Sunday, December 21, 2014

[tt] NS 2999: To save animals, we must work with their culture

NS 2999: To save animals, we must work with their culture
* 15 December 2014 by Philippa Brakes

Philippa Brakes is senior biologist at the charity Whale and Dolphin

For the first time, a global treaty has recognised non-human
culture. Now we must rethink how we preserve key species

SOMETHING momentous happened in conservation circles last month in
Ecuador. At the UN Convention on Migratory Species conference, a
resolution was passed recognising that some social mammals have

Sure, the idea of non-human culture has been around for years. But
this is the first time that it has been formally recognised by an
international treaty. And beyond acknowledging that it isn't just
humans that have socially learned traditions, this treaty opens up a
new frontier for efforts to conserve social species.

What is non-human culture? A popular definition is information or
behaviour - shared by a population or subpopulation - acquired from
others of the same species via social learning. What this means for
conservation, which often treats a species as homogeneous, is that
culture can create boundaries between social groups, affecting
behaviour, gene flow and resource use.

In 1975 sociobiologist E. O. Wilson noted the influence of social
structure on fitness, gene flow and spatial patterns in some
species. Deeper understanding only started to emerge in the past
decade, and wildlife policy has been slow to catch up.

The new resolution recognises both positive and negative
consequences of non-human culture. Individuals passing on knowledge
may increase population viability by allowing the rapid spread of
innovations amid environmental challenges, which could mean
more-resilient social groups. On the other hand, the effects of
human-induced threats may be amplified by the presence of non-human

How so? The type of threat and the type of society is important. For
example, orca societies are often conservative and so may be
reluctant to adopt an innovation in response to a new threat, like
the depletion of a food source. The distinct cultures of different
groups also lead orcas to behave in different ways, and this can
make one group more vulnerable than another. So they should be
assessed as cultural groups, rather than by absolute population

In African elephants, older matriarchs are thought to act as
"repositories of social knowledge", holding information important to
the survival and fitness of their social group, such as the location
of food or water. Their removal may have impacts beyond the loss of
one elephant.

There is also evidence that baleen whale calves learn migratory
routes from their mothers and that hunting two species - southern
right and humpback whales - meant that critical knowledge was lost.

Official recognition of non-human culture is welcome, but it is only
the first step. The challenge now is to ensure conservation practice
reflects the science.
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[tt] NS 2999: What's at stake at this week's climate summit in Lima

NS 2999: What's at stake at this week's climate summit in Lima
* 10 December 2014 by Fred Pearce

Negotiators are hammering out what major nations will promise in a
year's time in Paris - but climate scientists are wary about what
good it will do

THE world is set to warm by more than 2 °C by 2100, which puts us on
track to dangerous climate change. But UN climate negotiators
meeting in Peru's capital Lima this week are optimistic that they
can reach an agreement on planet-warming gases.

In a bid to improve the chances of a binding climate deal in Paris
next December, the process has been split into a number of stages.
As part of the timetable, major nations are expected to make formal
promises on cutting their emissions by the end of March. A prime
task of the Lima meeting is to decide what those national promises
should include.

The three biggest players have already put their cards on the table.
The 28 nations of the European Union have committed to cut emissions
to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. And last month a historic
agreement was reached by the world's top two emitters: the US and
China (see "Green stirrings").

Cash is also trickling in for the Green Climate Fund to help poor
nations - the innocent parties in global warming - adapt to changing
climate. But the promises are just under $10 billion - far short of
the $100 billion a year that rich nations agreed to mobilise by 2020
during the ill-fated negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009. The UN
Environment Programme says three times that will be needed before

The wrangling at Lima has already begun. One question is whether
nations at different stages of economic development should make
different promises. Brazil has proposed three categories: developed
nations with firm emissions targets; middle-ranking nations like
itself, which would have targets based on reducing the carbon
intensity of their economies; and least-developed nations without
firm targets.

Also, many developing countries are demanding that rich nations'
promises should include cash contributions to the Green Climate Fund
- something the European Union and others have rejected.

There are wild cards in Lima. Russia, the world's fourth largest
emitter and a major exporter of fossil fuels, has fallen out with
fellow industrialised nations. And a new government in India, the
world's third largest emitter, has yet to declare its hand.

