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Monday, 24 October 2016

A potted history of climate change

I was searching for a reference that I knew was in my files, and I tracked it down, so here is some surprising news: we knew that "global warming" was happening, way back in 1950!

What is different now is that most reputable atmospheric scientists believe human activity is driving the modern slow warming of our climate. All the same, now we know that global warming is a bad description, so we call it ‘climate change’. Under any name, it’s the same beast, and the same looming disaster, and it was happening 66 years ago.

Oddly, the suspicion that humans are to blame may be even older. The problem before was that there was not a lot of hard science in the arguments, which come down to logic, reason, careful modelling — and interpretation that is likely to be biased by a generous serving of self-interest. That has changed in the last ten years.

Nobody denies that the Earth is getting warmer, because the evidence is there, and it was apparent in 1950, when George Kimble reported in Scientific American that the northern limit of wheat-growing in Canada had moved northward some 2 – 300 miles (call it 400 kilometres), adding that farmers in southern Ontario were experimenting with cotton. While that industry seems not to have taken off, he reported another trend that continues to this day, the northward retreat of the permafrost:
“In parts of Siberia the southern boundary of permanently frozen ground is receding poleward several dozen yards per annum.”
The matter open to question back then was the cause. Kimble noted that the Domesday Book featured 38 vineyards in England in 1086, in addition to those of the Crown. He pointed also to the Greenland colony which was frozen out, back around the mid-1400s and other evidence that climates change. He also looked at Biblical evidence on the distribution of date palms to suggest that conditions in 1950 were much those of Biblical times, providing a picture of a climate that fluctuates around a mean. Maybe it was just one of those cycles.

That was a time before ‘global warming’ when climate change was referred to as the ‘greenhouse effect’. In cold climates, a greenhouse is a glass shed which allows sunlight to shine in, where much of it is absorbed and changed to heat. Glass is less transparent to heat, but a greenhouse does not just trap warmth that way: it also holds a body of warm air around the plants, and protects them from wind-driven evaporation. So while we still speak of ‘greenhouse gases’, it is rare to hear anybody mention the greenhouse effect these days, but even that goes way back.

In the 1820s, Joseph Fourier realised that heat-trapping might occur. Then Svante Arrhenius reminded us in 1896 that both water vapour and carbon dioxide were ‘greenhouse gases’ (escaping that bad analogy is hard) and so water and carbon dioxide would play a role in making the planet get warmer. He also considered changes that might be happening, and consulted Arvid Högbom, who just happened to know all about carbon dioxide sources and sinks.

Carbon dioxide was coming from life forms when they breathed, from volcanoes, and from humans burning fossil and other fuels. The human additions were a very small part of the total in the air already, perhaps one part in a thousand was added by the burning of coal, and there were probably checks and balances. Arrhenius estimated that it would take 3000 years to double the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, if it ever happened, but that such a doubling would raise world average temperatures by 5 to 6°C.

In 1896, the CO2 level was around 290 parts per million: in 2016, the value was estimated at 396 parts per million: we had travelled one third of the projected distance in just 120 years.

To Europeans back in the 1890s, the warming effect seemed nothing to worry about, because nobody had stopped to consider the cascades, the flow-ons that might be driven by that rise in temperature. Walter Nernst, even wondered if it would be feasible to set fire to uneconomical and low-grade coal seams, so as to release enough carbon dioxide to warm the Earth’s climate deliberately!

Scientists are slow to move to a new model, a new way of understanding, something called a paradigm, and just a few years before the world’s earth scientists were shown irrefutable evidence of plate tectonics, we undergraduates in geology were being told by one of our lecturers “go and watch Carey perform at the conference — he’s mad, and thinks that the continents move!”

Sam Carey wasn’t quite right, but he was closer to the truth than his denigrator. It is, however, a well-kept secret that scientists engage in robust rhetoric and vilification. Sam seized on every scrap of evidence to push his own viewpoint, most of the audience laughed dutifully — and felt rather embarrassed a few years later when palaeomagnetic evidence showed that Carey was largely on the money. In the end, the good science was recognised and accepted.

A decade back, global warming was in much the same position, with some of the scientists arguing furiously, even when they agreed on the main principles, and as in the puzzle of the wandering continents, the key evidence is probably there. Mind you, when I covered the 2002 Spring Conference of then American Geophysical Union, there were no nay-sayers there.

