IN 1598, a European miner working in the Bolivian highlands stumbled across a 10-year-old Andean girl who was still alive, despite having been walled up inside a funerary tower three days earlier. Several decades had passed since the Inca Empire—the most sophisticated in the world at that time—had fallen, but its practices lived on among the Incas’ descendants in the region, including human sacrifice. The practice held on a little longer after this incident. Around 20 years later, a boy, who had escaped from local chiefs attempting to bury him alive, took refuge in a Spanish community in the Peruvian Sierra. But the tradition was incompatible with the moral outlook of the new Catholic regime, and die it did, eventually…
This article first appeared in The Atlantic on 27 February 2018. To continue reading, click here.
AT POVERTY POINT, Louisiana, a remarkable monument overlooks a bend in the Mississippi river. Built around 3500 years ago, entirely from earth, it consists of six concentric, semicircular ridges radiating out from a central “plaza”, together with five mounds. Mound A, the largest, towers 22 metres – the equivalent of a seven-storey building – over the lush floodplain. North America wouldn’t see another monument on this scale for 2000 years…
This article first appeared in New Scientist on 10 January 2018. To continue reading, click here.
COMPUTER scientist Luc Steels uses artificial intelligence to explore the origins and evolution of language. He is best known for his 1999–2001 Talking Heads Experiment, in which robots had to construct a language from scratch to communicate with each other. Now Steels, who works at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), has composed an opera based on the legend of Faust, with a twenty-first-century twist. He talks about Mozart as a nascent computer programmer, how music maps onto language, and the blurred boundaries of a digitized world….
This article first appeared in Nature on 14 September 2017. To continue reading, click here.
REMEMBER the Naples Soldier, the vicious flu pandemic that swept the globe almost 100 years ago, infecting one in three people and killing up to 50 million? You probably don’t, but you might remember the Spanish flu, the name by which that pandemic is better known. ‘Naples Soldier’ was what the Spanish called it, after a catchy tune that was being played in local music halls at the time. They knew the origins of the disaster lay beyond their borders and, understandably, refused to take the blame…
This essay first appeared in Aeon on 23 May 2017. To continue reading, click here.
“I’ve always thought I’d be good at naming diseases,” muses Dan Piepenbring in The Paris Review (24 May 2017). “The problem with most disease names is that they have all these scary words in them: flu, disorder, virus. That’s bad for business. If I were in charge, I’d name them after deodorants (Aqua Reef, Cool Burst, Sport) or Yankee Candles (Bahama Breeze, Vanilla Cupcake, Clean Cotton). But get this: It’s not just one person naming all the world’s diseases. It’s a whole committee of international bureaucracies, which explains why so many of our world’s most dangerous illnesses have such lousy titles.” Read Dan here:
“MY NAME is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” So run the famous lines of Percy Shelley’s poem about Ramses the Great, a pharaoh who ruled Egypt’s New Kingdom in the 13th century BC, when it was the world’s most sophisticated society. But the poem’s theme is the transience of glory. It describes the ruins of a giant statue to Ramses that lie scattered in the desert: “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away…”
This article first appeared in New Scientist on 15 October 2016. To continue reading, click here.