I reviewed four new science books for The New York Times. They span millions of years, beginning with the birth of humanity and ending with a serious look at AI.
Consider the case of Ned Kelly's skull. You can read my article about the bushranger's DNA and the solution to this decades-old mystery at The New York Times.
Here, the August 22, 1880 article in The New York Times reporting the capture of the Kelly gang.
The sins of the fathers may be visited on the deoxyribose nucleic acids of the sons. I wrote about the "Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance" for Slate.
Since 2004, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling thinking about tsunamis and earthquakes. The monster wave that hit Indonesia that year was caused by a earthquake so violent it shifted the axis of the earth a few centimeters. Now I can’t get this out of my mind: The planet literally shook.
Everyone has one--whether its global warming, phthalates, flu, or junk food--it's that thought that makes them quake. Still, despite the fear, most people do their best to live sustainably, heal naturally, and raise their children right.
But how often is it that one's efforts feel good enough? For the most part, the solutions are inadequate or unachievable or overwhelmingly, confusingly both. If you turn on the air conditioner because you are too warm, you cause global warming. If you vaccinate your children to protect them, you fear the vaccine may hurt them, and yet if you get cancer, it’s your fault for being so angry and fearful all the time. What if you don’t actually want to walk to the local abattoir and slaughter your own pig so you can eat your sausages morally? What does that even mean?
You could consider optimism, for a change. I thought about it a lot when I reviewed Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist."
The Bengalese finch is an aviary bird, bred over centuries for its attractive plumage. It comes in various combinations of white, black and brown. One particularly pretty version is silver. It is also prized for its gregarious and easy-going nature and its complex warbling song. Which is strange because the finch's closest wild relative, the white-rumped munia has a simple, predictable song as well being incredibly shy and easily upset. How could the finch, bred for its colour, have evolved these other elaborate traits as well?
Solving the puzzle of the Bengalese finch promises to throw light on a much larger question in biology: how nature creates complex things.
It was announced today that Neandertals had the same version of the FoxP2 gene that humans do. Because it's thought that our particular version of FoxP2 is involved in speech and language, it may be that Neandertals also had these skills. It'll be interesting to see if Neandertals get an upgrade accordingly, or if the significance of FoxP2 is now downgraded because it turns out to not be so uniquely human after all. National Geographic, Current Biology, Anthropology.net.
More news from one the teams sequencing the Neandertal genome. Our large cousins traveled at least 2000 miles further than thought. Mitochondrial DNA analyses carried out by Svante Paabo and colleagues show that Neandertals traveled to central Asia and Siberia, and may even have reached Mongolia and China. Nature.
Human-animal embryos have been given the go-ahead by the British government. Guardian.
How do bacteria survive encased in ice for millions of years? Scientist used to believe the genetic material was essentially frozen in stasis. New studies suggest that in order to stay viable the bacteria must undergo continual DNA repair over the many long years of preservation. PNAS. If life is to be found on Mars or Europa, they suggest, the best place to look will be in ice.