Despite the diplomatic optimism, climate scientists are wary about
whether a deal in Paris will do enough to limit warming to 2 °C.
They hope for a firm goal to cut emissions by up to 80 per cent by
2050 - even if it is fuzzy about how to achieve it.

But old hands are warning against high expectations. Former chief UN
climate negotiator Yvo de Boer says that the meeting in Paris is
unlikely to deliver a science-driven deal. He says any agreement is
more likely to resemble the Kyoto protocol, with ad hoc national
pledges. And Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics said
this week that even a legally binding agreement might be out of
reach, and possibly counter-productive. Making targets binding would
discourage ambition, he said.

The question is whether diplomacy can match the real climate. With
2014 set to be the hottest year on record, the stakes are rising.

What's at stake

Earth's average temperature has risen by 0.85 °C since the
industrial revolution. Industry is largely to blame, alongside
deforestation and large-scale farming. To avoid warming of 2 °C,
emissions will need to be drastically cut and much of the remaining
fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground

Green stirrings

Emissions need to be cut - there's no question about that. Since
2009, many countries have set themselves voluntary targets,
including, most recently, the US and China (see below)

US pledges

o Cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 14-16% below 1990 levels by

o Cut GHG emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050

China pledges

o Peak CO[2] emissions by 2030

o Ensure about 20% of energy comes from renewables by 2030

EU pledges

o Cut GHG emissions to at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2030

o Ensure at least 27% of energy comes from renewables by 2030

Show me the money

Cutting emissions and adapting to the changing climate costs money.
Governments need to do things like devise ways of saving fuel and
build sea defences. Many poor nations don't have the cash to do
this, so the UN is working on a way to channel money to poor nations
from rich ones - traditionally the biggest polluters. The
centrepiece is the Green Climate Fund, which has so far raised $9.95
billion - but, as shown below, this is nowhere near enough.

$100 bn
How much developing countries will need each year, by 2020. A recent
report from the UN Environment Programme suggested the real figure
might be two to three times as big

$10 bn
Fundraising target for the Lima summit

$9.95 bn
Amount raised as New Scientist went to press

Even with these funds, many developing countries will experience
severe damage and losses as a result of things like more extreme
weather events predicted with climate change. Last year, the UN
opened talks about how to help them cope. This is seen by many as a
compensation scheme, because the rich largely caused the problem and
the poor will suffer many of the worst consequences. How it will
work is - for now - anyone's guess.

[tt] NS 2999: Is sexology just too human to study?

NS 2999: Is sexology just too human to study?
* 16 December 2014 by Simon Ings

* Book information
* How Sexual Desire Works: The enigmatic urge by Frederick Toates
* Published by: Cambridge University Press
* Price: £27.99

* Book information
* Fuckology: Critical essays on John Money's diagnostic concepts
by Lisa Downing, Iain Morland, Nikki Sullivan
* Published by: University of Chicago Press
* Price: £59.50

The Institute of Sexology, Wellcome Collection, London, to September

Can we hope to study something as human as sex in any scientific
way? A new exhibition and two books leave plenty of room for doubt

SEX. It's one of the few subjects about which we know everything and
nothing: a paradox facing all who study it scientifically. Sex
doesn't have to be private, but most sex acts are, so even when
shame is put aside, it's a tricky thing to study. How do you make a
science out of more or less desperate fumbling?

To judge by an exhibition on sexology, the first show at a newly
refurbished Wellcome Collection in London, researchers were more
upbeat in the 20th century.

Take Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish radical who collected books,
documents and artefacts on sexual behaviour, charted his
proclivities in coloured inks, and fought discrimination against
homosexuals. His Institute of Sexology, which was ransacked by the
Nazis in 1933, gives the name to the Wellcome show.

Then there is Alfred Kinsey, who brought taxonomic skills gained
studying gall wasps to the complexities of human sexual behaviour.
And in the 1960s and 70s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson
observed the sexual responses of anyone for whom they could get
ethical approval.