The problem is that so long as people can get away with saying "global warming", we are once again stuck with a bad analogy, just as the early 1960s saw us hung up on “continental drift”.

That aside, the cost of disagreement and bickering is remarkably different. It mattered not at all if people disagreed about plate tectonics (except, perhaps, that it makes tsunamis like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami easier to understand), but global warming is likely to be a major disaster for humanity, and any delay has the potential to cost lives. To understand this, we have to accept some puzzling propositions.

To take one example, the formation of sea ice in the Bering Strait is probably what stops Dublin and New York being iced-in each winter. This is because the sea ice is largely free of salt, and leaves a residue of cold brine that drives a current known as the Conveyor, which in turn drives the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream takes warm water from the Caribbean and swirls it up around the North Atlantic, contributing to fogs and breaking icebergs loose, but keeping many ports warm and open, even in winter.

Just as the prion proteins of mad cow disease have more than one stable form, so do weather patterns, and if the weather once drops into a new pattern, we may not be able to bounce it back to where it started. The good news is that as northern Europe freezes over, the glaciers which are now melting away fast will be replenished, lowering sea levels. The increased snow cover will also increase the reflectivity of the northern hemisphere, and that may cool the planet down a little. We just have to hope it does not trigger a new stable pattern that happens to be an ice age.

The actual changes that might follow the breaking point are hard to predict. They are unlikely to be spectacular and major, and probably they will do their harm stealthily, when infrastructure, port facilities and cities are flooded, or when agricultural land is lost, either by being covered by the sea or as a result of drastically changed rainfall patterns. If rock is exposed in Antarctica, this could lead to a low pressure zone over the icy continent that could change weather patterns around the world.

It hasn’t happened yet, but we need to learn from history. Ten years ago, no politician would take a long-term view and force the changes needed in the next thirty to forty years, when most of them are elected for a mere three to four years, and then face the voters again. It is easier to bleat plaintively that there is no real agreement among the scientists yet (there is), or that some eminent scientists (they aren’t: just look at where their funding comes from) believe that there are other explanations.

That load of bollocks saves the politicians from having to act — and the honesty of scientists in saying that they cannot be sure just how things will go wrong allows devious short-term opportunists to prate that “the scientists aren’t sure…”.

Politics is a marvellous human discovery. It is a pity that politicians still have to discover humanity and consider its prospects. It is likely that politics, dithering, duck-shoving and shilly-shallying will make this disaster happen.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Should climate change be about politics?

Click on this to see a larger view, and spot the blue colour.
My last post was about seasons, and that set me thinking about how the natural seasons are changing as our climate changes.

 In the past two years I have been around quite a few glaciers in north-west North America and Scandinavia. They are all, like this one on the left, seen at Briksdal in Norway, going backwards, retreating.

(Perversely, a handful of the world's glaciers are going forward, but the general trend is clear: climate change is melting the glaciers. There is trouble on the way!)

I discovered that in Scandinavia, they understand this very well, and Jens Galschiot's installation 'Unbearable' in Copenhagen makes the point brilliantly: look to the right first.

Gruesome, isn't it?  If you don't get it, scroll down towards the bottom of this entry, where there is a wider shot and some explanation.

In 1967, Dan Greenberg quoted Luis Alvarez, a VERY clever scientist as saying "There is no democracy in physics. We can't say that some second-rate guy has as much right to opinion as Fermi." (If you don't know who Fermi is, he won the Nobel for physics in 1938, and in 1942, set up the first-ever nuclear reactor in Chicago, an action that led to the Manhattan Project and the atom bomb.)

What Alvarez might have said was: should any science be about politics? Like it or not, scientists engage in political games and polemics, and that seems to give the unqualified the idea that science is about voting to choose the most popular theory.

That, I am sure, is what lies behind much of the fulmination against evolution that comes from the USA — the opponents hope they can shout at the idea and make it go away. As Sir John Pringle put it (in another context), they have as much hope of repealing the law of gravity.

There is certainly one place where politics looms large in science, and that is when science says we need to do something that will hurt. We don't get to vote about which scientific idea is right, but we do get to vote about the actions we take on it.

