Category Archives: History

On the origins of smallpox

THE death date of smallpox is clear. After killing more than 300 million people in the twentieth century, it claimed its last victim in 1978; two years later, on 8 May 1980, the World Health Assembly declared that the variola virus, which causes smallpox, had been eradicated. But the origins of this devastating virus are obscure. Now, genetic evidence is starting to uncover when smallpox first started attacking people…

Korean smallpox goddess, late Joseon era (17th-19th Centuries)

This article first appeared in Nature on 23 July 2020. To continue reading, click here (paywall).

 

On plague memory (again)

RUMINATING on why the 1918 flu pandemic wasn’t better remembered, the African historian Terence Ranger concluded in the early 2000s that the story wasn’t being told right. The vast majority of the victims—50 million of them at a conservative count—perished in a mere 13 weeks at the tail end of 1918, all over the globe. It was a planetary convulsion that was over in the blink of an eye, but whose impact reverberated through human societies for decades to come…

The Pull of the Stars, by Emma Donoghue (2020)

This article first appeared in Wired on 20 July 2020. To  continue reading, click here.

Phylloxera – a pest’s genome reveals its past

A CENTURY and a half ago an alien insect alighted in Europe. It displaced millions, ruined local economies and forced scientists, politicians and ordinary folk into a frenzy of defensive activity. Phylloxera, a member of the group known to entomologists as Hemiptera, or “true” bugs (as opposed to all the other critters known colloquially as bugs), appeared in France in the 1860s and proceeded to eat its way through many of the Old World’s vines…

“The phylloxera, a true, gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines.” Cartoon from Punch, 6 September 6, 1890

This article first appeared in The Economist online on 4 July 2020, and in the print edition of 11 July 2020. To continue reading, click here (paywall).

 

 

 

Europe’s first farmers

EIGHT thousand years ago small bands of seminomadic hunter-gatherers were the only human beings roaming Europe’s lush, green forests. Archaeological digs in caves and elsewhere have turned up evidence of their Mesolithic technology: flint-tipped tools with which they fished, hunted deer and aurochs (a now extinct species of ox), and gathered wild plants. Many had dark hair and blue eyes, recent genetic studies suggest, and the few skeletons unearthed so far indicate that they were quite tall and muscular. Their languages remain mysterious to this day…

First farmer of the Linear Pottery Culture in Neolithic Central Europe. Illustration: Karol Schauer, State Museum of Prehistory in Halle (Saale), Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.

This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Scientific American. To continue reading, click here.

Covid-19 and the grassroots

PANDEMICS hand power to the people. Leadership is necessary, for an optimal outcome, but essentially it’s up to us what happens next. It’s in times like these that grassroots political movements can come into their own – if they know how to adapt to the circumstances…

Sardine baitball by Sudokuhani – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 15 May 2020. To continue reading, click here.