Category Archives: Archaeology

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).

 

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.

The end is nigh

IN case you missed it, the end is nigh. Ever since Jared Diamond published his hugely popular 2005 work Collapse, books on the same theme have been arriving with the frequency of palace coups in the late Roman Empire. Clearly, their authors are responding to a universal preoccupation with climate change, as well as to growing financial and political instability and a sense that civilization is lurching towards a cliff edge. Mention is also made of how big-data tools are shedding new light on historical questions. But do these books have anything useful to share? Any actionable points besides that on my coffee mug: “Now panic and freak out”? …

This article first appeared online in Nature on 18 February 2020 (print edition of 20 February 2020). To continue reading, click here.

Dark and frozen matter: science in the Alps

I’m shamelessly advertising the following 6-day tour of Switzerland and France that’s being organised by New Scientist and Kirker Holidays, because I’m going to be a guide on it – talking about all that the melting glaciers are revealing about our past – and because if scientific holidays are your cup of tea, this one promises to be really fun and instructive. We get to eat fondue too. Here’s the official blurb, or part of it – there are two departures in 2020:

Departing 18th May and 17th September 2020

One of the world’s most important centres of science and innovation, Geneva is also a charming lakeside town with a fascinating history. The tour focuses on CERN, where they operate the famous Large Hadron Collider, and Mont Blanc to investigate receding glaciers and what they reveal about history. Accompanied by particle physicist Darren Price and science journalist Laura Spinney.

During your stay in Geneva you will also explore the old town, visit the Museum of the History of Science and learn about watchmaking at an historic workshop.

More details are available here.

 

The 2010s: what just happened?

THE 2010s were the decade in which we were reminded that science is just a method, like the rhythm method. And just like the rhythm method, it can be more or less rigorously applied, sabotaged, overrated, underrated and ignored. If you don’t treat it with respect, you may not get the optimal result, but that’s not the method’s fault…

Ice mountains on Pluto

This article was first published in The Guardian on 26 December 2019. To continue reading, click here.