The Beatles on January 21, 1969 Podcast

All four Beatles returned to work on January 21, 1969.  Billy Preston gets credit for lightening their moods but the greatly improved atmosphere is evident today.  Billy won’t turn up until tomorrow afternoon.   John gives a crap, George isn’t so cranky, Paul is less bossy, and the little Ringo says is good-natured.

The existence of this session was overlooked until a few years ago.  I will tell you the story of how this happened because it is a good illustration of how knowledge advances. Continue reading

How Deep Is Your Love?

I was just reading some of the coverage of Yellowstone’s recent earthquake swarm

Let me get you up to speed in case you haven’t been following this.  There has been an increase in mild earthquake activity in Yellowstone Park recently.  Mild earthquakes are common there because Yellowstone Park sits on top of an active volcano.  We say that the volcano is active because there is magma five  miles underground, not because it is erupting or necessarily about to erupt.  Continue reading

Would you let your daughter mate with one?

My last few posts have been on the fluffy side.  Here is something with a bit more science to it.  The current issue of National Geographic contains a great article that compiles a bunch of the recent thinking about the Neandertals.

A fair piece of the article is devoted to whether or not we ever interbred with Neandertals.  They got to Europe 200,000 years before we did and they were still around when we finally made it.  What happened when we met?  Could we have interbred?

Genetic evidence suggests that our last common ancestor with the Neandertals lived 400,000 years ago.  A few fossils have been found that some researchers think are from human-Neandertal hybrids. 

The article also discusses theories about why the Neandertals disappeared 15,000 years after we reached Europe.  Did we kill them, eat them (!), or simply outcompete them?  The article comes to no conclusion but covers a lot of interesting ground.  As always, National Geographic is worth checking out.

I’ll give National Geographic four Lemmys.

Update to Monty Python post

Whether or not you are a scientist, it’s important to allow new information to change your mind.  Yesterday I realized that I needed to revise my post about Monty Python’s Galaxy Song.  This is the song from The Meaning Of Life in which Eric Idle sings a bunch of astronomical facts. 

Someone was trying to explain the change of seasons to a bunch of little kids, including Little Rock, who is 3 1/2.  She wanted to explain that the northern hemisphere is a little farther away from the sun in winter.  She only had about four minutes to do it so she quickly told the kids that the earth rotates, it revolves around the sun, and the entire solar system moves around the galaxy.  She also gave the speed at which all these things happened.  I can’t imagine that many of these kids had a clue what she was talking about. 

Little Rock must have realized she was making it all up.  He told her that he shot down the moon.  Apparently he put a stick in some poison berries and put the thing there and the thing there and then he shot down the moon.

Anyway, the way she was rattling off those facts reminded me of The Galaxy Song.  I remembered the lyrics and realized that I misunderstood the first line.

Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving

In my initial post about the song, I interpreted “evolving” narrowly and assumed Idle was thinking of natural selection.  Life evolves, but planets don’t evolve.  Yesterday I remembered that geologists use the word differently.  When they say the earth evolves, they just mean that it changes over time.  It wasn’t always the way it is now.  Mountains and oceans form and disappear.  Continents merge and separate.   It takes a long time, but the world is always changing.  That’s what Monty Python was singing about.  I updated my views (and my blog post.)

I’ll give myself four Lemmys for learning something new.

Conversation between two apes explained

My chimp/chump story from last week is a simplified example of how one ape species split into two.  This splitting is called speciation.  The apes in the story are members of the species that was the most recent common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees (and bonobos.)

Let’s pause for one of the digressions I like to call drum solos.  Don’t think you have ever heard of bonobos?  Sure you have.  Remember that thing about a kind of chimpanzee that resolves its differences by having sex?  That’s the bonobo, but they actually are a separate species from chimps.  They split off from chimps after we did.  Thanks, Mickey

Why five million years ago?  We infer that date from several pieces of evidence.  We have 4.4 million year old fossils of creatures called australopithecines, who are our ancestors, but not chimp ancestors.  The split must have happened before then. 

