THOUGH SHE WAS 41, nearing the end of a typical lifespan for a lowland gorilla, Alpha still had a lot of youthful exuberance — especially around a silverback named Ramar. In the early 2000s at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, Alpha would often strut and purse her lips, gaze at Ramar for long periods of time, toss hay into his face, and try to sit in his lap. Alpha’s caretakers considered giving her contraceptives. At her age, a pregnancy might have endangered both mother and baby. But was Alpha even capable of becoming pregnant? Gorillas in captivity tended to live longer than those in the wild, but they rarely reproduced after their late 30s. Did gorillas, like humans, go through menopause?
Tag Archives: Science
From the window of a Nasa aircraft flying over the Arctic, looking down on the ice sheet that covers most of Greenland, it’s easy to see why it is so hard to describe climate change. The scale of polar ice, so dramatic and so clear from a plane flying at 450 metres (1,500ft) – high enough to appreciate the scope of the ice and low enough to sense its mass – is nearly impossible to fathom when you aren’t sitting at that particular vantage point.But it’s different when you are there, cruising over the ice for hours, with Nasa’s monitors all over the cabin streaming data output, documenting in real time – dramatising, in a sense – the depth of the ice beneath. You get it, because you can see it all there in front of you, in three dimensions.
Materialism holds the high ground these days in debates over that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness. When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of brains lighting up like Christmas trees while test subjects eat apples, watch movies or dream. And aren’t all the underlying physical laws already known?From this seemly hard-nosed vantage, the problem of consciousness seems to be just one of wiring, as the American physicist Michio Kaku argued in The Future of the Mind (2014). In the very public version of the debate over consciousness, those who advocate that understanding the mind might require something other than a ‘nothing but matter’ position are often painted as victims of wishful thinking, imprecise reasoning or, worst of all, an adherence to a mystical ‘woo’.
Something has gone badly wrong with our atheists. All these self-styled intellectual titans, scientists, and philosophers have fallen horribly ill. Evolutionist faith-flayer Richard Dawkins is a wheeling lunatic, dizzy in his private world of old-fashioned whimsy and bitter neofascism. Superstar astrophysicist and pop-science impresario Neil deGrasse Tyson is catatonic, mumbling in a packed cinema that the lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space, that a spider that big would collapse under its own weight, that everything you see is just images on a screen and none of it is real. Islam-baiting philosopher Sam Harris is paranoid, his flailing hands gesticulating murderously at the spectral Saracen hordes. Free-thinking biologist PZ Myers is psychotic, screeching death from a gently listing hot air balloon. And the late Christopher Hitchens, blinded by his fug of rhetoric, fell headlong into the Euphrates.Critics have pointed out this clutch of appalling polemic and intellectual failings on a case-by-case basis, as if they all sprang from a randomized array of personal idiosyncrasies. But while one eccentric atheist might be explicable, for all of the world’s self-appointed smartest people to be so utterly deranged suggests some kind of pattern. We need, urgently, a complete theory of what it is about atheism that drives its most prominent high priests mad.
On a quiet summer evening, the Aurora, a 60ft cutter-rigged sloop, approaches the craggy shore of eastern Greenland, along what is known as the Forbidden Coast. Its captain, Sigurdur Jonsson, a sturdy man in his 50s, stands carefully watching his charts. The waters he is entering have been described in navigation books as among “the most difficult in Greenland; the mountains rise almost vertically from the sea to form a narrow bulwark, with rifts through which active glaciers discharge quantities of ice, while numerous off-lying islets and rocks make navigation hazardous”. The sloop is single-masted, painted a cheery, cherry red. Icebergs float in ominous silence.
Where Jonsson, who goes by Captain Siggi, sails, he is one of few to have ever gone. Because the splintered fjords create thousands of miles of uninhabited coastline, there has been little effort to map this region. “It’s practically uncharted,” he says. “You are almost in the same position as you were 1,000 years ago.”
