Remains of Crystal Palace

Originally erected in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace was intended only as a temporary structure but in an impressive example of Victorian can do, it was reincarnated as a permanent attraction in the public space now known as Crystal Palace Park, enjoying its second royal opening by Queen Victoria in 1854.

For more than eight decades the Crystal Palace enjoyed mixed fortunes as a visitor attraction, for the main part being beset by the same problems that would dog the Millennium Dome a century and a half later. It never had enough visitors to break even, despite staging events which included the world’s first cat show in 1871.

By the early part of the 20th Century the building was in decline but in 1913 it was saved from developers by the Earl of Plymouth and saved for the nation by a public subscription. During the 1920s restoration work was carried out and the attraction began to make a modest attraction, but sadly in 1936 it caught fire and was totally destroyed.

Plans for redeveloping the site and even rebuilding the palace continue to the present day, but in seven and a half decades have come to nothing.

© Christopher Seddon 2009


Out of Europe?

Three weeks ago, I criticised the “quality” papers (the “Daily Telegraph” was an exception) for running a story based on a two-year-old paper about Homo georgicus as fresh news and for hyperbolic headlines about “rewriting the history of man”. True to form, the media have now completely missed out on an article published in Nature which does – if its conclusions are correct – have a substantial bearing on how we view the path of human evolution. The paper appeared in the 3 September edition of the journal, but due to a postal service that would be considered a disgrace in Somalia, it has only just reached me.

The paper entitled “The oldest hand-axes” in Europe is by Gary R. Scott and Luis Gibert of the Berkeley Geochronology Center, Berkeley, CA. It reports the re-dating of Acheulean hand-axes from Solana del Zamborino and Estrecho del Quipar, both in south eastern Spain. Both sites were previously considered to be among the younger Acheulean sites on the Iberian Peninsula. An age of approx 200ky assumed for Solana was based on its well-developed Acheulean technology. However Scott & Gibert reported revised dates of 0.9mya and 0.76mya for Solana del Zamborino and Estrecho del Quipar respectively, based on magnetic polarity considerations (Scott & Gilbert, 2009).

The oldest Acheulean hand-axes are around 1.65my old, from West Turkana in Kenya and by 1.4mya their usage was fairly widespread in Africa so on the face of it the fact that hand-axes had reached Spain by 0.9mya is hardly earth-shattering, albeit interesting. However while Acheulean hand-axes were once described as displaying a “variable sameness” that strikes “even enthusiasts as monotonous”, later hand-axes do appear to be more refined than earlier ones, which tend to be much thicker, less extensively trimmed and less symmetrical. The “evolved Mode 2” technology is not seen in the archaeological record in Africa until after 600,000 years ago, 300,000 years after its appearance in Spain.

The significance of this is that while even the earlier hand-axes probably represented a cognitive advance over that required to produce the early Oldowan tools, the later hand-axes possess three-dimensional symmetry that may imply a further cognitive advance as the tool would have had to be viewed and rotated through the mind’s eye while it yet remained a block of un-worked stone (Klein, 2005). The date of 600,000 years ago coincides with the first appearance in the fossil record of Homo heidelbergensis, which while slightly smaller-brained than a modern human, was considerably better endowed in that department than its supposed ancestor, Homo erectus. Homo heidelbergensis (or archaic Homo sapiens as it was known until fairly recently) is believed to be the common ancestor of both modern humans and the Neanderthals. Its bigger brain may have helped it to master the harsh conditions in Europe, which was periodically affected by episodes of glaciation. It could also have been responsible for the refinement in hand-axe making technology.

One problem is that there is no obvious evolutionary cause for this expansion in brain size if we accept, as is generally assumed, that Homo heidelbergensis evolved in Africa. The earliest human species, Homo habilis, possessed a larger brain than the australopithecines it is supposed to have evolved from. Its appearance coincides with the start of the present series of ice ages, 2.6 million years ago. Similarly Homo erectus – which also represented a cognitive step-up from its predecessor – appeared around 1.8-1.7mya during a further deterioration in the climate. But no such event seems to signal the appearance of Homo heidelbergensis.

