Please note that this blog no longer accepts comments (there was
too much spam coming in!). If you're reading this blog and want to
respond then please use the contact form on the site.
You can also follow me on twitter.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about what happened to the cology of North
America after the asteroid impact of 66 million years ago:
Last week, just as a meteorite exploded over Russia, I used this
space for an email to Charles Darwin, wherever he is. I told him
about the now overwhelming evidence for an asteroid impact having
caused the extinction of dinosaurs. I thought he would be
interested because it is a striking exception to his
"uniformitarian" assumption that, in the past, evolution was shaped
by the same forces still operating on Earth today.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal, published
the day after a big asteroid missed the earth by 17,000 miles and a
smaller one blew out windows in Russia, is about the huge one that
extinguished the dinosaurs just over 66 million years ago:
The future has a richer past than the past did. By this I mean
that one of the great benefits of modern science is that it
enriches our knowledge of the past. Imagine how thrilled Charles
Darwin would have been to learn this week that it's now all but
certain that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an
asteroid (much bigger than the one that missed us this week)
slamming into Mexico about 66,038,000 years ago. In fact, I might
send him an email to explain.
It's not a race, exactly, but there's an intriguing uncertainty
about whether a former U.S. president or a software magnate will
cause the next deliberate extinction of a species in the wild.
Will Jimmy Carter eradicate Guinea worm
before Bill Gates eradicates polio?
It is more than a third of a century since a human disease was
extinguished. The last case of smallpox was in 1977, and in those
days health experts expected other diseases to follow smallpox
quickly into oblivion. Polio has repeatedly disappointed campaigners by
hanging on, though it now affects less than 1% as many people as at
its peak in the 1950s.
The generosity of Bill Gates has done much to speed the decline
of polio, and he and most experts now see its end within six years
at most. India, 10 years ago the worst-affected country, has been
polio-free since 2011, and only three countries still host the
virus: Pakistan, Afghanistan and especially Nigeria. Though the
murder of nine polio vaccinators in Pakistan by Islamists in
December was a tragic setback, last year there were just 222 new
polio cases world-wide.
My latest Mind and Matter column is on the
esoteric topic of insect navigation:
A friend who once studied courtship in dung beetles alerted me
last week to a discovery. On moonless nights, African scarab
beetles, which roll balls of dung, can use the Milky Way to
navigate in fairly straight lines away from dung piles, thus
avoiding other dung beetles keen to steal their dung balls. "Now
this is real science, simple, fascinating and completely
wonderful," enthused my friend.
Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden and her colleagues put
dung beetles inside a planetarium at Wits University in South
Africa with a pile of dung, and with or without little caps over
their eyes. The results of the beetles' peregrinations clearly showed that being able to see the
stars keeps the beetles relatively straight, even if just the Milky
Way is projected overhead without other stars. This is the first
demonstration of star navigation by insects and of Milky Way
navigation by any animal.