Political leaders in the US and Australia will not risk making decisions that will upset voters in marginal electorates (or congressional districts in the US). Anti-Bush types used to point to the links he had with the oil industry, but while I never had a lot of time for GWB, I don't believe any US President acts on the behalf of the oil companies in a corrupt way, any more than our Prime Minister (whoever that is) must be in the hands of the coal lobby because they are paying him. It just happens that votes can be found in backing fossil fuel use, and cheap fossil fuel use at that.

The skinny of it: acting responsibly will cause howls of outrage from those who are affected by taxes and price hikes, but without those changes, the planet is doomed. You don't need to seek a plebiscite of the scientists — they are as near to unanimous as a bunch of independent thinkers ever will be.

I used to hang out quite a lot with geophysicists, and I know that for years now, only a few mavericks have tried to argue either that the world is not warming, or that if it is, that is because of something other than increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. I know also that when you burrow, these people generally turn out to be elderly or funded by fossil fuel interests, or unqualified to speak.

So the politics is already there. The only way to bring about change is to educate the general public, but global warming is complicated. It will lead to weird effects, like some places getting cooler (there is a good chance that the Irish Sea will start forming sea ice, some time in the next hundred years or so). We know that a few of the big storms we get in the next decade or two will be caused by global warming.

I was in London in June 2006, when the Londoners were screaming "heat wave!". I was having a beer in the John Snow pub (that's another story, but immediately understandable to those knowing a bit about anaesthetics or epidemiology or both) when I read that an insurance company had mounted an ice sculpture of the world, and it was within walking distance. The friendly barman helped me work out how to get to where it was supposed to be, but when I got there, it must have melted away.

So what was an insurance company doing, staging a stunt like that? Simple: they notice when things start to go pear-shaped. As early as the 1920s, insurance companies were wary of people who worked with asbestos — it took more than fifty years for the rest of us to wake up to the harm it was doing. When the insurance companies get scared, it's time for us to get scared.*

A US poll of 1,018 likely voters was released a bit later in 2006 (

The poll showed that not only were Americans more convinced that global warming is happening than they were two years before that, but they were also linking the then recent intense weather events like Hurricane Katrina, heat waves and droughts to global warming. People were making the connection between global warming and the more intense weather events they experience and hear about.

In short, there may be hope for us yet, though I suspect that a prolonged and calculated PR campaign over the past ten years may have pushed that back in the US, the UK and Australia. Of the sample, 74% were more convinced today that global warming is happening than they were two years earlier. Only one is five said they were less convinced global warming is occurring.

The numbers of people more convinced global warming is happening cut across all demographic segments including region of the country, age, religion, racial background, gender and income group.

Majorities of Democrats (87%), Independents (82%) and even Republicans (56%) said they were now somewhat or much more convinced that global warming is happening than they had been two years earlier.

When reviewed in total, this poll indicated that 10 years back, a growing majority of Americans, across all demographic categories, and political persuasions, recognized global warming as a threat that their nation must address.

We don't make the science right or wrong by voting on it, and politics and science don’t mix, but if people begin to get the message, if they start to tell the pollies that they are worried, maybe the pollies will start to take a few of those hard decisions.

The thing is: policy and politics do mix, if only because evil and corrupt people are using underhand political methods to confuse the general public.

The J-curve on which the polar bear is skewered reflects the graph of the inexorable rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the curve is made from a length of oil pipe. Art and politics go together very well.

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In the early 1970s, I taught boys about science at what was then Fort Street Boys' High School. In about 1972, I saw a boy, one afternoon, close the drawer in my lab that contained the asbestos mats that used to be placed under the Bunsen burners. A cloud of asbestos dust wafted up into the air, and I saw it because the late afternoon sun was slanting into the lab.  That afternoon, I took out all of the mats, wrapped and sealed them and put them in the garbage.

That is not the best way of disposing of asbestos, but I didn't know that then, and at least it got this dangerous material away from me and the boys.

At that time, my chain of command was though an idiot to an idiot. Wally Bray was unqualified to be head of any department, and had been kept, safely away from any science classes for 20 years, until he was appointed by a clerical error. Heads of science had to be on "List 2", and Wally's name wasn't there.

This blunder was covered up when a hatchetman named Colin (if you knew the scene, that much will suffice) came out and gave Wally a retrospective List 2, but it was a bad decision. He did things like having kids pipetting carbon tetrachloride and 4M potassium hydroxide and other things. (The sight of a boy's tongue, burnt by 4M KOH, is quite alarming!)