One of the strongest elements of the show looks at Marie Stopes, who
was a vigorous advocate of contraception and was opposed to sexual

Today, the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and
Lifestyles, set up in 1990, is one of the few globally to gather the
broad information that would have fascinated Stopes. Most of today's
cash funds brain-imaging studies or "performance" drugs.

Leaving Wellcome's quiet, informative show, you would be forgiven
for thinking its unblushing researchers have gifted us a profounder
understanding of ourselves. On reflection, however, it's hard to say
what their work adds up to.

Is sexology a science, or a series of well-intentioned,
evidence-based campaigns? Maybe labelling this messy field as
science is helpful, securing funding in an age of austerity. For it
is the absence of understanding of our needs and desires that
matters, showing up over time in illegal abortions, gay-bashing,
sexually transmitted diseases and more.

How Sexual Desire Works is psychologist Frederick Toates's stab at a
proper scientific account. He maps the mess as rigorously as he can,
and the book is worth it for its bibliography alone. But sexual
desire turns out to be as much about boredom, habit, disgust, rage,
self-image, disappointment and the like as it is about desire. How
to make a science out of this?

John Money, a New Zealand-born psychologist who died in 2006,
applied boundless energy to the problem, creating concepts, with
their own neologisms, such as "troopbondance". In Fuckology (another
of his), Lisa Downing and co-authors capture his story ably.

Money was interested in gender identity, and the possibilities for
gender reassignment. Depending on what you read, he either tried to
eradicate "man" and "woman" as categories, or to link sexuality and
gender with a scalpel. After a botched circumcision, David Reimer
had gender reassignment surgery at age 2, on Money's recommendation.
His miserable life and suicide in 2004 defined the psychologist's

The authors are ironic about Money's approach to his work: "To admit
the potential of being wrong, or to settle for the productive
tension of ambiguity, is not a feature of Money's rhetorical

But Money is in good company. Sexology lures big personalities:
Sigmund Freud was its founder, after all. Have these strong egos
bequeathed us a science? It's hard to say. Sex, when push comes to
shove, is not for the faint-hearted.

[tt] NS 2999: Pretty vacant: What we're not seeing in graphics today

NS 2999: Pretty vacant: What we're not seeing in graphics today
* 15 December 2014 by Kevin Walker

Kevin Walker runs the Information Experience Design programme at the
Royal College of Art, London

* Book information
* Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless
* Published by: William Collins
* Price: £25

* Book information
* The Best American Infographics 2014 by Gareth Cook/introduction,
Nate Silver
* Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
* Price: $20

* Book information
* London: The Information Capital: 100 maps and graphics that will
change how you view the city by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti
* Published by: Particular Books/Penguin
* Price: £25

* Book information
* Cosmigraphics: Picturing space through time by Michael Benson
* Published by: Abrams
* Price: $50/£30

A 1970s geological view of the moon (Image: Courtesy USGS/NASA; map
by David Scott, John McCauley and Mareta West)

POEMFrom explaining force-feeding at Guantanamo to rents in London, it
takes storytellers and critical minds to make good infographics, as
four new books show

FEW words are more important today than "data", from the Latin for
"that which is given". Entering popular usage in the Renaissance,
data gained momentum as a starting point for making inferences or
building arguments.

Today, we are awash with the stuff, and we turn to computers to
solve a problem they helped to create. But we also turn elsewhere to
make sense of those numbers. Visualisation has been heralded both as
the photojournalism of the 21st century, and as a way to fill a
knowledge gap - with visual analysts, information designers, and
graphical storytellers rushing to deploy bubble charts, tree
diagrams and knowledge maps.

The result is that far too many of us take graphics as truth, while
far too few designers are trained in the statistics and science
underpinning their data. They do not realise how their choices,
filters, shapes and simplifications influence how we create meaning.
Governments and advertisers, however, know perfectly well that data
is political, that it influences opinion (and, yes, science).

Four new books reveal the good, the bad and the unusably complex.
Take David McCandless, whose 2009 book Information is Beautiful and
companion website put him in great demand. In his introduction to
the follow-up, Knowledge is Beautiful, he writes: "Funny. The more I
visualise data, information and knowledge, the more I'm starting to
feel and understand the differences between them... Understanding
really is the key." Indeed.

