- This week in Anthropocene news: The International Congress on Stratigraphy (the geologists who have final say on new epochs and eras) met last week. One major point of discussion: the unprecedented outside pressure the group has encountered to name the Anthropocene as an official epoch. ICS chair Stanley Finney argued that the group should stay focused on the question of rocks, not politics, and that “it is not the job of the ICS to look at what humans are doing, or to predict what they will do in the future.”
- Last week, in limits-to-the-Anthropocene news: we’ve already linked to the New Yorker’s doomsday piece about the earthquake that’s certain to hit the American Pacific Northwest. Kathryn Schultz wrote that the quake will affect “some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens,” she continues, the region will have endured “the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.” Listen to WBUR’s interview with Schulz here and read Slate’s take here. The New Yorker has a tradition of great geology writing; the master is John McPhee, interviewed here on the publication of his tremendous Annals of the Former World. And for a real MBM (that’s “minute-by-minute”) of an earthquake, read McPhee’s book Assembling California.
- Apparently the concrete dome constructed to store nuclear waste produced during the U.S.’s nuclear test programme at Bikini Atoll is leaking.
- Ants, man: A joint research team at Cambridge and the University of Warwick have discovered that ants are, in fact, very clean animals. Turns out ants use the joint of their front leg as a cleaning brush off sorts in order to clear debris and pollen off of their antennas. In turn, these clean antennas help ants smell and locate all of those delicious crumbs in your kitchen.
- Each era of computing technology has its own distinctive sounds (who could forget the clash of a dial-up modem?) Composer Matt Parker has set out on a mission to preserve some of these sounds and, as a consequence, the experiences of historical users. Parker has created an audio archive of 126 sounds made by the historic computers of Bletchley Park. He has even composed an album, “The Imitation Archive,” using these distinctive recordings.
- What is the future of labor? The NYC-based collective Data & Society has published a series of working papers on the topic. Now, a work of short fiction from Gideon Lichfield on Quartz.
- In this past weekend’s New York Times, Oliver Sacks offered some moving reflections on life, death, and his lifelong bond with the periodic table.
- Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire, on progress in the history of food.
The best of the week in #histsci #histtech #histmed, courtesy of your bloggers.
- Drawings and scrimshaw by whalers from the Providence Public Library Special Collections (h/t @sethrockman).
- Uber and Princeton economist Alan Krueger have released data on the company’s drivers.
- “Guano contracts” helped trap Southern sharecroppers in cycles of debt. Relatedly, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw appears to be the best book people have forgotten about. It is an oral history of an Alabama sharecropper, and in 1974 it won the National Book Award. That year, it beat Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men,” Studs Terkel’s “Working,” and Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
- Nine facts about the detective show “Mathnet.”
- New intellectual histories of the idea of the global economy, from G. W. F. Hegel to zombies.
- Preserving and digitizing cultural heritage under extreme duress: Dominican monks in Iraq try to save their centuries-old collection of rare books and manuscripts in fear that ISIS will loot their library and turn it into a prison or torture chamber.
- A cool minimalist poster series on women who changed science and the world, featuring Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson, Marie Curie, and others.
- Another take on the relationship, if there is one, between virtue and the scientific vocation, by Steven Shapin.
- The New York Times (acting on Evan’s suggestion, no doubt) begins to tell the story of biomedical research funding buried in the Sheldon Silver corruption charges. (Check out pages 24-31 of the complaint.)
- Jill Lepore on using the Internet Archive as an archive: “Last year, the Internet Archive made an archive of its .gov domain, tidied up and compressed the data, and made it available to a group of scholars, who tried very hard to make something of the material. It was so difficult to recruit scholars to use the data that the project was mostly a wash. Kahle says, ‘I give it a B.’ Stanford’s Web archivist, Nicholas Taylor, thinks it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. ‘We don’t know what tools to build, because no research has been done, but the research hasn’t been done because we haven’t built any tools.'”
- “Project Syria,” a video game that simulates a day in the life of a Syrian refugee, debuted this weekend at the World Economic Forum.
- Researchers are considering relocating the origin moment of the Anthropocene from the Industrial Revolution to the mid-twentieth century, to correspond to the detonation of the first atomic bombs (stay tuned for more on this later this week from Leah).
- An in-depth profile on life with rare genetic condition Prader-Willi syndrome. Those who suffer with Prader-Willi have insatiable appetites, and can literally eat themselves to death. This strange symptom makes the disease of great interest to both researchers and pharmaceutical companies, who hope that Prader-Willi patients hold the key to understanding the mysteries of diet and obesity.
- Scientific writing can be described in lots of ways, but beautiful is usually not one of them. Stephen Heard, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick, wants to make the case for “whimsy, jokes, and beauty” in scientific in prose. His blog post and recent paper on the subject have sparked a debate about relative merits of typically turgid versus poetic scientific writing styles. Nature nicely sums up the conversation here.
“It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism…” – Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time.
A few weeks ago, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report calling on the world to end its reliance on fossil fuels by 2100. “Since the 1950s, many of the observed changes [in the climate system] are unprecedented over decades to millennia,” the report’s authors wrote, concluding: “human influence on the climate system is clear.” The report is one of many documents that speaks to a question currently plaguing contemporary science: To what extent have humans impacted the earth’s processes, and how can we document those impacts? One answer to this question is the concept of the Anthropocene. “Anthropocene,” as a scientific term, gained traction around 2000 when atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer used it to describe a geological epoch in which human activity has led to environmental, geological, and atmospheric change on a global scale. In the Anthropocene, the two argue, humans have assumed the role of a major geological force. Crutzen and Stoermer locate the origins of the Anthropocene around 1784 (making it coeval with James Watt’s steam engine, itself a metonym for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) and argue that it is an epoch in which we still live. Since the article’s publication, the concept has sparked heated debate across the sciences: Is there such a thing as the Anthropocene? If so, what kinds of evidence should we marshal to substantiate it?