It was largely my role to stop his worst excesses, and he objected to it.  Most of the time, I used guerrilla tactics, so he only had suspicions. I admit nothing, but action was needed, and somebody did the needful. I have no idea who, but Wally was sure he knew. He complained about me to the principal, a wily primary school teacher who had become a high school principal by using loopholes.

I think Tom Cooke realised that I knew how he had got to his exalted position and did not respect him, but for whatever reason, Tom and Wally used to try to browbeat me on piddling charges, and I failed to cooperate, denying everything.  I kept showing them that running a barefoot rear-end-kicking contest against a hedgehog is a bad idea, but these two were slow learners.

One of the funniest items was that Wally insisted on taking the incubator/oven that I was using in classes so he could use it to raise fruit fly larvae. I had been oven-drying soil at 105ºC, so I had been using the 100 - 200ºC range setting on the back, so when he dialled up 37ºC, it was actually 137ºC, and he got a bunch of crunchy fruit fly. Well, of course that was all my fault...

No it wasn't.  It didn't occur to me to tell him about the range switch, but even if I had, he wouldn't have listened. Still, he complained, there was a hearing, I explained that Wally knew what I had been using the oven for, that it was his failure, and I warned them that any future hearings would need to be properly convened with a union representative and with a formal record.

That slowed them down a bit, but with the mats, Wally thought he had me.  He trumped up a charge of causing damage to the lab benches, and this time he had evidence because I freely admitted what I had done.  I was hauled in and ordered to replace the mats.  I can't, I said, they've gone.  You will face disciplinary charges, I was told. I grinned my nasty debater's grin.  I never started the politics, but I could play the game.

"Bring it on," I said. "But understand this: you know I will require a formal record of a formal hearing. And also understand this: I'll bring in the media, and you'll be shown up as complete idiots, ordering me to endanger the welfare of students. There's more than enough evidence out there that asbestos causes cancer, and I will bring expert witnesses. You bring your charges, and I'll bring you ridicule.  Oh, and I might accidentally let slip something about Wally's lack of a place on List 2..."

They caved in.  That was using politics in science.

I think those two disgraceful pieces of alleged humanity are dead now. If they are alive, now that everybody accepts that asbestos dust causes mesothelioma, I wonder if they ever suffer a quiver of shame for their pusillanimous stupidity. In all probability, by applying politics in a science context, I saved lives.

But back to my topic, did you know that we already knew the world was warming, way back in 1950? That will be the topic of my next post.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Proper Australian seasons

This is by way of a try-out for a small part of a project which is yet to be green-lighted. Please note: I think there is enough raw material here to get some talented person thinking about an illustrated children's book. My project is not going that way: if that's your thing, please, go for it — and I will even help!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When the First Fleet reached Sydney in 1788, they found “a land of contrarieties”: the swans were black, not white; trees kept their leaves but dropped their bark; it was warm on the hills and cool in the valleys; the eagles were white; the bees had no sting — and the seasons were wrong way around!

They had to adapt, and legend says the Marine soldiers soon learned to change between winter and summer uniforms, using seasons based on the first day of March, June, September and December. Those arbitrary dates sort of worked.

The invaders would have been better off using a natural calendar, as the Dharawal people of Sydney did. You can find the details on the web: search on <Dharawal seasons>, or look at
Flying fox, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

Miwa Gawaian, or waratah
This page is being written during Ngoonungi, which is cool, getting warmer, the time when the Miwa Gawaian (waratah) flowers, but Ngoonungi is mainly the time of the gathering of the flying foxes.

I live in Sydney, just north of Dharawal lands, and as dusk gathers each night, I see these fruit bats fluttering east along the valley below my study, sometimes close to my window, rushing off to gorge on figs. I know then that the time has come to work barefoot during the day. It is the season of happy toes, and it will last six months.

Far to my north, in Yolngu country, the stringybark is in flower now as Rarranhdharr comes to an end. In the Anangu Pitjantjatjara country, in what we call the north of South Australia, it is the end of Piriyakutu/ Piriya-Piriya, when the hibernating reptiles come out. In Western Australia, the Noongar people call this time Kambarang, when the rain gets less, and the quandong is in fruit.

