On science blogs this week: Tools

TOP SCIENCE STORY OF THE MONTH. My candidate is the paper Science publishes today, which reports on stone tools that seem to have been made by modern humans. They were unearthed at an archaeological site called Jebel Faya in the United Arab Emirates.

The kicker is that the tools have been dated to about 125,000 years ago. That date conflicts severely with current conventional wisdom about anatomically modern Homo sap, which is that we didn't emerge from Africa until about 70,000-50,000 years ago.

The embargo on this paper was lifted only yesterday afternoon (Thursday), so just a few blog posts have so far appeared. Expect more. The find is tools only, no other traces of culture or bones that could strengthen (or weaken) the case for early migration.

See Dienekes' Anthropology Blog for a brief summary and the abstract. Brian Switek goes into detail at Wired Science:

According to researchers led by University of London paleogeographer Simon Armitage, the tools resemble those made in the same era by humans in eastern Africa, rather than tools found at later sites along the Mediterranean’s eastern border. On the basis of these tools, Armitage and co-authors propose that humans crossed from eastern Africa to Arabia around 130,000 years ago. Lower sea levels may have opened a path, and increased rainfall would have made the Jebel Faya area less arid than it is today.

Casey Johnston reports on the paper at Ars Technica's Nobel Intent. The hed assumes that the paper has established the facts to the satisfaction of all ("Modern humans walked out of Africa and across the Red Sea"), but this being a question of Homo sap origins, of course the arguments will rage. The post asserts that the toolmakers were not advanced enough to travel any way but on foot. But that, too, is in doubt. At Science's Wednesday press conference promoting the paper, one of the researchers speculated that rafts or even boats are also a possibility.

THE PARLOUS STATE OF OUR UNION. This week's annual political funfest, the State of the Union address, touched on sciency topics like technology, green energy, health care, and innovation. Four SciAm editors comment on the talk in a video to be found here.

Blogs at the two highest-profile journals took a downhearted view of Obama proposals to boost training in science and math. At the Science Careers blog, Beryl Benderly linked to the newsletter of technical workforce expert Norman Matloff. He argues, she says, that better training won't make the slightest difference to the US job market because the real problem is not lousy education. It's that US companies move their operations elsewhere in the world--and there are no policies in place to restrain them. At the Nature blog network, Tinker Ready asks what's the point of training 100,000 science teachers, as Obama proposed, if there's no point in producing more scientists because there are no jobs for them.

At the Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer took off from the speech's emphasis on innovation to propose that innovation was lagging because it's geniuses who innovate, and geniuses are in short supply in these dark days.

Lehrer quoted at length from a Tuesday Financial Times piece by Gideon Rachman, who had argued that today's top thinkers were obviously inferior to those of past times. I had also read the Rachman piece, but had concluded that (a) Rachman gave insufficient weight to the influence of temporal distance in judging who's a genius; and (b) saying some long-dead white guy was a genius didn't necessarily mean he (1) improved things or (2) was right. You can call Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud geniuses, but their very influential ideas were inaccurate in crucial ways, and I doubt you could persuade me that, on balance, they made the world a better place.

Darwin, yes. Also Dickens.

Lehrer argues that the genius gap is really due to the fact that today's problems are much harder than those past thinkers wrestled with. He also notes that today's best scientific work is done by teams, not individuals.

If our current lists of global thinkers seem paltry, it’s because the best thinkers no longer exist by themselves, toiling away in a vacuum. Instead, they require the constant feedback and knowledge of others. We live in a world of such complexity that our problems increasingly exceed the possibilities of the individual mind.

SCIENCEONLINE2011 (#SCIO11) KEEPS ON KEEPING ON--ONLINE. Last week I said that several SciO11 sessions that had been livestreamed would be archived and viewable for free. They still haven't been posted, but I have been assured that they will be by the end of next week. Fingers crossed. They will be found, when and if, at the SciO11 site here and also on YouTube.

Some of the 300 folks present at SciO11 a couple weeks ago went home, got some sleep, and recollected in tranquility. Hence some thoughtful, useful, even deep posts on the conference appeared this week. A couple examples:

At Neurotic Physiology, Scicurious comprehensively wrapped up the session on explaining science in blog posts. The session was geared ever so slightly to scientist-bloggers, with lots of admonitions about avoiding jargon. Which professional science writers like us already do, right? Right? But this is a long post that distills science-writing wisdom from many participants, and I'll bet you can find other useful tips here. Lots o' stuff about marketing and promotion, for instance.

A man did a major roundup of the session on the special problems for women science bloggers, especially those who blog under their own names. That would be Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology, who includes material culled from follow-on posts and tweets, with links. A long post, but rich with excerpted comments from women blogging about the session.

These go beyond the problem of dirty comments and out-and-out threats to tackle a biggie: the male:female blogger ratio. Robin Lloyd reported on the session at SciAm's Observations, concluding with a startling comment from the very high-profile blogger Ed Yong.

He explained that, although other male writers often ask him to retweet links to their latest blog posts, not a single such request has ever come from a woman writer.

He's right, you know. Subdued once more by that desire not to be seen as...pushy. It would never occur to me to ask him for that favor (although he has on occasion voluntarily retweeted a post of mine; thank you, Ed.) However, I think I would feel almost as squirmy about asking anybody else for a retweet regardless of their gender, except maybe a friend. And I think I mean a friend, not simply an acquaintance.

There were more women than men at SciO11. Does that mean women bloggers now see networking and promotion as quite urgent matters?

Jan. 27, 2011

Drexel Science and Health Communication Concentration