HG Wells, Attenborough, Martians and Tasmanian genocide


BRITISH MADE GENOCIDE: The last four Tasmanian Aborigines of solely Aboriginal descent c1860s. Truganini, the last to survive, is seated at far right

This photo shows the last four Tasmanian Aborigines of solely Aboriginal descent c1860s. Truganini, the last to survive, is seated at far right.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Friday, December 6, 2019

Alien invasions and meetings with Stalin

The BBC TV adaptation of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds has finished. PETER FROST reminds us what a great socialist the author was

LAST SUNDAY saw the screening of the third and final episode of the BBC’s magnificent, if controversial, adaptation of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds.

Wells’s classic tale of Martians invading Earth has long been a favourite of mine. It is a beautifully ironic analogy of British imperialism’s invasions of foreign lands. Gun in one hand, a bible in the other the British invaded so many places in order to colour the globe pink.

Soldiers and missionaries carried a whole arsenal of fatal secret weapons. Viruses and bacteria of diseases like influenza and even the common cold. These were endemic back home but unknown and deadly among folk who had never built up immunities to them.

By coincidence before I watched the first episode of War of the Worlds I watched David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet documentary on the animals of Australia.

Attenborough focussed on two Tasmanian species. The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a carnivorous marsupial. Once widespread, today it is fighting hard in just a few Tasmanian locations to avoid total extinction.

He also showed amazing black and white footage of the very last Tasmanian tiger, or Tasmanian wolf. The Thylacine, (Thylacinus cynocephalus), was a marsupial wolf and the largest carnivorous marsupial of recent times. That film showed the very last survivor in a private Hobart zoo before the species became totally extinct in 1936.

The documentary however didn’t mention another Tasmanian species that was wiped out by the arrival of the white man. They were the indigenous people of the island — the Tasmanians — a population of Aboriginal people known as the Palawa.

It was the tragic fate of the Palawa that inspired HG Wells to write War of the Worlds. Wells told his brother Frank about the catastrophic effect of the British invasion on indigenous Tasmanians. What would happen, he wondered, if Martians did to Britain what the British had done to the Tasmanians?

So what of the BBC adaptation? I’ll leave most of that to TV reviewers more erudite than me. One widespread complaint was that the BBC adapters had added — horror of horrors — a woman hero.

The series opened with a hero, a journalist called George having left his wife, his cousin, to live with a woman called Amy in a small cottage called Lyndon near Woking, Surrey. Not one fact of the above can be found anywhere in the original book.

However H George Wells, a journalist, did marry his cousin and left her to live with a woman called Amy in a cottage called Lynton in Woking, Surrey.

It was at Lynton that Wells wrote the book and set the start of the Martian invasion in the countryside around the cottage.

What I want to do here is to remind readers what an incredible man HG Wells was. He always described himself as a committed socialist and wrote a wide variety of political writings — pamphlets, political books, newspaper and magazine articles — as well as novels and stories.

He was never afraid to use his novels and stories to advance his political opinions. Wells saw that socialism would abolish class barriers and foster equality of opportunity. Other writers such as Virginia Woolf berated him for using the novel as a vehicle for delivering his political ideas.

His novels took up diverse individual political issues. For instance The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) examined the fierce debates over vivisection. Ann Veronica (1909) deals with the struggle of the suffragettes for the vote for women.

In his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), he explained his political thinking was motivated by an awareness of the “incompatibility of the great world order foreshadowed by scientific and industrial progress with the existing political and social structures.”

For him the question was: how could politics and society catch up with the advances of science and technology? How could social and political institutions become more scientific, more efficient, more ordered?

As early as 1905 he described his ideal socialist society in his book A Modern Utopia. In it he paints a picture of a highly regulated world state where all property is state-owned, and where sexes are equal.

The Fabian Society were keen to have Wells on board. Despite some earlier differences with George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb he accepted an invitation to join the Fabians in 1903.