The first Australians have lots of additional season markers for those seasons, as you can find out by searching on those season names on the internet, but I have my own local season markers. I react to the first blowfly, cicada or koel; first magpie attack; the first funnelweb (or brown trapdoor spider) in the swimming pool; and the first Christmas beetle, mosquito and channel-billed cuckoo.

Angophora costata (it looks like a gum
tree, but it isn't).
When my children were younger, they knew it was proper summer when first Bogong moth got in and started banging around on the ceiling at night. For me, high summer is when the trunks of the Sydney smooth-barked apple, Angophora costata, go orange-brown. We take friends on mystery walks that pass through a grove of these, just to watch their wonderment.

When my children were younger, they knew it was proper summer when first Bogong moth got in and started banging around on the ceiling at night. For me, high summer is when the trunks of the Sydney smooth-barked apple, Angophora costata, go orange-brown. We take friends on mystery walks that pass through a grove of these, just to watch their wonderment.

Other season boundaries include the last mosquito, water dragon, or channel-billed cuckoo; the pink haze of new leaves on the gum trees: the first really hot, dry westerlies and the first evening storms with warm rain that you want to run around in. Or the first real electrical storm that you don’t want to run around in!

A few natural season markers come from introduced species, like the jacaranda time in late October. There is a University of Sydney tradition that if you haven't started studying before the jacaranda in the main quadrangle flowers you will fail your end-of-year exams. Sydney’s very first jacaranda comes out at Circular Quay, and I saw it the day I wrote this.

Jacarandas 14 October 2016, Circular Quay, Sydney. Look for the almost-out flowers on the right.
Then there are tulips, daffodils, petunias, and the autumn colours on the liquidambars. There are natural season markers everywhere, when you start to look.

But then I wondered about more human, more urban markers of the seasons, so I asked my friends what they thought, and here is what we found between us: the first time your breath comes out of your mouth like smoke as the water vapour in your breath condenses in the cold; the time when you can stop nagging the children to wear a hat and have to start nagging them to wear a jumper, or when you wake up in spring and hate the thought of porridge, so you go to muesli, and back again in autumn.

I really loved this one from Anil Tortop, a Turkish-born illustrator in Brisbane: “The time I use/stop using hair dryer. Or when ants start to invade the kitchen. Or when geckos start singing all together.”

Urban seasons are also divided by the first mention of “tinderbox” on the news; first Christmas music in a shop; the appearance of footie goalposts; first plastic bags of autumn; the first hot cross bun or plum pudding; the first advertisements for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, International Talk Like a Pirate Day, Halloween, Christmas, after-Christmas sales; the last swim of the season; first lighting of the gas heater at night.

But that’s enough from me: what are your seasonal dividing markers, and what do you call your seasons? There are no rules about numbers: most Indigenous calendars seem to have six seasons.

Guilty parties

Thanks to these friends who threw suggestions at me: Matthew Ansell-Laurendet, Barbara Braxton, Mel Campbell, Peter Chubb, Toby Fiander, Jan Gidge, Anne Graham, Rachel Hennessy, Serene Johnson, Mary-Ellen Jordan, Tamara Kelly, Peter McBurney, Rob McFarlane, Kari McKern, Ian Musgrave, Judith Nelson, KJ Price, Anil Tortop, Tamsyn Taylor, Emily Walpole, Alexandra Williams, Losang Zopa.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Points of view on points

A few years back, we were on a rapid chase of rocks, plants and animals in central Australia, and I never noticed one day when I brushed against a spinifex (Triodia) clump. I got back to the motel, washed my socks, and in the dry Alice Springs heat, they were ready to wear at dawn.

Something was wrong, though. My leg itched, and suspecting an insect, I looked closely. I found several seeds which had evaded vigorous washing, and I remembered what Ernest Giles said.

In 1872, in Australia Twice Traversed, he wrote of "…the so-called spinifex or porcupine grass — botanically, the Triodia, or Festuca irritans…"

About a week later, he added "Whenever one moves, these spines enter the clothes in all directions, making it quite a torture to walk about among them." Well, I can confirm that.
Three weeks later, Giles "… fell into a hideous bunch of this horrid stuff, and got pricked from head to foot; the spiny points breaking off in my clothes and flesh caused me great annoyance and pain for many days after." I didn't try that.

