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Inequality and Designated Victims

Hunter-Gatherer societies tend to be egalitarian.  Civilizations and agricultural societies generally, tend to be hierarchical.  Why so? One possibility is that the greater productivity and fertility of agricultural societies means that they are always bumping up against the Malthusian bound, the maximum population the land and technology can support.  Peter Turchin has explored this idea in his books, including War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires . He documents how Europe has suffered a repetitive cycle of depopulating wars, followed by peace and a rapid expansion of population until individual farmers have been forced to ever smaller farms or more marginal farmland until the society has become broadly impoverished, at which point widespread wars break out as adventurers and the desperate seek more land at the expense of others. These wars depopulate both losers and winners. Of course the other horsemen of the apocalypse who also do their part. But I want to focus on a

Review: Neanderthal Man by Svante Pääbo

Svante Pääbo is the winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for the work described in this book. As a student in Sweden Pääbo conceived the dream of decoding the genome of ancient humans and Neandertal Man. This book is the story of that dream, that quest, and all that went into building the scientific institute and international collaboration that achieved that goal thirty years later. Like James Watson’s famous book  The   Double Helix , this is an inside look at how molecular biology is done at the very highest level. Much has changed in biology in the half century plus between these accomplishments and much has stayed the same, but for anyone who wants to know how science really works, here is the story, laid out in compelling detail. We also get a detailed look at the personal life of the author. Pääbo’s thirty year dream culminated in the publication of the Neandertal genome. So what did it take to achieve it? When the author began his quest, methods for sequenc

Book Review: Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli

  Helgoland is windswept and relatively barren island where Werner Heisenberg repaired to contemplate the puzzles of quantum phenomena, and, ultimately, to invent quantum mechanics.  At this point quantum theory was already a quarter of a century old, invented by Max Planck in 1900 and further developed by Einstein, Bohr, and others but only very special and simple cases could be solved. A method of general application did not exist.  After weeks of intense mental struggle he found an answer in the behavior of tables of numbers, tables that would become the matrices of matrix mechanics. Carlo Rovelli, himself an important physicist, tells that story in the first chapter of his book Helgoland, as well as the struggles of Heisenberg and others to understand what he had found.   In quick succession the English Physicist Paul Dirac and the Austrian Erwin Schrodinger found apparently quite different but completely equivalent formulations of quantum mechanics.   All formulations turn out t

Book Review Roman Republic

 THE ROMAN REPUBLIC: A Very Short Introduction by David M. Gwynn The history of the Roman Republic is a popular and relatively familiar subject, the setting of numerous movies and several Shakespeare plays.   That history made a deep impression on the Republics that arose in the Renaissance and on the founders of the United States.   A small and rather nondescript city in Italy somehow conquered the entire Mediterranean world over 700 years or so and then destroyed itself in an orgy of internal strife. Like the founders of our Republic, citizens of the world’s republics today should ponder the lessons of Rome’s successes and catastrophic collapse. David M. Gwynn’s brief history is much more interested in the internal dynamics of the Republic than in Rome’s battles and wars.   The armies of the Republic were initially citizen armies, led by the Senatorial classes and manned by small citizen farmers.   After Rome deposed its Kings, power was initially wielded almost exclusively b

Review: A Brief History of Earth by Andrew Knoll

 Andrew Knoll tells the story of Earth, its formation, its changes over time, and especially, the story of the interaction of life and geology over that time.  Few if any are more steeped in that story or have contributed more to unravelling it.  The early Earth was not much like Earth today and we could not have lived on it.  Once the crust cooled enough to solidify and for water to condense and form oceans, there were oceans and probably relatively few and small bits of land.  There was no oxygen, so nothing for us to breathe.  A steady stream of potent UV radiation would have made it impossible for land plants and animals of today to live even if there had been oxygen. Nonetheless, the first signs of life appear in the oldest rocks only about a billion years after the planet formed.    How these were found and identified is one of the great detective stories of natural science, and it is told well here.   The subsequent evolution of cyanobacteria is one of the great watersheds in

Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

I just reread Dune, after a half century or more.  Naturally I didn’t remember much, though a few items like the gom jabbar test had stuck.  Herbert created an interestingly different world in Arrakis, the desert planet that was the only source of the crucial spice that conferred both long life and certain psychic powers. Our aristocratic hero, Paul Atreides, is plunged into a world of conspiracy and assassination from the start.   I, as an ancient, probably feel significantly more cognitive dissonance about a world where people still fight with swords and knives despite the fact that interstellar travel has been mastered.   Their quaint efforts at breeding better humans also have a comically antediluvian quality. Villains are caricatures of villainy and the mentats, supposed deep thinkers, are more than a bit slow on the uptake. So far as I can tell, the native desert dwellers of Arrakis, the Fremen, are loosely based on Bedouin desert nomads of our own planet.   They have a som

I grow old, I grow old, my DNA got rolled.

There is an unregulated toxic gas in our atmosphere, and it is slowly killing us all.  Its effects are similar to ionizing radiation, through the same chemical pathways, and it attacks all the key components of our cells - lipid membranes, proteins, and DNA.  No feasible methods are known for cleaning our air of it and still providing us with breathable air. That gas is oxygen, and it constitutes roughly 21% of our atmosphere.  The catch, of course, is that we can't live without it and a whole lot of it.  Its toxicity was first revealed in its effects on underwater divers breathing pressurized air.  Prolonged breathing of concentrated oxygen produces unconsciousness and  inflammation and destruction of the lungs.  We do much better with lower concentrations, but there is no safe level.  Many believe that it is the principal mechanism of human and cellular aging.  How does it do its damage?   Respiration, using oxygen to extract energy from carbon compounds, is how we generate most