It would not be a happy time for the Fabians. They quickly realised that Wells could be a loose cannon. Openly criticising the Fabians from the beginning, in 1906 he shocked them with a paper called, unambiguously, The Faults of the Fabian.

In the paper Wells called the Fabian Society a talking shop for middle-class socialists, which lacked the appetite for real change. He argued Fabians should aim for mass membership and more radical reforms.

Wells’s love life and his reputed advocacy of free love didn’t go down well either. When In 1908 he advocated a wage for all mothers and the Fabians refused to adopt this as a policy, he left.

What Wells wanted was a single, socialist world state, a great world order, and it was no doubt to study this kind of development that he visited and championed the young Soviet Union repeatedly.

Wells visited Russia in 1914, 1920 and 1934. During his second visit his old friend and fellow writer Maxim Gorky arranged for him to meet and talk with Vladimir Lenin.

In July 1934, on his third visit to what had become the Soviet Union, he interviewed Joseph Stalin for the New Statesman. The interview lasted three hours.

He told Stalin how he had seen “the happy faces of healthy people” in contrast with his previous visit to Moscow in 1920 but he also raised some serious criticisms. Stalin, we are told, enjoyed the conversation.

During the second world war, Wells drafted a Universal Rights of Man that was published in the Times. This document and the advocacy he did around it led to the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Wells was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times but never won.

He suffered for much of his life from diabetes and in 1934 co-founded the charity The Diabetic Association known today as Diabetes UK.

Winston Churchill was an avid reader of his books, and after they first met in 1902 they kept in touch until Wells died in 1946. Prime minister Churchill famously described the rise of Nazi Germany as “the gathering storm”. He actually took the phrase from War of the Worlds.

War of the Worlds has never been out of print since its original publication in 1897. Films, radio dramas, comic-books, video games, and many television series have been based on it.

The most famous, or infamous, adaptation is the 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles. Presented as a live, realistic set of news bulletins interrupting normal programming, supposedly terrified listeners had heart attacks and even committed suicide, though recent scholarship has suggested this is an urban myth.

Perhaps the greatest and most surprising tribute to the author and the book is that of Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry. Goddard says his interest in rockets and space travel was first inspired by reading War of the Worlds aged sixteen.

Goddard would invent both liquid fuelled and multi-stage rockets that put men on the Moon and sent robotic probes to Mars — HG Wells would have wanted no finer tribute.

Herbivorous dinosaurs, new research


This May 2018 video is called 10 LARGEST Herbivorous Dinosaurs That Ever Lived.

From ScienceDaily:

Dull teeth, long skulls, specialized bites evolved in unrelated plant-eating dinosaurs

December 5, 2019

Herbivorous dinosaurs evolved many times during the 180 million-year Mesozoic era, and while they didn’t all evolve to chew, swallow, and digest their food in the same way, a few specific strategies appeared time and time again. An investigation of the skulls of 160 non-avian dinosaurs revealed the evolution of common traits in the skulls and teeth of plant-eating members of otherwise very different families of these extinct reptiles. These new examples of convergent evolution in plant-eating dinosaurs appear December 5 in the journal Current Biology.

“People often think of dinosaurs as a swansong for extinction or that they were a failed species. But they were actually extremely successful in terms of how different species’ anatomies evolved — particularly in herbivores,” says co-senior author David J. Button (@ItsDavidButton), a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum, London.

By looking at herbivorous and carnivorous dinosaur skulls, Button and co-senior author Lindsay Zanno, a professor at North Carolina State University and the head of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, found that while there are many ways for dinosaurs that eat similar foods to evolve, some traits reappear during evolution, even in unrelated species.

Herbivorous dinosaurs came in all shapes and sizes. Some exhibited dull, flat teeth like horses, while others had beaked faces like tortoises; some developed towering necks like giraffes, while others mimicked the short and stout build of a rhino. “Nonetheless, we see the evolution of common traits in the skull between these otherwise very different herbivorous dinosaur groups,” explains Button.