The breezy style exposes a journalistic training, while the typeface
of the introduction is unreadable, if pretty. This sets the tone for
the visualisations. "I'm into anything strange and interesting," he
writes on his website, and the book is a jumble of graphics
visualising everything from "action movie badasses" to a ridiculous
"Life Scape" which classes mammals, reptiles and so forth as

Everything is greatly simplified. One chart classifies dogs as dumb
or clever, while overcomplicating the issue with bubbles and
multicoloured lines. There is no index, and each chart is in a
different style, forcing the reader to decipher a new "language"
each time. Pretty, but is it knowledge?

The Best American Infographics 2014 is a similar mix, this time with
examples from the US popular media. Gareth Cook is the series
editor, and there is an introduction by Nate Silver, a high-profile
US statistician. But there are key differences. We learn to
distinguish infographics from data visualisation through the
contrasts between a hand-drawn diagram dissecting how a baseball
pitcher throws a fast ball, a fascinating depiction of how
Guantanamo inmates are force- fed, some enlightening maps showing
the highest-paid public employees, and what the names of US states

Much of the subject matter is silly in a Justin Bieber/Lolcats way,
but there is more science here than in McCandless's book. And
information design, says Silver, is "equal parts art and science,
form and function, architecture and engineering". More is not always
better, he tells us. As, indeed, in such "greatest hits" collections
of graphics, which risk the cognitive overload that information
design seeks to combat.

Better, perhaps, to follow James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti, and
cover a specific topic that lends itself to great graphics. London:
The Information Capital is a witty, well-written, well-designed view
of the city, with enlightening and often surprising perspectives.
The authors are well placed to provide them, with Uberti working as
a designer at National Geographic for nearly a decade, while
Cheshire is a geographer at University College London.

Together, they tease readers and lead them on journeys, often
literally, as when they show how rents change from west to east
along one of the city's underground lines, the Central Line. They
are also good at balancing historical sources, such as John Snow's
famous 1854 cholera map, with contemporary visualisations of Twitter

While some things are a little silly or confusing - for example, a
map of haunted places is depicted as a Pac-Man game - on the whole,
London shows how a data-driven approach to knowledge is about more
than crunching numbers. The authors tell stories visually, and are
not afraid to take a stand. What's more, theirs is an informed,
insider's perspective, and it is often beautiful. For example, their
series of "views worth protecting" will have you reaching for a
watercolour set.

Was knowledge more beautifully depicted before computers? That might
be the impression created by the visual interpretations of the
cosmos, from antiquity to the present, in Michael Benson's lavish
book Cosmigraphics. Benson is fascinated by the conundrum of how to
present literally everything within a graphic image, and his range
is vast, geographically and historically.

Ultimately, is Cosmigraphics an art book or a science book? Both, he
answers. This is refreshing at a time when the two cultures,
intertwined and embodied in the Renaissance figure of a Leonardo,
have drifted so far apart. For Benson, visualisation and graphics
should be "about" something, noting how early science came to be
depicted as meaningful: think of the periodic table or just about
any map.

Images are dialectical, too. Our tools shape us and shape science. A
symbiosis exists between representation and understanding, "the
latter not necessarily preceding the former", he writes.
Cosmigraphics is about how science makes pictures of its own
processes. Visualisation often makes explicit things we cannot
easily see - whether they are insights from a large dataset or
invisible wavelengths of energy from a distant star. But, visible or
not, whenever we collect data, or decide to use a scatterplot or a
pie chart, we make subjective choices which show that science is a
human, fallible activity.