While it would be a mistake to think there is agreement on the matter, a widely-held view is that Homo heidelbergensis evolved in Africa and migrated into Europe. The European deme eventually became the Neanderthals while the stay-at-home African deme eventually became Homo sapiens. Homo heidelbergensis was not the first human species to colonise Europe, but it was the first to stay there and reach more northerly places such as England and Germany. Previous migrants seem to have eventually been extinguished such as Homo antecessor, known from Level TD6 of the Gran Dolina cave, Atapuerca, Spain or back-migrants from Asia, en route back into Africa such as Homo cepranensis, known from a single skull found near Ceprano, Italy. The technology of the TD6 people was pre-Acheulean, that of the Ceprano people unknown. Both “species” were probably Homo erectus (broadly defined) and they were in Europe at about the same time as the makers of the Solana tools.

If it is the case that a) the re-dating is correct and, b) the “2g Acheulian” Solana tools were beyond the capabilities of Homo erectus then another human species must have made them. One possibility is Homo antecessor, but the problem is that while this species is said to have been larger-brained than “standard” Homo erectus (Bermudez de Castro, Arsuaga, Carbonell, Rosas, Martınez, & Mosquera, 1997) it lacked even the older-style Acheulean tools (Carbonell, et al., 2008), though we cannot rule out the possibility that these might at some stage come to light.

A more radical possibility is that a Homo erectus group equipped with Acheulean technology migrated into Europe and – unlike other migrants – managed to adapt to the harsher conditions. These provided the selective pressure for brain expansion and the migrant population eventually evolved into Homo heidelbergensis which then ranged far and wide throughout Eurasia, eventually evolving into the Neanderthals. But one group moved back into Africa and eventually became Homo sapiens. Thus the immediate ancestors of modern humans were actually a species of European origin rather than African.

© Christopher Seddon 2009
Bermudez de Castro, J., Arsuaga, J., Carbonell, E., Rosas, A., Martınez, I., & Mosquera, M. (1997). A Hominid from the Lower Pleistocene of Atapuerca, Spain: Possible Ancestor to Neandertals and Modern Humans. Science , 276, 1392-1395.
Carbonell, E., Bermudez de Castro, J., Pares, J., Perez-Gonzalez, A., Cuenca-Bescos, G., Olle, A., et al. (2008). The first hominin of Europe. Nature , 452, 465-470.
Klein, R. (2005). Hominin Dispersals in the Old World. In C. Scarre, The Human Past (pp. 84-123).
Scott, G., & Gibert, L. (2009). The oldest hand-axes in Europe. Nature , 461, 82-85.

Bad Science!

While browsing the Independent website yesterday evening I saw this article at the top of the Most Viewed list. An article entitled A skull that that rewrites the history of man is an attention-getter. But when I read the article by Science Editor Steve Connor and this accompanying piece also by Mr Connor I was frankly astounded. The first of the fossil remains in question were discovered near the medieval Georgian town of Dmanisi in 1991 (when Georgia was still a part of the Soviet Union). They were attributed to a new species, Homo georgicus, in a 2002 article in the journal Science (Vekua et al, 2002). Moreover the article is free to download to anybody and does not require a subscription to the journal.

Yet nowhere in either of Mr Connor’s articles does he mention that Homo georgicus has been in the public domain for so long. I’ve read both pretty carefully and they imply that this is a brand new discovery. Furthermore, both the Independent articles are dated 9 September 2009. It does sometimes happen that an old article will feature in a website’s “most viewed” list; this is not the case here.

Turning to the articles themselves, the content leaves a lot to be desired. They are full of phrases such as “conventional view of evolution” and “simple view” which (it is implied) has been overturned by the discovery of the Dmanisi remains. This is utter nonsense. Just about the only thing physical anthropologists ever agree on is to disagree! There is no “simple view” of human evolution that has begun to “unravel”. Rather the view is based on a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that have gradually been added, beginning in the 19th Century with the discovery of the Neanderthals and Java Man.

The “simple view” that Mr Connor alludes to is that Homo habilis evolved from a gracile australopithecine species, possibly A. afrarensis (“Lucy”); Homo erectus evolved from H. habilis and migrated into Eurasia, and that Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals both evolved from Homo erectus via an intermediate form sometimes known as Archaic Homo sapiens. This is a first order approximation that nobody has ever seriously believed represented the true picture.