“For example, both the ostrich-like ornithomimosaurs and giant titanosaurs independently evolved elongate skulls and weaker bites, whereas the horned ceratopsians and gazelle-like ornithopods sported more powerful jaws and grinding teeth,” he says. These are results of convergent evolution, where adaptation to a diet of plants led to the evolution of common characters in different dinosaur groups.

The researchers hypothesized that some traits would be most common in plant-eaters. Slow-moving dinosaurs with small heads and dull teeth would likely have a difficult time wrapping their jaws around the neck of another dinosaur, in the way a carnivore like the Tyrannosaurus is thought to have done with ease. Instead, eating plants poses other challenges, such as grinding down tough plant stems.

“There’s a tradeoff between biting speed and biting efficiency,” says Button. “If you’re a herbivorous animal, you don’t really need speed because plants don’t move very fast.”

Some of the results of this functional analysis surprised the researchers, however. That was the case when investigating the eating habits of ankylosaurs, armored, armadillo-like plant-eating dinosaurs with small teeth and a large stomach cavity. Researchers previously thought dinosaurs with these traits usually swallowed their food nearly whole and let their gut break it down. “In our results, we found that ankylosaurs actually may have chewed their food more thoroughly than is often thought. So, that was interesting,” says Button.

In the future, Button and Zanno hope to look at the entire skeleton of herbivorous dinosaurs for similar, reoccurring traits. They also plan to expand this work to better understand predominate traits in carnivores, though Button admits plant-eaters will always be his favorite dinosaurs to study.

“People think that carnivorous dinosaurs are super exciting and cool because they run fast, and kill stuff,” he says. “But I think the plant-eating dinosaurs evolved in much more interesting and sophisticated ways. That’s what makes this work so exciting.”

Kemp’s ridley turtles beaching in Massachusetts, USA


This 6 December 2016 video from the USA says about itself:

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Rescue, Cape Cod, MA

I visited a few friends who volunteer saving Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles (and others) on the shore of Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts. Every November, migrant turtles get caught in the bay as they travel South. As the water cools, they become cold-stunned and wash ashore. They need human intervention to rescue them.

Volunteers scour the beaches and get the sea turtles to an aquarium that nurses them back to health and eventually releases them. It’s GREAT work!

90% of the turtles that wash up on Cape Cod are Kemp’s Ridley… the most critically endangered sea turtle in the world. Every single turtle is worth saving and the rescue efforts have been incredible.

The day was amazing and I was honored and privileged to be a part of it. We found three Kemp’s Ridley turtles (two were pronounced dead) and one 88 lb., five-year-old Loggerhead who should do well in rehab! Incredible.

From PLOS:

How do world’s smallest sea turtles become stranded in Cape Cod?

Computer simulations help reconstruct ocean conditions behind stranding

December 4, 2019

A computational analysis has surfaced new insights into the wind and water conditions that cause Kemp’s ridley sea turtles to become stranded on beaches in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Xiaojian Liu of Wuhan University, China, and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on December 4, 2019.

The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is smaller and in greater danger of extinction than any other sea turtle in the world. This species is found in coastal waters ranging from the Gulf of Mexico to Nova Scotia, Canada. While Kemp’s ridley populations have slowly risen since conservation efforts began in the 1970s, the number of turtles found stranded on Cape Cod beaches in the last few years is nearly an order of magnitude higher than in earlier decades.

To help clarify the conditions that lead to stranding, Liu and colleagues combined computational modeling with real-world observations. This enabled them to investigate circumstances that could trigger hypothermia in Kemp’s ridley turtles — the primary cause of most strandings — and subsequent transport of the cold-stunned animals to shore.

