible, mathematical law, which, if they tried, they could figure out. They called themselves “natural philosophers,” and their motto was “Nullius in verba”: roughly, take no one’s word for anything. You have an idea? Demonstrate it, do an experiment, prove it. The ideas behind the Royal Society would flower into the Enlightenment, the political, cultural, scientific and educational revolution that gave rise to the modern West.

more from Ann Finkbeiner at the NYT here.

philosophy war


Dr Kissinger famously said that the fierceness of academic quarrels is proportionate to the triviality of the issues; he was mistaken. These issues can engage fundamental questions of intellectual and moral life. They can far outweigh the factitious mummeries of diplomacy. When Heidegger ruled that the destiny of the West turned on the Latin mistranslation of the Greek “to be”, he was exaggerating, but his hyperbole was meaningful. According to Pierre Bouretz, a “thirty years’ war has rent apart the philosophical conscience of Europe”. (Where conscience signifies both “conscience” and “consciousness”, a blurring duality integral to French.) This war set at radical odds the deconstruction and reconstruction of reason; the subversion or transgression of metaphysics; antithetical ways of eliminating classical concepts of the ego and of individual consciousness. Implicit in the polemics were the liquidation or salvation of the heritage of Kant and the Enlightenment, a casus belli crucial to Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School no less than to Michel Foucault. Further in the background, but of consequence, were almost incompatible readings of Descartes opposing Jacques Derrida to Foucault in the period from 1963 to 1972. And although it is the European matrix that is the origin and context of these clashes, the impact on philosophical teaching and argument in the United States (later in Japan) proved seminal.

more from George Steiner at the TLS here.