Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Which Kish?

I started a list of things I had read or heard about that sounded interesting. I consult that list for ideas for blogs. Sometimes my list entry is a helpful short paragraph; other entries are a phrase or just a word. This time, the entry was “Kish, Iran”.

I googled “Kish, Iran” and came up with Kish Island, a duty-free giant shopping mall on an island, according to Wikipedia. What? I must have misunderstood or mis-wrote, because I have extremely little interest in giant shopping malls, duty-free or otherwise. I read the history section, and it mentioned some ancient info about the island, but it was all summed up in a couple sentences, with lots of references to other articles, and it didn’t sound all that interesting.

What a bummer. What do I do, cross off that entry and pick another?

I opened google again, and put in “Kish”. What came up concerned an ancient city in what is now Iraq. I always seem to confuse Iran and Iraq. I decided to take look at what Wikipedia had on this Kish.

Around 4000 BC, the Sumerian people appeared in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates River in Mesopotamia (modern southern Iraq). They all shared the same culture and language, but they settled in about a dozen different places, which eventually became walled cities.

Kish was a city that came into existence around 3100 BC, sitting on the Euphrates River. The Sumerians as a whole developed a system of writing that was adopted by many other cultures. They also invented the wheel, the plow, law codes, literature and brewing. They placed their cities on rivers so that they could irrigate crops.

Although the Sumerian cities all shared a culture and language, they were constantly at war with each other, which explains why their cities were walled. The contained area was almost always dominated by a ziggurat – a tiered, pyramid-like temple. Individual houses were built either of bundles of marsh reeds or mud bricks. Sumerians traveled long distances to trade with other peoples. They may have reached as far as Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Kish was the first city to have kings after the deluge, according to the ancient Sumerian kings list. It had several dynasties. Two leaders from the 2nd dynasty, Enmebaragesi and his son, Aga of Kish, are said to be contemporaries of Gilgamesh of Uruk.

The third dynasty had an unusual beginning; the new king was Kubau, a female who had previously been a tavern keeper. She came to power at about 2500 BC. At some point, she was deified. The fourth dynasty consisted of Kubau’s (male) descendants.

Early in the 2nd millennium BC, Sumer was invaded by the Amorites and Babylonians. The culture did not survive this invasion. By 1750 BC, their history, culture, language were all forgotten. Eventually, Kish was abandoned and also forgotten. Just like the people who had been living in this area when the Sumers arrived.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Science Quiz

For 7 years, I’ve tried to ‘update my science [knowledge].’ I’ve always wanted to write science fiction, but my last science class was a quarter century ago, the one before that in 1970. I’d been busy working full time, raising kids, and so on. So when I retired and started writing science fiction, I found the vast research I did – and the results produced – shot huge holes in my time, the story background, and the plot I had picked.

Therefore, I subscribed to magazines, watched science and history documentaries, did other ‘educational’ things. I love to learn but… have I caught up? Am I ready to write science fiction?

Last week, I received the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Discover. It includes a list of the ‘Top 100 Stories of 2016’. As I read through some of this list and the entry for each article, I realized I was not familiar with everything listed. Have I failed?

I decided to keep track of which stories I had and had not already heard about. Now, I don’t get to read a magazine in one sitting, so as of today, I’ve only gotten to #40. Don’t worry, I will finish this issue, but in the meantime, how many of these 40 items had I already learned about before this issue?

First, the ones I had no knowledge of:
#4. Oldest Human DNA Revises Our Family Tree (I’d heard of Neanderthals & Denisovans, but not this particular story)
#5. Biologists Create Organism with Smallest Genome
#9. New Particle Fizzles, Leaving Physicists to Soul Search
#10. Did Lucy Fall and Not Get Up? (I knew about Lucy, but this was a new hypothesis that she died by falling out of a tree.)
#11. Bangladesh Sits Atop Potential Major Quake Zone
#12. Big Data May Lead to Earlier Alzheimer’s Diagnosis
#18. Electrons ‘Split’ in New Form of Matter
#19. Science in a Post-Brexit World
#22. NIH Proposes Lifting ‘Chimera’ Research Ban
#23. Picky Primes (Prime numbers are not as random as believed.)
#24. Finding China’s Great Flood
#27. Battle for Access (Should scientific papers be available to all, or only those who can afford to subscribe to scientific journals?)
#28. A Bone to Pick about Philistines
#29. Go, Go AlphaGo (Computer learns game, beats human champion.)
#31. Pushing the Limits of Life in the Lab
#32. Disrupting Dopamine Dogma
#35. Mathematicians Find the Answers (I was unaware of this question.)
#36. T. Rex Evolution: Smarts First, Size Second
#37. The Rise and Fall of Theranos (Fake medicine exposed)
#39. Plenty of Room at the Bottom (Saving data with chlorine and copper)
#40. Pluto’s Hidden Ocean (I knew it had one, but this article is about how it’s freezing, breaking Pluto apart.)

