Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Why were stone handaxes made in the same way for a million years?

Early man made some useful hand tools
And no-one could say they were fools
But the axes they made
They failed to upgrade
‘cause no-one could teach them the rules.


In considering the evolution of human intelligence there is uncertainty about when an effective language first emerged and there is also a mystery of the early stone hand axes, which were made to the same design for about a million years. If the early hominins who made these tools were really that intelligent one might expect that someone in more than 70,000 generations would have found a way of making better stone hand axes.

The Black Kite - A Bird that uses fire as a tool/

An intelligent bird is the kite,
For a fire it knows how to ignite.
And some scientists claim
It can carry a flame
So its prey can be caught in their flight.

Yesterday the British newspapers were full of the news that Black Kites in Australia deliberately removed burning embers from a bush fire and dropped it on nearby grassland, setting the grass alight. The small mammals and lizards living deep in the grass would become visible as they tried to escape from the flames, and could then be easily caught.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

What trees should we plant to combat global warming


An old oak tree at Ashridge
Climate change is a fully proved fact.
Keep our woods and our forests intact.
But should we plant more?
Conifers I deplore;
Oak and beech are the trees that attract.

This limerick was inspired by today's news on the BBC web site "Wrong type of trees in Europe increased global warning." 

The Time Machine (and other "futures" short stories)

“Eureka” shouted the scientist as he completed work on the new super-intelligent computer which controlled an attractive looking robot. A little more work and we can all live like Greek gods, waited on by robots.


In the next lab another scientist was building a time machine and decided he couldn’t wait and used his invention to visit this idyllic Grecian future.

He landed in a wonderful garden where rather bloated but otherwise god-like figures feasted. He discovered they were called Eloi and marvelled at the success of his fellow inventor’s computer. "Surely this must be a living Paradise" he thought.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Environmental Limericks

On FutureLearn there is a course
(New South Wales is a source I endorse)
It's environmental
With  humanities (gentle)
Put over with plenty of force.

I  have recently been doing a number of FutureLearn courses, as they encourage me to think outside the box and the current one is on Environmental Humanities, put on by the University of New South Wales. As scientist with little formal training in the humanities I have found the discussion so far interesting- and the comments between the students on the course stimulating.

We are all trapped on a planet where the climate is changing and part of the course involved students suggesting a task area and relating it to the discussions. I though about how, through this blog, I could introduce more environmental posts to alert people of the issues by linking simple poetry to a topic - by resurrecting my limerick posts - although I do not promise one a week, which was the original idea.

Were there significant differences between Neanderthals and us?

Adam Benton, on Evoanth recently posted an interesting article "How similar were Neanderthals and humans?" which looked at the evidence and while there are definite differences it is not clear how significant they are -in deciding why they became extinct and we did not.

I responded:

It might be worth thinking about later encounters – when the Europeans discovered America and Australia. The Europeans came off best because they had the stronger cultural communal knowledge base, which enabled them to build more powerful weapons. It might be a complete accident of history that the discovery of how to make iron happened on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other.


Could we have done better than the Neanderthals because we had a better cultural knowledge base which gave us more advanced technology and allowed us to work together in larger groups, perhaps with some people beginning to take on specialist roles. At the time that language was first appearing the key to having a better cultural knowledge base would be having a more powerful language. Thus it may be that when modern humans first met with Neanderthals we collectively “knew more” – so we came off best – just as Europeans came off better in America and Australia – because they had better technology.


If we look at language as a self-modifying tool there were almost certainly some key “inventions” – such as being able to differentiate between the past, present and future, counting, etc.  Perhaps it was just an accident of history that one of our species, rather than a Neanderthal, made the first key technical advances which allowed language to develop and that Neanderthal brains were just as capable in that respect as our own.