I think the historical images in Benson's book trump contemporary
infographics, but we shouldn't blame technology so much as those
behind it. The explosion in "big data" today is driven by the
corporations that traffic in it, and is shaped by technology that,
in turn, shapes our culture and science. We need bigger, better
critical perspectives. Perhaps alongside visualisation, we should
push for provocation.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

[tt] TLS 5825 (Turing): Michael Saler: Man versus machine

TLS 5825: Michael Saler: Man versus machine
Published: 19 November 2014

Michael Saler is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis.
His most recent book, As If: Modern enchantment and the literary prehistory of
virtual reality, was named one of the best books of 2012 by the Huffington

Various cinemas

Winston Churchill claimed that Alan Turing made the single biggest contribution
to the Allies' victory against the Nazis. The secretive mathematician could
also be summarized by Churchill's phrase "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery,
inside an enigma". Turing was forced to adopt a double life because of his
classified work decrypting the German Enigma code, and because he was a gay man
in a homophobic climate. Rather than being honoured by his country, he was
hounded by it after the war. Convicted of committing an act of "gross
indecency" with another man, he was sentenced to chemical castration and
committed suicide in 1954 at the age of forty-one. His crucial role in the war
remained classified, and his seminal contributions to the creation of modern
computing and artificial intelligence only seeped gradually into the historical
record. But time heals all wounds. In 2009 he received an apology from Gordon
Brown, in 2013 a posthumous pardon by the Queen, and in 2014 the greatest
honour of all: a Hollywood biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Imitation Game (no relation of Ian McEwan's play of the same name from
1980) boldly confronts the puzzles of Turing's life but opens with an ambiguous
declaration of its own: "Based on a true story". The film wishes to be true to
Turing's life and legacy, but it also wants to be a commercial success, and
these cross-purposes hobble what could have been an artistic triumph. Instead,
the film superbly explores Turing's riven character but sacrifices historical
accuracy and dramatic plausibility when it turns his work at Bletchley Park
into a melodramatic thriller with cartoon heroes and villains. A war film at
war with itself, The Imitation Game champions non-conformity with a moral so
contrived it is repeated three times in the hope that it will stick: "Sometimes
it is the people whom no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one
can imagine".

Cumberbatch is electrifying as the divided genius whose confidence and
tactlessness mask intense loneliness and yearning. The role presents a unique
challenge for the actor, as facets of Turing's personality correspond to
Cumberbatch's renowned portrayal of Sherlock Holmes for television. The author
of the screenplay, Graham Moore, is also the author of the novel The
Sherlockian (2010); some of the witty, acerbic repartee he provides to Turing
echoes that of the master detective. Yet Cumberbatch's mathematician is an
original and appealing creation, at once a supercilious "monster" and a boyish
visionary forced to shield his emotions behind a carapace of indifference. Many
suspect he has something sinister to hide, and Cumberbatch keeps you wondering.
His Bletchley supervisor, Commander Denniston (here a "bad guy", expertly
played by Charles Dance), suspects he might be a Soviet spy. The head of MI6,
Stewart Menzies (an unctuous Mark Strong) compliments Turing on his duplicitous
nature as he tries to recruit him: "Alan, you are exactly the man I had always
hoped you would be .... We're going to have such a wonderful war together".

The film's narrative unfolds like Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, in which an
investigator tries to discover what makes genius tick. It begins in 1952, when
the (fictional) Police Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) interrogates Turing
about a burglary he reported at his home. Nock too suspects that Turing might
be a Soviet agent, and he begins a private investigation that will lead to
Turing's downfall. Kinnear plays him as a sympathetic character, horrified by
this outcome and puzzled by Turing, who in turn divulges episodes of his life
in response to Nock's queries.

Moore's lucid screenplay skilfully interweaves three narratives: that of
Turing's arrest, conviction and suicide during the early 1950s; his wartime
work at Bletchley Park; and a critical year of his life in 1927, when he was a
fifteen-year-old student at Sherborne School. Here the young Turing (Alex
Lawther) is shown being bullied and developing a close friendship with another
student, Christopher Morcom. Like Cumberbatch, Lawther brilliantly captures the
gauche, isolated persona of Turing. His developing love for Christopher mirrors
the older Turing's growing affection for his colleague Joan Clarke (Keira
Knightley) as they struggle to crack the Enigma code. Lawther briefly steals
the film in its pivotal moment. The young Turing faces the worst betrayal of
his life, and responds with a coldly logical deceit presaging all that will
follow. The camera focuses on his face as he struggles to master his
conflicting emotions, to devastating effect. (The film has Turing call his
early decryption machine "Chris", a Rosebud by any other name.)