Homo georgicus is probably an early form of Homo ergaster (“African Homo erectus”). We know that very soon after the appearance of H. ergaster in Africa, Homo erectus shows up in Java. There are two possible interpretations; firstly H. georgicus left Africa and died out, with Asian H. erectus arising from a subsequent migration of H. ergaster from Africa. The second – more likely – possibility is that Homo georgicus carried on into Asia and evolved into Homo erectus. It is more likely because it explains the puzzling absence of the characteristic H. erectus (sensu lato) teardrop-shaped Acheulian handaxes from East Asia. This problem was first noted by the US archaeologist Hallam Movius in 1948. One possible explanation is that the ancestors of the East Asian Homo erectus left Africa before the Acheulian handaxes were invented. This view is supported by the Dmanisi remains, which were found in association with stone tools of the earlier Oldowan type.

Homo georgicus is another piece in the fascinating jigsaw of human evolution, but it doesn’t “rewrite” anything. To suggest otherwise is quite simply bad science and to present a 7 year old article in Science as if it were a new discovery is even worse journalism.

It appears that I have singled out the Independent unfairly, becuse both the Times and the Guardian also ran the same story. The Times does at least make it clear the discovery happened a while ago, though why three of the UK’s four quality newspapers should choose to report on the Dmanasi hominins now is a complete mystery. It also turns out that the Daily Telegraph ran the same story just under two years ago.

Incredibly even Richard Dawkins website is carrying a link – via Twitter and Fox News – to the Times article. While I am fairly certain Prof. Dawkins is not personally responsible for everything on his site, this is a little surprising! I have to say that I wish Prof. Dawkins – as the country’s leading populariser of science – would devote as much time and energy to combating this kind of “bad science” as he does to opposing creationism, which anybody with a brain larger than Homo georgicus knows is utter nonsense anyway.

UPDATE 16 Sept 2009
It now turns out that David Lordkipanidze, who has headed up the Dmanisi investigation for some years, was speaking to an audience at the British Science Festival in Guildford. No new information was being presented and indeed Prof. Lordkipanidze’s most recent paper on the subject appeared 2 years ago (this was the story carried by the Telegraph in September 2007). The newspapers should really have made these facts clear rather than presenting them as fresh news. Nowhere did I see the words “speaking yesterday at the British Science Festival in Guildford” which would have explained everything.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Gabunia, L., de Lumley, M.-A., Vekua, A., Lordkipanidze, D., & de Lumley, H. (2002). Découverte d’un nouvel hominidé à Dmanissi (Transcaucasie, Géorgie). C.R. Palévol. , 1, 243–253 .
Gabunia, L., Vekua, A., Lordkipanidze, D., Swisher, C., Ferring, R., Justus, A., et al. (2000). Earliest Pleistocene Hominid Cranial Remains from Dmanisi,Republic of Georgia: Taxonomy, Geological Setting, and Age. Science , 228, 1019-1025.
Klein, R. (2005). Hominin Dispersals in the Old World. In C. Scarre, The Human Past (pp. 84-123).
Lordkipanidze, D., Jashashvili, T., Vekua, A., Ponce de Leon, M., Zollikofer, C., Rightmire, C., et al. (2007). Postcranial evidence from early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia. Nature , 449, 305-310.
Lordkipanidze, D., Vekua, A., Ferring, R., Rightmire, G., Zollikofer, C., Ponce de León, M., et al. (2006). A Fourth Hominin Skull From Dmanisi, Georgia. The Anatomical Record Part A: Discoveries in Molecular, Cellular, and Evolutionary Biology , 288A, 1146–1157.
Vekua, A., Lordkipanidze, D., Rightmire, P., Agusti, J., Ferring, R., Maisuradze, G., et al. (2002). A New Skull of Early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia. Science , 297, 85-89.

A step in the right direction but more needs to be done

A cyclist was jailed for seven months yesterday at Dorchester Crown Court for the offence of “wanton furious riding causing bodily harm”, an obscure piece of legislation dating back to the 19th Century. They were also banned from driving for twelve months.

Rather than stop at a red light, the cyclist had mounted the pavement, hurtled round a blind corner “like a bat out of hell” and struck and elderly man who fell into the road and sustained head injuries from which he subsequently died.

The sentence is a step in the right direction but it is incredible that there is no legislation available to the judiciary for the specific offence of causing death by dangerous cycling. The CPS was forced to fall back on the obscure 19th Century Offences against the Person act of 1861.