The researchers used the Finite Volume Community Ocean Model to simulate ocean currents in Cape Cod Bay. To validate these simulations, they also released drifting instruments into the currents and tracked their movements via satellite. Then, they looked for links between the simulations, the drifter data, water temperature data, and records of where and when Kemp’s ridley turtles were found stranded.

The findings suggest that Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are more likely to become stranded at certain beach locations along Cape Cod when water temperatures drop below 10.5° Celsius and, concurrently, winds blow with high wind stress in certain directions. Once stranded, hypothermic turtles usually require assistance from trained volunteers in order to survive.

While these findings provide new insights that could help guide future search and rescue efforts, questions remain. Further research is needed to clarify the depth of water at which Kemp’s ridley sea turtles typically become hypothermic, and how processes like wind and waves may impact stranding events at those depths.

Co-author James Manning notes: “While the state-of-the-art ocean model can help simulate the process, both the student-built drifters and bottom temperature sensors deployed by local fishermen are critical to the investigation.”

Big chromosome discovery in larks


This video is about skylarks singing in Belarus.

From Lund University in Sweden:

Record-size sex chromosome found in two bird species

December 4, 2019

Researchers in Sweden and the UK have discovered the largest known avian sex chromosome. The giant chromosome was created when four chromosomes fused together into one, and has been found in two species of lark.

“This was an unexpected discovery, as birds are generally considered to have very stable genetic material with well-preserved chromosomes,” explains Bengt Hansson, professor at Lund University in Sweden.

In a new study, the researchers charted the genome of several species of lark, a songbird family in which all members have unusually large sex chromosomes. The record-size chromosome is found in both the Eurasian skylark, a species that is common in Europe, Asia and North Africa, and the Raso lark, a species only found on the small island of Raso in Cape Verde.

This 8 May 2018 video, in Portuguese with English subtitles, says about itself:

A new home for the Raso Lark

The Raso Lark (Alauda razae) is confined to the small Raso islet on Cape Verde and it is one of the most threatened birds in the world. Its small population was once reduced to less than 100 birds worldwide! To increase its chances of survival Biosfera 1 joined SPEA and DNA and, with the support of the MAVA Foundation, translocated 37 birds to the neighbour island of Santa Luzia.

The translocation was successful and now we wait for the first breeding signs of this new population.

The Lund University article continues:

“The genetic material in the larks’ sex chromosome has also been used to form sex chromosomes in mammals, fish, frogs, lizards and turtles. This indicates that certain parts of the genome have a greater tendency to develop into sex chromosomes than others,” says Bengt Hansson.

Why the two species have the largest sex chromosome of all birds is unclear, but the result could be disastrous lead to problems for female larks in the future. Studies of different sex chromosome systems have shown that the sex-limited chromosome, for example the Y chromosome in humans, usually breaks down over time and loses functional genes.

“Among birds, the females have a corresponding W chromosome in which we see the same breakdown pattern. As three times more genetic material is linked to the sex chromosomes of these larks compared to other birds, this could cause problems for many genes,” says Hanna Sigeman, doctoral student at the Department of Biology, Lund University.

Candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, foreign policy


This 4 December 2019 video from the USA says about itself:

Bernie Sanders is distancing himself from [Elizabeth] Warren. Cenk Uygur, Emma Vigeland, and Ana Kasparian, hosts of The Young Turks, break it down.

From Politico:

Bernie Sanders‘ revolution has gone global.

As the Vermont senator battles Elizabeth Warren for the left wing of the Democratic Party, he’s increasingly tried to find an edge on foreign policy. Sanders has portrayed his candidacy as one part of a worldwide worker-led movement, praised … leftist leaders across the globe, and tried to articulate a foreign policy further afield of the establishment than Warren’s.

Sanders’ foreign policy views are a clear mark of distinction from Warren in a race in which their domestic agendas are viewed as very similar.

That view may not be 100% correct. As Senator Warren at first backed a Medicare For All plan similar to Sanders’; but later backtracked.