Morten Tyldum's direction is brisk and efficient, and the film itself is a
handsome period piece. If only The Imitation Game didn't counterpoise Orson
Welles with Robert Ludlum. The film's weakest strand involves the creation of
an electro-mechanical code-breaking machine during the war. In reality, Polish
analysts had developed an early version of the machine in 1938, which Turing,
Gordon Welchman and their fellow cryptanalysts at Bletchley substantially
modified. Administrators sanctioned its development, though some didn't fully
appreciate its importance or allocate sufficient clerical staff to process the
results. The film, however, implies that Turing invented the machine on his
own, to the fury of Denniston and the other cryptanalysts, who complain that he
is wasting precious time and money. In one overwrought sequence, Denniston
tries to have the machine dismantled by military personnel while Turing
manfully protects "Chris" with his body. By turning Turing into a superhero,
the fascinating figure of Joan Clarke also suffers. Knightley does her best
with the role, but she comes across as little more than a girl Friday who helps
Turing defeat the Bletchley philistines, Nazi thugs and dreary conformists.

Near the end of the film Turing explains the "imitation game" to Detective
Nokes, which is intended to determine whether humans can be distinguished from
intelligent machines. Behind his façade of self-control, Turing wants to know
if he himself has passed the imitation games he's been forced to play his
entire life: is he a machine, a human, a war hero, a criminal? Nokes refuses to
judge him. Turing responds bitterly, "Well then, you're of no help to me at
all". The pain Cumberbatch conveys is almost palpable. Viewers of The Imitation
Game face a similar conundrum: is the film a humane work or a mechanical
contrivance? The unequivocal answer must be: both.

[tt] TLS 5825 (Trolls): Heather O'Donoghue: From folk tales to internet pests

TLS 5825: Heather O'Donoghue: From folk tales to internet pests
Published: 19 November 2014

Heather O'Donoghue is Professor of Old Norse at the University of Oxford, and a
judge for the Crime Writers' Association's "Steel Dagger Award" for the best
thriller of the year.

John Lindow
An unnatural history
160pp. Reaktion. £16.95 (US $27). 978 1 78023 289 8

John Lindow is an authority on Scandinavian mythology, and in this clever
little book, he traces the history of trolls from their earliest appearances in
Old Norse literature - in verses attributed to Viking-age poets - through the
more familiar creatures of folk tale and fairy tale and right up to the latest
manifestation of the malign Other, the internet pest. We can certainly judge
this book by its cover, with John Bauer's delightful early twentieth-century
illustration of a small boy's encounter with a magnificently grotesque troll
who is both comical and disturbing. Lindow writes with wit and warmth, but this
is also a learned and sometimes unsettling study which brings to light some
unexpected facets of the troll phenomenon more generally.

Lindow begins, for example, with a near-contemporary account by a young
American claiming to have seen a troll on a visit to Oslo. Lindow takes her
narrative perfectly seriously, describing it as a paradigm case of how
"perfectly rational people [can] see things that most of us don't usually think
could be there": it was dark, the visitor was stressed, and, most crucially,
she had learnt Norwegian, and "was in the process of acquiring a Norwegian
identity". Having established that trolls are worthy of scholarly attention,
the product neither of primitive superstition nor mere whimsy, Lindow goes on
to track their history in a succession of literary sources.

From medieval trolls and the comic creatures of fairy tales to trolls as cute
collectors' dolls or characters in children's books (and what a pleasure to be
reacquainted with Tove Jansson's Moomintrolls!) might seem to be a
straightforward, if rather seven-league-boots-size, step. But Lindow's
narrative is much more richly detailed than this, and could serve as a model
for the study of any number of transhistorical cultural phenomena: giants, for
instance, or vampires, or mermaids. His early chapters trace the history of
trolls against the development from myth to medieval narrative and folklore:
from a time when "trolls were trolls" to the blurring of troll and uncanny
human, and thence to the troll as a social Other, most often in opposition to
Christian society. In one of the most fascinating sections of the book, Lindow
extends this history to examine the role of the troll in nineteenth- and
twentieth-century Scandinavian literature for adults, showing how "trolls were
perfect for the national romantics, who sought to locate (we would say
construct) a national past and thus a contemporary national image from the
traditions out in the countryside, age-old and unsullied (or so they thought)
by urbanization and burgeoning industrialization". Again, Lindow shows the
value of treating trolls seriously. And the glory of this section of the book
is its wonderful illustrations - these, too, exemplify the dual nature of
trolls, sometimes wittily bizarre and borderline comic creations, but sometimes
great dark shapeless cross-hatched forms, barely distinguishable from the
darkness of their habitat, or ours.