Needless to say cyclist organisation CTC wasted no time in saying that this proved that the law did not need to be changed before bleating on about how many more cyclists are killed by motorists than pedestrians by cyclists. Unless the CTC spokesperson believes that two wrongs somehow make a right, I fail to see the relevance of their last remark. I also suspect that fatalities among cyclists would be significantly reduced if they realised that red lights do actually apply to them as well as motorists.

It is patently obvious that the law does need to be changed as the problem with cyclists on the pavement, certainly in London, is endemic. Walk down Holloway Road in North London and within a few minutes I guarantee you will see a cyclist on the pavement. A couple of weeks ago a cyclist travelling on the pavement at least 20mph missed me by about two inches, nearly hit a woman pushing a pram and then, without making the slightest attempt to check his speed, veered around several pedestrians before disappearing down a side street. This is hardly an unusual occurrence. Barely a month goes by without my being involved in a near-miss with one of these lunatics. I have lost track of the number of verbal altercations I have had with them – even mild remonstrations are invariably met with a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse.

Certainly in London cyclists seem to regard themselves as above the law. Unfortunately there is so much buy-in to the “two wheels good four wheels bad” nonsense that there is no will to make the streets safe from cyclists.

There is a clear need for tough legislation to deal with the problem with specific offences of dangerous cycling and causing death by dangerous cycling, with cycling on the pavement being classed as dangerous cycling. Dangerous cycling should carry an automatic minimum driving ban of twelve months and causing death by dangerous cycling an automatic jail sentence.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

One giant leap for mankind: now for Mars

Forty years ago today, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the Moon.

In Houston, the time was 15:17:40 CDT; in the UK 21:17:40 BST. Even aged 14, watching with my family, I was aware of how historic the moment was. I was an avid space enthusiast, my interest (like I suspect many boys of my age) having been sparked by Gerry Anderson’s TV shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds. With us that evening was my grandfather, Robert “Pop” Mitchell, who was born in October 1892. He had just turned 11 when the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, a few years younger than I was in 1969. He was 19 when the Titanic sank and in his early 20s when he fought in the trenches of World War I, where he was seriously wounded in action.

As we now know, the mission came close to failure as the Eagle’s primitive computer, already overloaded, began to take the LM down towards an area strewn with boulders. Neil Armstrong was forced to take control and brought the spacecraft down safely with just 25 seconds of fuel remaining. But to those watching on TV and listening to the dialogue between Armstrong, Aldrin and CAPCOM Charlie Duke (who later went to the Moon himself), there was little hint of trouble:

102:44:24 Aldrin: 200 feet, 4 1/2 down.

102:44:26 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down.

102:44:31 Aldrin: 160 feet, 6 1/2 down.

102:44:33 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down, 9 forward. You’re looking good.

102:44:40 Aldrin: 120 feet.

102:44:45 Aldrin: 100 feet, 3 1/2 down, 9 forward. Five percent. Quantity light.

102:44:54 Aldrin: Okay. 75 feet. And it’s looking good. Down a half, 6 forward.

102:45:02 Duke: 60 seconds [at this point Eagle is down to her last 60 seconds of fuel].

102:45:04 Aldrin: Light’s on.

102:45:08 Aldrin: 60 feet, down 2 1/2. 2 forward. 2 forward.

102:45:17 Aldrin: 40 feet, down 2 1/2. Picking up some dust.

102:45:21 Aldrin: 30 feet, 2 1/2 down.

102:45:25 Aldrin: 4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. 20 feet, down a half.

102:45:31 Duke: 30 seconds [of fuel remaining].

102:45:32 Aldrin: Drifting forward just a little bit; that’s good.

102:45:40 Aldrin: Contact Light [these were actually the first words spoken from the Moon, not as is commonly thought, Armstrong’s famous change of call sign to “Tranquillity Base”].

102:45:43 Armstrong: Shutdown.

102:45:44 Aldrin: Okay. Engine Stop.

102:45:45 Aldrin: ACA out of Detent.

102:45:46 Armstrong: Out of Detent. Auto.

102:45:47 Aldrin: Mode Control, both Auto. Descent engine command override, off. Engine arm, off. 413 is in.

102:45:57 Duke: We copy you down, Eagle.

102:45:58 Armstrong: Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.

102:46:06 Duke: Roger, Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.

102:46:16 Aldrin: Thank you.

