I expect to leave the recovery-suite of the hotel at the end of this week and eturn home, though I’ll be returning to Birmingham every two weeks for checkups for the next few months. During this multiweek siesta, I’ve mostly occupied myself with IT classes on Coursera, watching Star Trek, and reading. Some of that reading has been science.
Most recently, I read Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art, an appraisal of contemporary Neanderthal research that argues Neanderthals were far closer to us in their behavior than previously appreciated. Their range was broader, for instance, with Neanderthal remains found in every climate but wetlands, and their tool-making abilities were still sophisticated (making use of composites), if not up to Sapiens standards. I was personally amazed by how intricate some of the science involved here was, allowing researchers to read the history of a given community through recovered teeth, for instance, or rebuilding the layout of Neanderthal camps through studying the soil. The writing is often exquisite, far more poetic than one would expect from a book on archaeology. A sample:
“Time is devious. It flees frighteningly fast, or oozes so slowly we feel it as a burden, measured in heartbeats. Each human life is marbled with memories and infused by imaginings, even a”s we exist in a continuously flowing stream of ‘now’. We are beings swept along in time, but to emerge and view the whole coursing river defeats us.”
Shortly before Kindred, I read through Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, an impressively ambitious work that spans disciplines from cosmology to geology. After first explaining to the reader what dark matter is and why it ‘s important to understanding the universe, Randall shifts to a history of our local solar system and argues that fluctuations in the Milky Way’s own cloud of dark matter periodically send space debris into our neighborhood, leading to events like the destruction of the dinosaurs. We mammals owe part of our existence, then, to something which doesn’t interact with light. The cosmology was a bit over my head, though admittedly trying to read it in the hospital probably didn’t help.
Lastly, Darwin Comes to Town was my favorite among this lot. While we tend to think of cities as something apart from nature, that’s wrong on two levels: first, the human built environment is no less natural than the termite-built environment, or the beaver-built environment, at least in principle. All three involve the building species in question using and altering the natural environment to better suit their needs, and all three result in an altered ecosystem that alters the gameplan for other species. Secondly, our cities are saturated with nature, and are increasingly more diverse than the countryside immediately outside them, marked as that area is by farms reliant on monocultures. Cities aren’t patchwork quilts of ecosystems: they’re far more intricate than that, being fragmented mosaics of thousands of micro-ecosystems: every back yard in a given neighborhood has its own array of species, to say nothing of the variety of mini-environments that cities offer to animals looking for new opportunities. There are often similarities between the environments animals’ genes are conditioned for them to thrive in, and the environments they find themselves working : some birds are as perfectly happy flitting around bike racks as they would be around shrubs, or using window ledges and rooftops as the cliffaces of their ancestors. The book reviews ways in which living in the human environment is pushing evolution, creating subspecies that are perfectly adapted to the new environment: there are subspecies of mosquitoes, for instance, that live only in London subway tunnels! I finished this one shortly before going into the hospital and it will remain one of my favorite science books for the year, I think.
Coming up: hospitals, insects, and C.S. Lewis.