And the ones I was familiar with:
#1. Einstein’s Ripples in Space-Time
#2. Earth’s Surprise Neighbor Hints at Exoplanet Abundance (planets of Proxima Centauri)
#3. A New Enemy Emerges (zika and mosquitoes)
#6. The Pace – and Problems – of Climate Change Accelerate
#7. Can America Avoid Another Flint?
#8. Looking for Planet Nine
#13. Persistent Heat Decimates Coral Reefs
#14. The Ozone Hole is Finally Healing (Still has a long way to go.)
#15. More Hobbitses, Prescious! (More remains of hobbit-sized hominids found.)
#16. We Are All Africans
#17. The Falcon Has Landed, Now SpaceX is Eyeing Mars
#20. Ceres Hosts an Ice Volcano
#21. Regulating the Brave New World of Human Gene Editing
#25. The End of the Periodic Table? (How many more elements can scientists make?)
#26. Drug Couriers for Brain Injuries
#30. Crowdsourced Study Pinpoints Depression Genes
#33. Planets of the Milky Way
#34. Superbug Arrives in the US (Bacteria not deterred by any known medicine.)
#38. A Sharp Find (Ancient sword found in Denmark)

How did I shape up? Hmm, 21 stories I did not know; 19 I was semi-familiar with. If I were in school, that would be less than 50%, a solid F. But, I can’t know everything, so I don’t feel bad. Besides, some of these articles have hinted at background knowledge or even a story plot. I am stoked!

What have you learned in the past 7 years? I bet it’s a lot, whether science or not.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Gone Fishing on Ganymede

In the past, fishing was a skill used to provide food for the table. Whether or not ancient man enjoyed the process, they needed to be good at it – or at hunting – in order to thrive. Today, fishing on a personal level has become a pleasurable activity for some. They don’t need to do it to put fish on the dinner table, but they find the experience rewarding. Some go so far as to try for ‘a big fish’ out in the middle of the ocean.

What do you suppose will happen when humans find their way to other planets?

Water has been found on our moon, Mars, Ceres, even Pluto, as well as various other places. On Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, salty water is hidden under a thick (about 95 miles) crust of ice. There is probably more water on Ganymede than all of the Earth’s surface water combined. Scientists believe that ocean is 60 miles deep, about 10 times the deepest part of any Earth ocean.

I can envision future tours being organized to take die-hard fishers to Ganymede to drill a big hole in the exterior ice to facilitate fishing. I doubt if they’ll dangle a 100-mile-long fishing line into that hole – think how long it would take to reel it back in! So maybe their spacesuit for leaving the space boat would also be a diving suit, and they would ‘hunt’ for ‘fish’ with a spear gun.

Hmm. There’s problems with that vision, according to some of what I read. The Ganymede’s ocean is not only covered with ice, it also rests on ice, pressurized into a crystalized form. On other moons, the ocean bed is rock, which apparently keeps the water warmer, and provides various minerals as it is eroded by the salty ocean. The theory is that those warmer, rock-bedded oceans are far more likely to produce some kind of ‘life.’

Still, we keep getting surprised, the more we look around our neighborhood, don’t we? And science fiction writers like to take the science we know now and extrapolate possibilities we don’t – yet - have any proof for.

So, how about this? There’s a lot of different salts, besides table salt, which could be helping Ganymede’s ocean remain liquid. Nobody definitively stated the only salt in Ganymede’s ocean was NaCl (table salt), so these other salts could provide minerals for building ‘life’. I’m not sure the temperature of the ocean is that big a deal, but the salty ocean of Ganymede reacts to the magnetic field of Jupiter, and I’m thinking that reaction might produce some heat, although probably not much.

Sounds good to me. So good, I anticipate someone will make some money someday, selling signs that say, “Gone Fishing on Ganymede.”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Oldest People in England

Anthropologists theorize that the human family tree began in Africa, and at some point, various versions of our ancestors spread into the Arabian peninsula, Europe, Asia, Australia… and eventually the Americas. Lucy and the skeletons of many other almost-humans have been found scattered across Africa. Besides the skeletons and various stone tools, scientists have also discovered footprints, most notably some that are 3.75 million years old in Tanzania, and others left 1.5 million years ago in Kenya.

Long ago, I read that footprints were not a common find in the world of paleontology and anthropology; the footprint had to be made in a type of soil soft enough to take an impression, but firm enough to retain it, then covered and filled in by something else that would not disturb the impression. After all, a footprint is not a body that can be fossilized; it’s an impression that needs to be retained without being squashed.

But lately, I wandered across an article concerning ancient footprints discovered in England. These are the oldest footprints discovered (so far) outside Africa.

In May of 2013 (reported in February of 2014), about 50 footprints were discovered in Happisburgh, in Norwich. Previous footprints found in England were only 7,500 years old, but the Happisburgh prints were 900,000 years old, made by members of the extinct homo antecessor branch. (You remember Aunty Cessor, don’t you? No? Perhaps she was a bit before your time.) The prints came to light on the beach through erosion, and unfortunately, they disappeared the same way. Scientists got them measured and photographed, but only lifted a mold from one before they were gone.

These prints were made by 5 individuals, both adult and children, walking across the wet silt of an ancient estuary. They are the oldest direct evidence of humanoids in all of Europe, let alone England. The next oldest evidence in Europe is a 780,000 year old skull fragment found in southern Spain. Before this discovery, England had some 700,000 year old stone tools to indicate a human presence.

How did people get across the Channel to trek to the west side of the island? At 1,000,000 years ago, there was no channel; England was connected by land to the mainland, and that could have been the case for another 100,000 years. Maybe a geologist could tell you when the channel became a water-way, but the Happisburgh footprints were made just as the ice age was beginning, so the water level was lower.