Fossilized Compassion

This made me happy.  Excerpted from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, ©2003:

Also found at Lake Turkana by (Kamoya) Kimeu was KNM-ER 1808, a female 1.7 million years old, which gave scientists their first clue that Homo erectus was more interesting and complex than previously thought.  The woman’s bones were deformed and covered in coarse growths, the result of an agonizing condition called hypervitaminosis A, which can come only from eating the liver of a carnivore.  This told us first of all that Homo erectus was eating meat.  Even more surprising was that the amount of growth showed that she had lived weeks or even months with the disease.  Someone had looked after her.  It was the first sign of tenderness in hominid evolution.

Ernest

Another excerpt from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, ©2003:

For all his success, (Ernest) Rutherford was not an especially brilliant man and was actually pretty terrible at mathematics. Often during lectures he would get so lost in his own equations that he would give up halfway through and tell the students to work it out for themselves. According to his longtime colleague James Chadwick, discover of the neutron, he wasn’t even particularly clever at experimentation. He was simply tenacious and open minded. For brilliance he substituted shrewdness and a kind of daring. His mind, in the words of one biographer, was “always operating out towards the frontiers, as far as he could see, and that was a great deal further than most other men.” Confronted with an intractable problems, he was prepared to work at it harder and longer than most people and to be more receptive to unorthodox explanations. His greatest breakthrough came because he was prepared to spend immensely tedious hours sitting at a screen counting alpha particle scintillations, as they were known – the sort of work that would normally have been farmed out. He was one of the first to see – possibly the very first – that the power inherent in the atom could, if harnessed, make bombs powerful enough to “make this old world vanish in smoke.”

This is the sort of person kids should be reading about in school. Tenacity and open-mindedness are skills we can all cultivate.

We are stardust…

Excerpted from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, ©2003:

Because they are so long-lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms– up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested– probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed; however much you may wish it, you are not yet one with Elvis Presley.)

And how could I read that and not think of this? ↓

 

Birth

“Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced.  Tune your (analog) television to any channel it doesn’t receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang.  The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.”  ~Bill Bryson, in A Short History of Nearly Everything ©2003

And just like that, static becomes fascinating.

See

In this excerpt from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams ©1985, John Watson, also known as “Wonko the Sane,” discusses the scientific method:

I’m not trying to prove anything, by the way. I’m a scientist and I know what constitutes proof. But the reason I call myself by my childhood name is to remind myself that a scientist must also be absolutely like a child. If he sees a thing, he must say that he sees it, whether it was what he thought he was going to see or not. See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you were expecting. Most scientists forget that… So, the other reason I call myself Wonko the Sane is so that people will think I am a fool. That allows me to say what I see when I see it. You can’t possibly be a scientist if you mind people thinking that you’re a fool.

It reminded me of this quote by Leo Buscaglia:

I don’t mind it when people call me “Kooky Buscaglia.”  I find it gives me a lot of leeway with my behavior.

(That was an aside.)

Preconceived Notions

Excerpted from John Glassie’s excellent biography of Athanasius Kircher, A Man of Misconceptions ©2012:

In 1610, twelve years before Kircher arrived in Cologne, Galileo Galilei, a mathematics professor in Padua, published a slim volume, Starry Messenger, about the observations he’d made with a new instrument he called the perspicillium, or the telescope.  It was a very much improved-upon version of the spyglasses that had recently begun to appear in Europe.  The configuration (a concave lens at one of a tube, and a convex lens at the other) was fairly simple, but Galileo’s handcrafted device made things appear, as he wrote, “nearly one thousand times larger and over thirty times closer” than they would with the naked eye.  Among other discoveries, he observed four moons revolving around Jupiter.  The most basic implication of this was clear to any student of natural philosophy willing to admit it.  (At the Jesuit school of La Flèche in Anjou, a student named René Descartes is said to have written a sonnet celebrating the news.)  If moons revolved around Jupiter, maybe earth wasn’t really the center of the universe, around which everything revolved.  Galileo also reported that “the moon is not robed in a smooth and polished surface,” as Aristotelian doctrine had it, “but is in fact rough and uneven, covered everywhere, just like the Earth’s surface, with huge prominences, deep valleys, and chasms.”

The Church seemed willing at first to consider these findings.  Clavius and other Jesuit astronomers held a reception for Galileo in Rome, and while Clavius declared telescopes “troublesome to operate,” he confirmed the existence of moons around Jupiter.  On the question of the rough surface of the moon, however, the seventy-one-year-old astronomer couldn’t bring himself to believe his eyes.  Perhaps the moon was just unevenly dense, he suggested.  In a letter to the Church’s chief theologian, a group of Jesuit astronomers wrote together that they were “not sufficiently certain” about the matter.  In other words, preconceived notions were such that Clavius couldn’t see through a telescope what modern people, who know the truth, can recognize with the naked eye.

Being Green Again

Excerpt from The Dream That Must Be Interpreted by Rumi (1207-1273):

   We began
as a mineral. We emerged into plant life
and into animal state, and then into being human,
and always we have forgotten our former states,
except in early spring when we slightly recall
being green again.
That’s how a young person turns
toward a teacher. That’s how a baby leans
toward the breast, without knowing the secret
of its desire, yet turning instinctively.

Humankind is being led along an evolving course,
through this migration of intelligences,
and though we seem to be sleeping,
there is an inner wakefulness
that directs the dream,

and that will eventually startle us back
to the truth of who we are.

This is interesting to me for two reasons:  First from the religious and spiritual aspect, and second because it predates the theory of evolution by six centuries.