In recent times, trolls have become very unfunny. In folklore, as Lindow shows
us, trolls can be both helpful and menacing to humans, either upholding or
disrupting the natural order of things, but always from outside human society.
Is this social exclusion perhaps why the term "troll" emerged in the United
States as a careless slang term for the contemporary homeless, he wonders - or
could it just be because they sometimes live under bridges? He carefully
pursues several new senses of the word, reporting suggestions that the original
internet usage of "trolling", that is, disrupting discussion lists by posting
off-topic messages, derives from the fishing technique of "trailing bait slowly
in the hope that something will bite" (though isn't this perhaps a confusion
with trawling?). In any event, Lindow's wise conclusion is that the pull of the
antisocial troll concept was too strong to resist, and trolling it became.
Similarly, the term troll has, of course, attached itself to someone suddenly
appearing out of the anonymous darkness of cyberspace to scare the world with a
frighteningly vicious, often misogynist, post. We may always need the troll
concept for people and things that disrupt society, and disconcert or plain
scare us.

Friday, December 19, 2014

[tt] WaPo: Did a massive volcanic eruption in India kill off the dinosaurs?

Did a massive volcanic eruption in India kill off the dinosaurs?

By Joel Achenbach

There's a solid consensus among scientists about what happened to
the dinosaurs 66 million years ago: A mountain-sized meteorite
crashed into the planet and triggered a mass extinction. The debris
from the impact has been found in hundreds of locations around the
world. Geologists have also found signs of the giant crater,
centered around the tip of Yucatan Peninsula.

But there has long been an alternate theory, espoused by a rump
caucus of researchers who think they've never been given a fair
hearing. They believe the extinction was caused, at least in part,
by an extraordinary volcanic eruption in India.

This eruption created the Deccan Traps, a geological formation that
covers nearly 200,000 square miles of western India. It was created
by a flood of basaltic lava, the kind of eruption seen today on the
Big Island in Hawaii. But the eruption that formed the Deccan Traps
was unusually prolonged and prodigious. All told, the eruption
produced about 1.3 million cubic kilometers of lava, which is about
1.3 million times as much material produced by the 1980 eruption of
Mount St. Helens. The eruption pumped enormous, climate-changing
quantities of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.

Now scientists have found a way to date more precisely the Deccan
Traps eruption, and the results are a boost, potentially, for the
volcano-did-it camp.

The main pulse of the lava flow began about 250,000 years before the
mass extinction event, and ended about 500,000 years after,
according to a paper published online Thursday in the journal
Science. Thus if the eruption is not a significant factor in the
mass extinction, it's a remarkable coincidence. Earlier attempts to
date the Deccan Traps, using less precise methods, had a much larger
margin of error, on the order of plus-or-minus one million years.

The lead author of the paper, Blair Schoene, a professor of
geosciences at Princeton, said the results indicate that both the
catastrophic impact and the more gradual, but extraordinary,
volcanic eruption could have been factors in the end-Cretaceous mass

"Both are potentially really important," Schoene said. "I don't know
if we can say the extinction would have or would not have happened
without both of them."

One obvious scenario: Climate change caused by the eruptions could
have stressed the biosphere and set the conditions for a greater
die-off when the asteroid smashed the planet.

"I sort of favor the one-two punch idea," Schoene said.

Stronger words come from one of the paper's co-authors, Gerta
Keller, another Princeton professor who has been among the most
outspoken proponents of the hypothesis that the Deccan Traps caused
the mass extinction. Keller has long maintained that the asteroid
impact happened earlier than the die-off and couldn't have been the
trigger. Her work has been controversial, and she has long been
viewed as a maverick in the scientific community.

"I think this is a game-changer," she said of the new results. She
said the new dating of the Deccan Traps strengthens the case for
volcanism as the "primary cause" of the mass extinction.

