Friday, December 16, 2011

Daily Hitchens: In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011

Vale Hitch, a man of his times not afraid to use his intelligence and knowledge against the forces of ignorance and superstition.

Daily Hitchens: In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011: Vanity Fair Christopher Hitchens—the incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant—died today at the ag...

Friday, September 23, 2011

For 100 years, the origins of the first walkabout were but a hair’s breadth away

  • 23 Sep 2011
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

A CENTURY-OLD lock of hair from a Western Australian man has been used to piece together the entire genetic code of an Aboriginal person for the first time.

The DNA study shows that the first Australians were also the world’s first human explorers, leaving Africa and the Middle East at least 24,000 years before the ancestors of Europeans and Asians began their travels.
Eske Willerslev, of the University of Copenhagen, said these earliest sojourners would have moved quickly east and south through unknown territory before arriving in Australia about 50,000 years ago.
‘‘It was a truly amazing journey that must have demanded exceptional survival skills and bravery,’’ Professor Willerslev said.
His team’s study established Aborigines as the population outside Africa with the longest association with the land on which they live today, he said.
Almost 100 years ago, a young Aboriginal man from the Goldfields region gave some of his long hair to a British anthropologist, Alfred Haddon, and it ended up in a British museum.
A team member, Michael Bunce, of Murdoch University, said that five years ago it would have been ‘‘laughable’’ to suggest DNA from century-old hair could be used to obtain a human genome sequence.
But hair was proving to be a wonderful source of ancient DNA with which to study the history of human populations.
‘‘The amazing thing is how the technology has moved on so quickly,’’ Dr Bunce, who has also worked with Professor Willerslev on DNA from the 4000-year-old, frozen hair of a Greenland Eskimo, said.
The Aboriginal man’s genome sequence was compared with DNA of populations from Asia, Europe and Africa to show there were multiple waves of migration into Asia from Africa, rather than just one, as some previous studies had suggested.
The researchers estimated the ancestors of Han Chinese left the Middle East after the ancestors of Aborigines set out, about 70,000 years ago. Their findings are published in the journal Science.
In a separate study, another team looked for signs that the ancestors of people alive in south-east Asia today had interbred with Denisovans – recently discovered archaic humans that lived more than 30,000 years ago.
Traces of Denisovan DNA, which was extracted from a pinkie finger bone unearthed in a Siberian cave in 2008, were found in the DNA of Aborigines, New Guineans, and other populations.
This study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, also supports the theory of multiple waves of migration into Asia, the researchers said.

Friday, August 19, 2011

UK’s first-ever statue of Charles Dickens

  • 19 Aug 2011
  • The Independent

THE DESIGN has been chosen for the United Kingdom’s first-ever statue of its greatest novelist, Charles Dickens, in spite of his request, made at his funeral, that there should be no monuments in his honour.
GETTYMartin Jennings’ winning design for the Charles Dickens statue, which will be cast in bronze and unveiled in Portsmouth and (inset) the great man himself
Portfolio, Viewspaper, page 14
The larger-than-life bronze statue of Dickens reading in a chair will be unveiled in Portsmouth, the writer’s birthplace, in August next year as part of the celebrations of the bicentenary of his birth. Martin Jennings, who produced the winning design, is best known for his bronzes of the poets John Betjeman, at London’s St Pancras railway station, and of Philip Larkin in Hull.
The decision to commission the statue was not made without controversy. In his will Dickens wrote: “I conjure to my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatsoever.” Partly as a result, there has never been a statue of the author in this country, although such monuments exist in Sydney and Philadelphia as a tribute to his international popularity.
The final testimony is now interpreted by many, including the writer’s descendants, as a request that he should not have the kind of grand mausoleum popular in Victorian times. Such was the public grief at Dickens’s death that Queen Victoria decreed, against his wishes, that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey.
Ian Dickens, great great grandson of the author, said the comments in the will must be taken in context. “He was talking to his friends about his funeral and burial, he talks about the number of mourners and what they should be wearing and the lack of pomp,” he said. “He goes on to talk about not wanting some ghastly memorial and we absolutely believe that is in relation to the mausoleums so prevalent in Victorian times. He absolutely didn’t want that.”
Mr Dickens said the maquette produced by Mr Jennings would show the personality of the great writer. “One of the things [the sculptor] wants to communicate, which I was very passionate about, was that the statue conveys Dickens’s sense of creativity, his sparkle, wit and energy,” he said.
The winning maquette was based on a photograph of Dickens reading to his daughters Mary and Catherine at his home in Gad’s Hill in Kent. His great great grandsonsaidaseatedfigurewouldmake the statue more approachable. Children will not be discouraged from climbing onto the statue’s knee or its pile of books. “Dickens was a man of the people and we wanted people to be able to interact easily with him. We didn’t want a huge, imposing stand-offish figure.”
Professor Tony Pointon, chair of the Charles Dickens Statue committee, said £100,000wasneededtopayforthestatue in Portsmouth’s Guildhall Square. “It was an enormous responsibility to have something worthy of Dickens,” he said.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