A naval architect turned explorer, Siggi navigates by scanning aerial photos and uploading them into a plotter, the ship’s electronic navigation system. Sometimes he uses satellite images, sometimes shots taken by Danish geologists from an open-cockpit plane in the 1930s, on one of the only comprehensive surveys of the coast. Siggi sails by comparing what he sees on the shore to these rough outlines. “Of course, then you don’t have any soundings,” he says, referring to charts of ocean depths that sailors normally rely on to navigate and avoid running aground. “I’ve had some close calls.” Over the years, he has got better at reading the landscape to look for clues. He looks for river mouths, for example, where silt deposits might create shallow places to anchor, so that icebergs will go to ground before they crush the boat. In the age of GPS and Google Maps, it’s rare to meet someone who still entrusts his life to such analogue navigation.
Leah Durant was cleaning the unfinished basement of her home in Falls Church, Virginia, one day in October 2010 when she scraped her hand on a rusty nail. Not long after, the then-37-year-old lawyer was seated in her doctor’s office, preparing to receive a tetanus vaccine—a preventive measure that since 1947 has reduced U.S. fatalities caused by the soil-borne bacterium Clostridium tetani 500-fold.
Her physician stood to her left and leaned over her shoulder with the needle.
The pain was immediate, and so excruciating that Durant screamed.
The beloved novelist and children’s author Roald Dahl once wrote an open letter describing how his daughter Olivia suffered from measles when she was 7 years old. Olivia seemed to be recovering, Dahl wrote, and he was sitting on her bed, teaching her how to build animals out of pipe cleaners, when he noticed that she had trouble coordinating her fingers’ movements.
“‘Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her.”
“‘I feel all sleepy,’ she said.”
False: Vaccination can cause autism
In 1998, U.K. doctor Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet suggesting that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine could trigger autism. In the years after, MMR vaccination rates among 2-year-olds in England dropped below 80%. But the claim began to unravel in 2004 after journalist Brian Deer reported undisclosed conflicts of interest: Wakefield had applied for a patent on his own measles vaccine and had received money from a lawyer trying to sue companies making the MMR vaccine. Citing further concerns about ethics and misrepresentation, The Lancet retracted the paper in 2010. Shortly after, the United Kingdom’s General Medical Council permanently pulled Wakefield’s medical license.
On a cold, bright January morning I walked south across Westminster Bridge to St Thomas’ Hospital, an institution with a proud tradition of innovation: I was there to observe a procedure generally regarded as the greatest advance in cardiac surgery since the turn of the millennium – and one that can be performed without a surgeon.The patient was a man in his 80s with aortic stenosis, a narrowed valve which was restricting outflow from the left ventricle into the aorta. His heart struggled to pump sufficient blood through the reduced aperture, and the muscle of the affected ventricle had thickened as the organ tried to compensate. If left unchecked, this would eventually lead to heart failure. For a healthier patient the solution would be simple: an operation to remove the diseased valve and replace it with a prosthesis. But the man’s age and a long list of other medical conditions made open-heart surgery out of the question. Happily, for the last few years, another option has been available for such high-risk patients: transcatheter aortic valve implantation, known as TAVI for short.
Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some.” In contrast, our own lives are governed by numbers. As you read this, you are likely aware of what time it is, how old you are, your checking account balance, your weight, and so on. The exact (and exacting) numbers we think with impact everything from our schedules to our self-esteem.But, in a historical sense, numerically fixated people like us are the unusual ones. For the bulk of our species’ approximately 200,000-year lifespan, we had no means of precisely representing quantities. What’s more, the 7,000 or so languages that exist today vary dramatically in how they utilize numbers.Speakers of anumeric, or numberless, languages offer a window into how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience. In a new book, I explore the ways in which humans invented numbers, and how numbers subsequently played a critical role in other milestones, from the advent of agriculture to the genesis of writing.