A few days later, he that he and the horses were suffering after going through 200 miles of "the vile stuff", and my third shot, showing a Triodia-covered hillside will give you the idea of what it was like.
A hillside covered with Triodia tussocks near Standley Chasm.

Giles usually travelled with a small dog, and learned to carry a dog called Monkey, when they passed through Triodia. That was less possible with camels, and he reported in 1875 that they lost all the hair on their legs up to three feet, and the bare skin turned black. In 1897, David Carnegie's horses and camels were so hungry, they ate spinifex.

Spines and prickles have always interested me, and if you look at, you will find that the Bathurst burr and cobbler's pegs were once a part of my long list of temporary obsessions.

Here are some views of cobbler's pegs seeds, Bidens sp. The first is of a germinating seed, the others are views of ungerminated seeds, showing the prickles that help the seeds attach to animal fur or human clothes.

Why did I have a germinating seed? Parents, grandparents and teachers please note: cobbler's pegs seeds are great for germination experiments (so are dandelion seeds). Hint: a eucalyptus-scented tissue delays germination by several days. I will say more about that, some other time.

Now here, on the right, is a tick, also seen under the microscope: note the barbs on the stylet between the palps! This particular tick was in my neck for several hours, some years ago, and my wife pulled it out with tweezers.  It hurt, so I took a closer look, and realised why so many expletives flew as she pulled it out. Usually, this is the time when some of the tick's gut contents are pumped into the patient.

This pumping effect is why using tweezers is NOT recommended any more. Freeze, don't squeeze!

Lizards have spines, too, and every point tells an evolutionary tale.

Finally, how do you handle an echidna?

Answer: very carefully!  If you do ever need to handle one (I once stopped traffic on the Hume Highway to move one off the road, so this sort of situation can arise*), either use heavy leather gardening gloves, or an old coat, or several layers of thick towelling. At a pinch, two wallets will save your hands...

We cannot call any of these organisms, or their outer layers, pointless.

* I have to say that the Hume Highway drivers I briefly inconvenienced were all considerate and understanding.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Insulting ancient Romans, and what it means to be human

Mater tua caligas gerit.

Having started with an insult, I shall now be polite.

There are many ways to define human beings. One that I learned as a boy was, I think, from a French philosopher, whose name is now lost to me. It was: “Man is the only animal that cooks his own food”. These days, we might dress that up in slightly less gender-specific language, but the meaning is clear. It is, however, out of date, because a bonobo chimpanzee called Kanzi learned how to light a fire and cook food over it, after seeing humans doing so.

But how did we humans learn the cooking trick? Charles Lamb had a nice little fable in his A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig. In his tale, a Chinese boy accidentally burned the family hut down, raked out a charred pig from the ashes, and having burnt his hands on the charred carcase and sucked his fingers to ease the pain, discovered the marvellous taste of roast pig.

Slowly, the practice spread, and people cooked the only way they knew, which was to put pigs in a building and incinerate it and them. Only later, did they invent the spit and other modes of cooking, according to Lamb’s story.

Cooking might have been started like that, but the odds are against it. When we are dealing with old history, we know that some discovery of that sort must once have happened, but most probably in the aftermath of a wildfire of some sort.

We can only speculate—and must be cautious not to embrace such legends with too much enthusiasm, because our ancestors had brains like ours, and would quickly have seen that there was no need to burn a whole house down.

Still, Kanzi the bonobo only learned to cook after seeing humans doing so, which leaves us a possible definition: that we are the only animals that have invented cooking. It is, to be honest, a thin and flimsy, threadbare sort of definition.

The next fall-back is to say that only humans communicate. Then again, each morning, I hear noisy miners (large honey-eaters) outside my house, calling a warning to each other when a larger predator bird appears, cruising and looking for a juicy fledgling for breakfast. Noisy miners are tough little beasts, and quick to mob any raptor or corvid that cruises by, looking at their chicks.

It is, however, a fairly uniform call, an alarm call with just one meaning. Perhaps we could say only humans have a large vocabulary, but at last report Kanzi had a vocabulary of about 250 words, and can link these to symbols called lexigrams. Kanzi also makes and uses stone tools.

In desperation, we might say that humans are the only animals with syntax, rules for putting words together to convey a meaning. In The Rise of the Third Ape, Jared Diamond says that cervet monkeys have a vocabulary of about fifteen words, but is that a language or a symbol system? Suppose I (as a cervet) said the cervet version of “leopard–water”. How could you (as another cervet) tell if I meant:

* there’s a leopard over there by the water;
* the leopards come when it rains;
* it’s raining leopards at the moment; or
* let’s go over and pee on that leopard?