DNA provides the link we have yet to find in the fossil record.  We know how quickly DNA mutates on average.  We count the differences between human DNA and chimp DNA to calculate the number of years it should take for those differences to accumulate.  The answer is five million years. 

We feel confident in the five million year figure because this method was also used to calculate the date of our split from orangutans.  The fossil record confirms that the orangutan date is correct so we know the method works.

Now that we know when the human-chimpanzee split happened, we might wonder why it happened then.  Five million years ago was the end of a harsh cold snap.  Africa was colder and drier than it had been so the forests were breaking up and turning into woodlands.  We all know about the mass extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous period.  Climate changes killed off the dinosaurs and many other animals and gave the mammals a chance.  Or when the internet liberated music and all music became free and corporate music died and only the most talented bands… OK, bad example. 

The point is that environmental changes can drive evolutionary change.  This is what happened five million years ago.  It was getting really competitive in the trees.  Those who were above average at tree living were more likely to survive to reproduce.  Those who could make it elsewhere were also more likely to reproduce.  Those who reproduce are likely to pass along whatever advantages they have to their children.  The advantages don’t have to be very big to have a large effect.  Even small advantages will become more common over a number of generations. Future mutations will increase existing advantages or create new ones.  The mutations eventually add up to a huge change. It’s important to remember that this takes place over a very long time.  It’s not like in the Ringo Starr movie Caveman in which people go from walking bent-over to walking fully upright in a minute. 

If, as in this story, the proto-chimps stay in the trees and the proto-humans live on the ground, the two groups will stop inter-breeding.  Eventually, so many differences will accumulate that the two groups can no longer inter-breed.  Then we say that speciation has happened. 

We will give speciation five Lemmys because we wouldn’t even be here without it.

Fake Bigfoot was a hoax – no kidding

Remember the fake Bigfoot DNA a few weeks ago?  The story was updated a week later but I missed it because I was washing my hair or something.  The corpse surfaced and turned out to be a frozen Halloween costume.  That takes guts.  I wonder why they thought that freezing it was necessary.  I also wonder how self-styled “Sasquatch detective” Steve Kulls needed two hours to realize it was a totally lame fake. 

People see what they want to see, I guess.  At least Kulls eventually figured it out.

No Lemmys.

A conversation between two apes

A1:  Hey, man.  I’m hungry.

A2:  Me too.  There isn’t enough fruit any more.

A1:  That’s because there aren’t enough trees.

A2:  There should be some fruit in those trees over there.

A1:  Are you crazy?  How are you going to get past the tigers?

A2:  Run.

A1:  Run?  On what?  Your legs, ankles, feet and hips are adapted for swinging in trees.  You can hold on with your arms and eat with your feet but that knuckle walking isn’t going to get anywhere quickly.

A2:  In case you haven’t noticed, there’s nothing to eat here, Einstein.

A1: You go out there on the grass and the only thing that will be eaten is YOU.

A2:  I’ll take my chances on the ground.  It’s better than starving to death with a bunch of chumps like you. 

The second ape jumps to the ground and is promptly eaten by a tiger.  The first ape jumps out of the tree, runs around the tiger and says

A2:  Who is the chump now? 

The first ape happens to have funky hips that let him run a little faster.  He makes it to the other trees and finds 72 female apes, who feed him fruit and have sex with him all day long.  He lives like a king and has 350 children and 800 grandchildren.  They inherit his funky fast-running hips.  Some of their offspring have funky ankles that enable them to run even faster. 

They never forget about the chumps who stayed in the trees.  Millions of years later, they invent National Geographic and TiVo and make movies of their cousins the chumps (now called “chimps” to be PC) eating ants off sticks and with their naked butts up in the air. 

There is some truth behind the joke.  I’ll explain in a few days.