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Saturday Morning Science 011

Caveman Blues -I’ve been working up a piece about Neanderthals, collecting links on current research and rereading older theories about our enigmatic, long lost relatives. The problem is; we just keep finding stuff and it keeps getting written up as somehow conclusive or definitive when it’s really just cumulative. Take for example two findings from this week, I’ll cite the Science Digest articles, not because the folks at that site are doing anything wrong (in fact they are getting tighter on their writing and presentation) but because even the good science journalism sources fall into this trap.

Exhibit A: Neanderthals Died out Earlier Than Previously Thought, New Evidence Suggests . The gist: an exacting radiocarbon dating is carried out on the bones of an infant Neanderthal by a team at Oxford. The results come back and indicate that the date for Neanderthal extinction might be 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. This is a key point in determining to what degree our ancestors in Europe and Asia could have “interacted” with Neanderthal populations. It’s carefully worded; this is one study of one set of bones from one location and the writer takes care with laying out the implications.

Exhibit B:Last Neanderthals Near the Arctic Circle? This one is two days later. A multi-disciplinary team of French CNRS researchers, working with Norwegian and Russian scientists conducted an analysis of remains from a site in the polar Urals of Russian. The artifacts, flint and bone tools associated with Mousterian technologies could either be pushing the extinction date for the Neanderthals forward by 8,000 years or having early, modern humans entering Europe sooner than previously thought. There are no human or Neanderthal bones at the site. These tools could have belonged to either group.

The spread between Exhibit A and B is about 18,000 years in terms of what they are doing to previous estimates. There is really no contradiction between the two stories. We find fossils and artifacts when we find them and where we find them or not. A silly statement but it does present one of the biggest problems we face when trying to scientifically study the past. The fossil record is made up of what has survived in the places where we are looking. There are  environments where a species or culture could live out their existence and never leave a trace.

The Creationist love to erect the straw man that there are no transitional fossils; no “missing links”. Ignoring the absurdity that if you’ve found it- it ain’t missing- they are wrong. There are transitional fossils but not every step of evolution can be accounted for. Things happen to small, isolated groups that then get introduced back into the general gene pool. What happens in marginal environments can end up staying in marginal environments and if that environment is subject to environmental forces that don’t leave a footprint it’s just one more lost story. The puzzle will always have missing pieces.

The trap that science writing can fall into is that the search for the catchy headline or punchy synopsis can make it look like there is more controversy than there really is. It makes for a lively surface but also makes it hard sometimes to see the bigger picture. A similar problem comes up in claims and counter claims about extra-solar planets. Our current techniques for detection favour us finding “hot-Jupiters” and “super-Earths” and tidally locked worlds orbiting near their primary star. There has to be more to the Galaxy than that but our methods tend to give us only certain results. Still people keep writing up stories about potential “second-Earths” despite the fact that this world, the one that we know has life, wouldn’t even show up at those distances and with our current range of techniques.

Radiolab Podcasts – These have been on heavy rotation on my mp3 player. Radiolab is a radio series out of WNYC hosted by  composer, Chad Abumrad and NPR Science Correspondent, Robert Krulwich. They are infectiously enthusiastic about their topic which appears to be everything. They are big on randomness, its meaning or lack of it, statistics, perception, probability, symmetry and vice versa. They also love to play games with the edit and the mix on the show to degree that can almost get too cute at times but overall works to the benefit of their material and a real change from the rather plodding, overly earnest style of the average NPR show.  Two exceptionally good episodes are  The Universe Knows My Name and Are We Coins?. I first became aware of this program when a Facebook friend (sorry Kim, Abbas, Lex, Patrick,…I really don’t remember which one of you did it but thanks) posted a YouTube link to a lecture/presentation by Abumrad on Sound and Science. Enjoy.

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