bookmark_borderHappy New Kiloday!

If metric time had been introduced as I suggested, today would be the beginning of kiloday 80.

So Happy New Year (or should that be Happy New Kiloday?)!

It’s a very special day, of course. The beginning of kiloday 70 took place on the 19th of May 1984, so quite a lot has happened in the past myriaday (metric decade), and I guess the celebrations last night would have rivalled the millennium parties if only this calendar had been adopted already.

I actually wonder whether myriadays would be a better way of remembering history than either decades or centuries – have a look at this:

First day Old calendar
70,000 19 May 1984 Collapse of communism, rise of Islamist terrorism and globalisation
60,000 1 January 1957 The Cold War, building the welfare state, oil crisis
50,000 16 August 1929 The Depression and WWII
40,000 31 March 1902 The build-up to WWI, the war itself, and the boom afterwards
30,000 12 November 1874 The second industrial revolution
20,000 27 June 1847 Revolutions and civil war

It’ll be interesting to find out what will happen in this metric decade, which will end on the 19th of February 2039 (by which time I’ll be 67 years, or rather 24 kilodays old).

bookmark_borderπ is wrong, long live ტ

? is often given an almost mythical status, so I found it very refreshing when I was made aware of the ? movement that argue that ? = 2? is a much more natural constant.

There are lots of good arguments in favour (do follow the link above), and I’m definitely a convert.

However, as Stewart Russell pointed out to me on Facebook, physicists already have other uses for ?, so perhaps a better symbol could be chosen.

I would propose the Georgian letter ? (pronounced tari), which doesn’t seem to have any uses in maths or physics.

bookmark_borderAre we related to people born before 1575?

Babbitt Family Tree
Originally uploaded by FrodoBabbs

While sampling some nice beer in Århus earlier this year with my good old friend Thomas Mailund, we had an interesting discussion about how long our genes live on for.

I was reminded of this discussion when I managed to find my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on Google. His name was Georg Widmann, and he was born around 1532 in Heiningen in Württemberg.

However, as I discussed a few years ago, we get half our genes from our father and the other half from our mother; we therefore get 25% from each grandparent, 12.5% from each great-grandparent, etc., so when do we reach a point when there’s nothing left?

According to Wikipedia, the “haploid human genome contains ca. 23,000 protein-coding genes”. 23,000 can be halved 14.49 times, which equals around 435 years (at a generation length of 30), and this means that any ancestor born before the year 1575 is likely to have contributed less than one gene to our genome. (Georg is of course an exception – ignoring the possibility of adultery and mutations, my Y chromosome is an exact copy of his.)

One can look at the numbers differently, too. Genes are defined by the “2.9 billion base pairs of the haploid human genome”. 2,900,000,000 can be halved 31.43 times, taking us back 943 years to the year 1157, but that will include ancestors who have only contributed junk DNA.

The “human genome contains vast regions of DNA the function of which, if any, remains unknown. These regions in fact comprise the vast majority, by some estimates 97%, of the human genome size.” 3% of 2.9 billion base pairs is 87 million base pairs, which would take us back 791 years to the year 1219.

However, the “nucleotide diversity between humans is about 0.1%, which is 1 difference per 1,000 base pairs.” That would take us down to 87,000 base pairs that actually matter, and that number can be halved 16.41 times, which would take us back 492 years to the year 1608.

To conclude, I’m not absolutely sure what the cut-off point should be. There’s definitely no point in doing genealogy further back than the year 1157 (except for pure patrilineal and matrilineal descent), but there are good arguments also for stopping in 1219, 1575 or 1608.

bookmark_borderAmmonite hunters

An ammonite and I
Originally uploaded by viralbus

Marcel, Charlotte and I left Phyllis and the wee ones on the sandy beach in Lyme Regis and walked over to the Jurassic cliffs on Manmouth Beach.

We had heard it was a good place to find ammonites, so I was hoping to find an incomplete chunk or two.

What I didn’t expect was to find the beach littered with huge, complete ammonite shells like the one on the photo!

On the other hand, we didn’t find any small ones we could take home. Whether that was because they had already been removed by other fossil hunters, or whether only the big ones fossilise well, I don’t know.

What I do know is that we met several other people with big hammers that they used to split the stones with. We had to restrict ourselves to chucking the stones onto the hard ground, which is not quite as efficient.

So next time, we’ll bring hammers, chisels and a sturdy rucksack!

bookmark_borderMyanmar/Burma and the US against the rest of us

According to this map (click on it for more information), there are now only two countries in the world that haven’t adopted the metric system: Myanmar/Burma and the US.

It’s a bit strange to see that the UK has been allowed the colour blue – perhaps they should have assigned a different colour to countries that have changed over officially, but where people still use different units in practice.

I just wish there was a way to make the US go metric, too – so long as the largest English-speaking country is using imperial measures, it will be really hard for the UK to let go completely.


Unangax Aleut Dancers
Originally uploaded by javacolleen

Danish newspapers are reporting that Danish scientists have decoded the DNA from an individual from the Greenlandic Saqqaq culture (which died out completely).

According to their results, they were most closely related to the Aleut people.

If this is the case, I don’t quite understand why they called the individual Inuk (“person” in Greenlandic), rather than anĝaĝinax̂, which is the modern Aleut word.

Hmmm, I wonder whether the Aleuts could demand to get Greenland back from the Inuits? 😉

bookmark_borderUnlikely intelligence

Originally uploaded by [Soren]

The Independent reports that professor Conway Morris has claimed that “alien biospheres will be strikingly similar to the terrestrial equivalent and that in such biospheres intelligence will inevitably emerge”.

From statements such as this one, one would have thought that intelligence had developed many times during the history of this planet.

For instance, it’s reasonable to assume that life on planets with similar gravity and air density will have quadrupeds, bipeds and flying animals, and that eyes and ears and brains are all likely to develop.

Just think about how similar the body shapes of fish, dolphins and ichthyosaurs are, although they have very different origins.

However, it doesn’t seem to be the case that human-level intelligence has ever developed before on Earth.

This makes me wonder whether there’s something about high intelligence that makes it almost impossible as an evolutionary strategy.

I think I read somewhere that there is genetic evidence that the human race almost died out before it really got started (cannot find the link just now), so although we were eventually very successful, it was hard to get there.

Another way of looking at it is that there has only been human-level intelligence for approximately 100,000 years out of the past 500,000,000 years (the time of the Cambrian explosion), or 0.02% of the time.

I wish somebody could explain to me why high intelligence never appeared before. Surely evolution could have produced it many times, and much sooner, if only it had been a successful evolutionary strategy.