The simple answer is that if you were another cervet, you would have little idea which meaning was correct, at least until you looked around. Language usually relies on something more than words to get a message over: part of the answer is “context”, and the other part is syntax.

Every human language has a grammar system, a reasonably firm set of rules that make it possible for the listener to understand the speaker. In English, we mainly consider word order to catch the speaker’s drift. In poetic language, we may have to think for a bit, but we can manage all sorts of upside down language.

Most of us have encountered inverted English in the Star Wars movies when we listen to Yoda. We may say “your mother wears army boots”, and that is clear enough. Equally, the Yoda-ish “army boots your mother wears” makes sense—after a bit of thought.

But if I said “army boots wears your mother”, that is a little more confusing, but because we inflect the verb to wear, the form wears tells us that the subject, the thing or person doing the wearing, is singular. Compare “army boots wears your mother” and “army boots wear your mother”, and you will see the help that we get from that little inflection.

The rules of grammar that a tribe or a nation uses were not created, they just grew and evolved, and it is probably just one thing that has preserved wear/wears, and that is the convenience of knowing if there is one subject or more than one involved in the action.

A caliga, the preferred footwear of the Roman army.
(acquired from some source or other)
In Latin, the rules for word order are much less rigid. The usual Latin equivalent of “your mother wears army boots” is mater tua caligas gerit (literally “mother your army-boots wears”). Now as anybody who learned Latin at some stage knows, every noun and every verb has many different endings—and every ending brings its own meaning.

When we learn Latin as a dead language, we have to learn the different forms by rote, by reciting them, but the Romans never had to do that: they just picked them up. This is certainly a defining trait in humans: the young ones are incredibly good at trapping and decoding even the most complex rules of syntax in even the most daunting of languages.

Taking mensa (table) as an example, the first declension of nouns in Latin runs mensa, mensa, mensam, mensae, mensae, mensa. Those are the six singular forms, and there are also six plural forms: mensae, mensae, mensas, mensarum, mensis, mensis. The rule applies to other similar words like femina (woman) which goes: femina, femina, feminam, feminae, feminae, femina; feminae, feminae, feminas, feminarum, feminis, feminis. Or causa (cause), which runs causa, causa, causam, causae, causae, causa; causae, causae, causas, causarum, causis, causis. Once again, we have the same pattern.

There’s actually quite a bit more to learn before you can settle down to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars or Ovid’s cheery account of the death of Ancaeus after the Calydonian boar got him (I really enjoyed the gory bits of that as a teenage schoolboy), but this much is complicated enough. And talking of complication, notice how some noun endings recur, but with different meanings. This is one of the reasons why Latin has always been so hard to puzzle out for foreign beginners. It didn’t matter to the Romans, because they grew up with it, and it all made sense.

The six cases (forms of nouns) are nominative (subject of the verb), vocative (something addressed—rare), accusative (object of the verb, the thing acted on), genitive (possessive), dative (to or for) and ablative (by, with or from). That sounds a bit like gobbledegook, so let’s try a table about tables:

A table of the Latin forms of table.

singular and plural
singular and plural
mensa, mensae
the table(s) (subject)
mensa, mensae
O, table(s)!
mensam, mensas
the table(s) (object)
mensae, mensarum
of the table(s)
mensae, mensis
to or for the table(s)
mensa, mensis
by, with or from the table(s)

Back to your mother and mater tua caligas gerit for a moment, the word order in Latin does not matter, because there are clues to the meanings, buried in the endings of each of the four words. That said, it is good form in Latin to put the verb at the end, and it is normal to put any adjective or possessive pronoun after the noun.

Mater is declined according to a different but equally fixed set of rules. To any Latin user, it is clear that the mother in this case is the person doing what the verb describes. The word tua means your, and it is singular and feminine: even possessive pronouns and adjectives get changed to match the nouns they go with. So we know that the “your” refers to the mother because it has a feminine ending. The word caligas means army boots (plural), in the accusative or object form.