The Moon walk wasn’t actually scheduled until around 07:00 BST next day, with NASA having scheduled a sleep period first, but Armstrong and Aldrin were understandably anxious to get on with the job and having just landed on the Moon I’d imagine sleep was the last thing on their minds. So shortly before four o’clock I dragged my brother (a few days short of his ninth birthday) out of bed and together we watched as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the Moon and fluff his lines at the same time:

109:23:38 Armstrong: I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. Ground mass is very fine.

109:24:13 Armstrong: I’m going to step off the LM now.

109:24:48 Armstrong: That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.

About 20 minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the lunar surface:
109:43:08 Aldrin: That’s a good step.
109:43:10 Armstrong: Yeah. About a 3-footer.
109:43:16 Aldrin: Beautiful view!
109:43:18 Armstrong: Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.
109:43:24 Aldrin: Magnificent desolation.

That first lunar EVA lasted just over 2½ hours. In addition to collecting contingency, bulk and documented lunar samples, Armstrong and Aldrin deployed a seismometer to detect moon quakes and a retro-reflector array to reflect laser beams back to Earth and so determine the Earth-Moon distance very accurately. Also left behind was a US flag; an Apollo 1 mission patch commemorating Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee; Soviet medals commemorating Yuri Gagarin and Soyuz 1 cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov; a gold olive branch; and a plaque mounted on the LM Descent Stage ladder bearing drawings of Earth’s Western and Eastern Hemispheres with an inscription reading “Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind” together with signatures of the Apollo XI crew and President Nixon.

Finally there was a silicon disk containing goodwill statements by US Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and 73 other world leaders and heads of state. The latter detail makes interesting reading. The signatories include such notorious dictators as Nicolae Ceausescu, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Chiang Kai-Shek, Park Chung-hee and Anastasio Somoza. Others perhaps more positively remembered include Queen Juliana, Archbishop Makarios, Indira Gandhi and Eamon de Valera. The only signatory still remaining in office is HM the Queen. France is conspicuous by its absence; so is the USSR and indeed all but a handful of communist countries; China was represented by the Republic of China in Taiwan.

For months afterwards the story was doing the rounds that the Chinese people had still not been told about the landing and in those pre-internet times it might have been true. By contrast, Soviet television gave extensive coverage to the event.

Before beginning preparations for blasting off from the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin took their sleep period and, following their example, my brother and I went back to bed. By the time I woke my father was waking my grandfather and telling him about the moonwalk. Six months after the landing, my grandfather passed away, aged 77. His life thus spanned the entire history of human powered flight, from Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquillity.

On 24 July 1969, Apollo XI returned to Earth safely and, after three weeks in quarantine, its crew emerged to a heroes’ reception. But astonishingly, the public almost immediately lost interest. Six more manned missions were sent to the Moon, but only the incredible drama of Apollo XIII made the headlines (and, a quarter of a century later, an excellent if not entirely accurate Hollywood movie). Since December 1972, not a single manned spacecraft has left Earth’s orbit.

In 2002, a moon landing hoax conspiracy theorist confronted Buzz Aldrin outside a Beverly Hills hotel and called him “a coward, a liar, and a thief.” Aldrin – then aged 72 – punched him in the face. Beverly Hills police and the city’s prosecutor refused to file charges.

It is a fact that thanks to unmanned space probes, we now have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the Moon; though NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will redress the balance. Already it has returned images of abandoned Apollo hardware, unseen through all these years. The photographs from the Apollo XIV site are particularly good and show footprints left by Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on the Moon’s surface; finally burying for good the ridiculous conspiracy theory that the Moon landings were faked.

As a boy, my grandfather could hardly have expected to see men land on the Moon in his lifetime, but I never doubted I’d live to see a Mars landing, assuming then that it would happen in the 1980s. If the will had been there, it would have done, but NASA was sidetracked by the space shuttle for decades before returning to the original Apollo concept in an updated form, Project Orion. Very tentatively NASA is now talking about an expedition to Mars in 2037. I’ll be 82 that year – I might just make it.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Beneath the Tate Modern

An unassuming door in the Power Hall of the Tate Modern leads to a subterranean world that few have ever seen or, indeed, will ever see. The oil tanks feeding the former power station are due to be converted to gallery space as part of the Tate’s 11-storey extension project. On 5 July 2009, as part of an open day, small groups of local residents and their friends were allowed down into the massive underground complex which had never previously been open to the public.

© Christopher Seddon 2009