"The data is so strong at this point that the momentum is entirely
on my side," she said.

The researchers took rock samples in India and scrutinized them for
crystals containing uranium and lead. Crystals of zircon form in
magma with trace amounts of uranium inside. The uranium gradually
decays into lead. Because the rate at which uranium decays is well
known, the ratio of uranium and lead isotopes in the crystals serves
as a kind of clock, revealing how long it has been since the
crystals formed.

Another co-author of the Science paper, Sam Bowring of M.I.T., said
what's important is that everyone now knows more accurately when the
Deccan Traps eruptions began and ended.

"I do not think for a minute that this denigrates the role of the
impact in the extinction, and I don't think it proves that the
impact didn't have anything to do with the extinction. But what I
think it does, for the first time, is establish with high precision
and accuracy that the Deccan Traps began just prior to the
extinction and continued throughout the extinction," Bowring said.

"Whether or not you can say it played a role in the extinction is
quite another matter. But at least now we can have a conversation on
good temporal grounds," Bowring said.

The fundamental problem for the hypothesis that volcanism caused the
mass extinction is that it doesn't seem to be necessary. The mass
extinction, including the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs, was for
a long time among the greatest mysteries in science, but few people
view it as a mystery anymore.

Until 1980, scientists struggled to understand why so many life
forms abruptly went extinct. Not only did the tyrannosaurs
disappear, so did many species in the seas, including most of the
species of tiny marine organisms called foraminifera. The
Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary, usually referred to as the K/T
boundary (the K is from the German word for Cretaceous), is clearly
marked in marine sediments by the sudden drop in the size and
diversity of foraminifera. Below the boundary, in older sediments,
the forams are relatively large. Above, there are only small forams.
The evidence points to a sudden, planet-wide extinction event.

Historical explanations included some kind of disease, or the drying
up of inland seas putting stress on the dinosaur population, or a
supernova irradiating the Earth. But then came the stunning
discovery by Luis and Walter Alvarez, father and son scientists, who
while studying a clay layer marking the K/T boundary in Italy found
striking amounts of iridium.

That iridium, the Alvarezes concluded, came from an object from
space that collided with the planet. In the decade that followed,
scientists zeroed in on the "crater of doom" at the tip of the
Yucatan. Residue from the impacting asteroid, which is believed to
have been about seven miles in diameter, has been found in roughly
300 locations around the planet. There are also signs of a tsunami
that inundated coastal Texas.

Scientists prefer parsimonious explanations--the simpler the
better. Thus many appear reluctant to add the Deccan Traps to a tidy
K/T extinction narrative. The asteroid impact appears to be the
smoking gun, and any additional element to the narrative could
potentially have a grassy-knoll quality to it.

"It's a remarkable event, it's a huge impact, and it lines up
exactly with the extinction," said Kirk Johnson, director of the
Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and an expert on
the mass extinction. "You don't need anything else."

David Fastovsky, a geoscientist at the University of Rhode Island,
said a coincidence in the fossil record doesn't imply causation.
Asked whether the volcano-plus-impact could have been a one-two
punch, he said, "Possibly, but why do we need to do that? We have
enough already with this asteroid."

But volcanoes will not be ignored: The largest extinction event in
the planet's history, about 250 million years ago at the end of the
Permian, appears to have happened at the same time as another
massive volcanic eruption in Siberia--the Siberian Traps. There
was also a huge volcanic eruption in what is now the northern
Atlantic Ocean that was coincident with a mass extinction at the end
of the Triassic, Bowring said.

"The idea that flood basalts and extinctions are related is not a
new idea," Bowring said. "Easy to say, difficult to prove."

Another conjecture circulating among geophysicists is that the
impact of the asteroid might possibly have sent such a powerful jolt
of energy through the planet that it exacerbated the
already-occurring Deccan Traps eruption on the far side of the
world, and incited volcanic activity in other locations as well.
That idea remains in the category of speculation.

The broader lesson here is that science is not a business in which
anyone can ever safely say "case closed." Knowledge is always
contingent upon the next batch of data, which could be coming along
any day now.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's
national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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