New Research on the Black Death

Twist in the tail as rats found not guilty over spread of plague

The Guardian
18 Aug 2011

Archaeologist says evidence shows Black Death was actually carried by people

Rats weren’t the carriers of the plague after all. A study by an archaeologist looking at the ravages of the Black Death in London, in late 1348 and 1349, has exonerated the most famous animal villains in history.
As the plague spread, thousands of citizens hastily wrote wills to leave their goods to children, who died only days later
“The evidence just isn’t there to support it,” said Barney Sloane, author of The Black Death in London. “We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren’t there. And all the evidence I’ve looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn’t time for the rats to be spreading it.”
He added: “It was certainly the Black Death but it is by no means certain what that disease was, whether in fact it was bubonic plague.”
Sloane, who was a field archaeologist with the Museum of London, working on many medieval sites, is now attached to English Heritage. He has concluded that the spread of the 1348-49 plague, the worst to hit the capital, was far faster, with an impact far worse than had been estimated previously.
While some suggest half the city’s population of 60,000 died, he believes it could have been as high as two-thirds. Years later, in 1357, merchants were trying to get a tax cut because a third of all property in the city was empty.
Sloane spent nearly 10 years researching his book, poring over records and excavation reports. Many records are missing. Names of those buried in three emergency cemeteries seem not to have been recorded.
However, Sloane found a valuable resource in records from the Court of Hustings, of wills made and then enacted during the plague years. As the disease gripped – in October 1348 rather than the late summer others suggested, reaching its height in April 1349 – the numbers of wills soared as panicstricken wealthy citizens realised their deaths were probably imminent.
On 5 February 1349 Johanna Ely, her husband already dead, arranged provision for her children, Richard and Johanna. She left them property, spelled out which beds and even pots and pans each was to receive, and placed them in the guardianship of her own mother. She was dead within 72 hours.
It appeared to citizens that everyone might die. Richard de Shordych left goods and money to his son Benedict when he died in early March: his son outlived him by a fortnight.
Money, youth, and formerly robust good health were no protection. Edward III’s own daughter, Joan, sailed for Spain to marry Pedro, heir to the throne of Castile. She would never see her wedding day as she died of the plague within 10 days of landing.
John of Reading, a monk in Westminster, left one of the few witness accounts. He described deaths happening so fast there was “death without sorrow, marriage without affection, self-imposed penance, want without poverty, and flight without escape”.
In Rochester, William of Dene wrote that nobody could be found to bury the dead, “but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard”.
Sloane estimates that people living near the cemetery at Aldersgate, which is now buried under Charterhouse Square, in Smithfield, would have seen a corpse carried past every five minutes.
He believes there was little difference in mortality rates between rich and poor, because they lived so closely packed together. The plague, he is convinced, spread from person to person.
Mortality continued to rise throughout the bitterly cold winter, when fleas could not have survived, and there is no evidence of enough rats.
Black rat skeletons have been found at some 14th century sites, but not in high enough numbers to make them the plague carriers, he said.
Vote for this storyWell Written

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Obscure word of the day: the dot above the lower case letter i is called a tittle - honest!