Left-wing leaders around the world see an ally in Sanders — Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva recently thanked him for his “solidarity” and Bolivia‘s ousted Evo Morales called him “hermano Bernie Sanders” — but have not publicly embraced Warren in the same way.

Horseshoe crab eyes, 400 million years old


This July 2018 video is called What If The Jaekelopterus rhenaniae Didn’t Go Extinct?

From the University of Cologne in Germany:

Compound eyes: The visual apparatus of today’s horseshoe crabs goes back 400 million years

December 3, 2019

The eyes of the extinct sea scorpion Jaekelopterus rhenaniae have the same structure as the eyes of modern horseshoe crabs (Limulidae). The compound eyes of the giant predator exhibited lens cylinders and concentrically organized sensory cells enclosing the end of a highly specialized cell. This is the result of research Dr Brigitte Schoenemann, professor of zoology at the Institute of Biology Didactics at the University of Cologne, conducted with an electron microscope. Cooperation partners in the project were Dr Markus Poschmann from the Directorate General of Cultural Heritage RLP, Directorate of Regional Archaeology/Earth History and Professor Euan N.K. Clarkson from the University of Edinburgh. The results of the study ‘Insights into the 400 million-year-old eyes of giant sea scorpions (Eurypterida) suggest the structure of Palaeozoic compound eyes’ have been published in the journal Scientific Reports — Nature.

The eyes of modern horseshoe crabs consist of compounds, so-called ommatidia. Unlike, for example, insects that have compound eyes with a simple lens, the ommatidia of horseshoe crabs are equipped with a lens cylinder that continuously refracts light and transmits it to the sensory cells.

These sensory cells are grouped in the form of a rosette around a central light conductor, the rhabdom, which is part of the sensory cells and converts light signals into nerve signals to transmit them to the central nervous system. At the centre of this ‘light transmitter’ in horseshoe crabs is a highly specialized cell end, which can connect the signals of neighbouring compounds in such a way that the crab perceives contours more clearly. This can be particularly useful in conditions of low visibility under water. In the cross-section of the ommatidium, it is possible to identify the end of this specialized cell as a bright point in the centre of the rhabdom.

Brigitte Schoenemann used electron microscopes to examine fossil Jaekelopterus rhenaniae specimens to find out whether the compound eyes of the giant scorpion and the related horseshoe crabs are similar or whether they are more similar to insect or crustacean eyes. She found the same structures as in horseshoe crabs. Lens cylinders, sensory cells and even the highly specialized cells were clearly discernible.

‘This bright spot belongs to a special cell that only occurs in horseshoe crabs today, but apparently already existed in eurypterida,’ explained Schoenemann. ‘The structures of the systems are identical. It follows that very probably this sort of contrast enhancement already evolved more than 400 million years ago,’ she added. Jaekelopterus most likely hunted placoderm[i fish]. Here, its visual apparatus was clearly an advantage in the murky seawater.

Sea scorpions, which first appeared 470 million years ago, died out about 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian age — along with about 95 percent of all marine life. Some specimens were large oceanic predators, such as Jaekelopterus rhenaniae. It reached a length of 2.5 meters and belonged to the family of eurypterida, the extinct relatives of the horseshoe crab. Eurypterida are arthropods, which belong to the subphylum Chelicerata, and are therefore related to spiders and scorpions.

Among the arthropods there are two large groups: mandibulates (crustaceans, insects, trilobites) and chelicerates (arachnid animals such as sea scorpions). In recent years, Schoenemann has been able to clarify the eye structures of various trilobite species and to make decisive contributions to research into the evolution of the compound eye. ‘Until recently, scientists thought that soft tissues do not fossilize. Hence these parts of specimens were not examined until not so long ago’, she concluded.

The new findings on the eye of the sea scorpion are important for the evolution of the compound eyes not only of chelicerates, but also for determining the position of sea scorpions in the pedigree of these animals and for the comparison with the eyes of the related group of mandibulates.