Then we come, at last, to the verb: up to this point in the sentence, we know that your mother does (or did, or will do) something to the army boots, but the action could involve eating them, painting them, making them, rinsing the blood off them or chopping them up. The verb gerit is third person singular, in the present tense, making it clearer that it is a single person who is wearing the boots and that it is happening right now. So now you know how to insult any ancient Roman you happen to run into.

Clearly, nobody could have sat down and invented a language system like that: it just grew over time, and one of the things that makes us human is the way very small humans can acquire these complex rules and use them to make their wants known at a very early age.

No bonobo has come close to matching that—yet, but there are probably other definitions of humanity. Mr Tchaikovsky gave us the Waltz of the Flowers, and Mr Disney took Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Reed Flutes and set hippos dancing to it in Fantasia, but in real life, only humans habitually move in time to the music. We tap our feet, we sway our bodies, we respond as no other animal does, especially hippos. Plants of course, are thankfully devoid of balletic tendencies, and yes, I do have Cornish heritage, so I know about the Floral Dance, but it never involved flowers.

The "Willendorf Venus" or Venus
von Willendorf is on display in Vienna
is an example of a particular style.
Was it fertility-related? We can only guess,
but this was a Cro-Magnon style that spread fast.
The definition that I prefer, though, is that modern humans are creatures given to innovation, experimentation, and fashion. Archaeologists in the Middle East can date a new site by gathering a few pottery fragments which reveal who lived there and when, just by the style.

People studying Cro-Magnon sites in Europe can look at the artefacts found there and date a site quite reliably to within a couple of thousand years, sometimes less, just by looking at the styles that are found left behind. Some of these were small musical instruments, so the musical side of us has been around for quite a while.

Clearly, Europe’s modern humans, some 35,000 years ago, the ones who replaced the Neandertalers, were able to talk and develop ideas. They were able and willing to trade and share, so once a new fashion emerged, it spread rapidly over long distances.

It’s a curious sort of fashion-consciousness that we see, coupled with conservatism among the older members of the tribe, community or nation.  I will come back to that conservatism some other time, when I introduce the 50-year effect, which is something I have been talking about for years.

For those wishing to confuse  telemarketers, the following Latin phrases will help. Sadly, the translations may not be entirely reliable in all cases.

Cacatne ursus in silvis?
Does a bear shit in the woods?
Canis meus id comedit.
My dog ate it.
Carpe diem
Eat one fish each day
Carpe scrotum
Obtain a squirrel grip
Compos mentis
A dirty mind
Conlige suspectos semper habitos.
Round up the usual suspects.
Cuius testiculos habeas, habeas cardia et cerebellum.
When you have them by the balls, the heart and mind will follow
Da mihi sis cerevisiam dilutam.
I'll have a light beer.)
De gustibus non est disputandum.
Don’t argue with the wind.
Eia! Tu! Os porcus!
Hey! You! Pig face!
Estne volumen in toga, an solum tibi libet me videre?
Is that a scroll in your toga, or are you just happy to see me?
Excreta tauri cerebrum vincit
Bullshit beats brains
Festina lente
Get rotten during Lent
In veritas rectum es
You really are an arsehole
In vino veritas
The vines are full of pandas
Mater tua caligas gerit
Your mother wears army boots
Mater tua criceta fuit, et pater tuo redoluit bacarum sambucus.
Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.
Mea navis aëricumbens anguillis abundat
My hovercraft is full of eels
Noli me vocate, ego te vocabo.
Don't call me, I'll call you.
Non calor sed umor est qui nobis incommodat.
It's not the heat, it's the humidity.
Non gradus rectum rodentum!
Not Worth A Rats Ass!
Non torsii subligarium!
Don't get your knickers in a twist!
Purgamentum init, exit purgamentum.
Garbage in, garbage out.
Quid pro quo
They want a pound for that? (Tell them they’re dreamon’)
Re vera, cara mea, mea nil refert.
Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.
Recedite, plebes! Gero rem imperialem!
Stand aside plebians! I am on imperial business!
Sic transit gloria mundi
Gloria was sick on the bus on Monday
Sona si latine loqueris.
Honk if you speak Latin.
Te audire no possum. Musa sapientum fixa est in aure.
I can't hear you. I have a banana in my ear.
Vah! Denuone Latine loquebar? Me ineptum. Interdum modo elabitur.
Oh! Was I speaking Latin again? Silly me. Sometimes it just sort of slips out.