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Saturday, 18 November 2017

Inventing writing

Another sample from Not Your Usual Science. Be patient... I got side-tracked to do an essay on poisons (one of my favourite topics) that looks like turning into a book.

So since we are talking about writing, there were a few conditions that would need to be met before writing caught on. As a rule, nomads would not wish to make or carry around records, especially when they were written on heavy clay tablets. So people probably needed something to write on, something to write with, and a useful place where the written records could be kept. Inscribed stones might appear, but unless there were other uses, the whole writing thing might be a bit of a flash in the pan.

The Sumerians explained the invention of writing with a sort of fairy tale about a messenger who was so tired when he reached the court of a distant ruler that he could not deliver his message from the king of Uruk. Hearing this, the Sumerian king took a piece of clay, flattened it, and wrote a message on it.

That story has a few sizable holes in it. How would the person receiving the message know what the symbols meant? Then again, what can we expect in a tale about events that happened so long ago, especially when it was probably not written down?
Hieroglyphs. [Christine Macinnis]

The Egyptians said the god Thoth (the scribe and historian of the gods) invented hieroglyphs; the Sumerians either credited the unnamed king who wrote to Uruk — or the god Enlil. The Assyrians and Babylonians said the god Nabu was the inventor, while the Mayans said they owed their writing system to the supreme deity Itzamna who was a shaman, a sorcerer, and creator of the world.

More plausibly, Chinese tradition says writing was invented by a sage called Ts’ang Chieh, a minister to the legendary Huang Ti (the Yellow Emperor).

How many of these can you "read"?

Some writing used characters to represent syllables, other writing systems used a symbol just to mean a letter-sound (as we do in English), while still others used a symbol to mean a word or idea, as happens in Chinese.

These word/idea symbols are called ideograms or logograms (meaning each symbol is an idea), and they can mean the same thing in different languages, rather like the signs in airports or the numeral 5. Just to confuse things, some of those airport signs are also called pictograms, because they are pictures of what they represent.

Then again, Egyptian hieroglyphs are a mixture of alphabetic characters and ideograms, with a few extra symbols to clarify the meaning. Few writing systems were designed from scratch: they just grew, a bit like English spelling!

The Sumerians lived in what is now southern Iraq. Ignoring the myth quoted above, their writing probably started with marks on clay that Sumerian accountants used around 3300 or 3200 BCE to record numbers of livestock and stores of grain, the sorts of records societies need, once they start farming. Over about 500 years, the symbols became more abstract, allowing ideas to be written down as well.

Egyptian hieroglyphs (literally, the word means ‘priestly writing’) are unlike Sumerian cuneiform. They probably developed separately, but maybe the Egyptians got the basic idea of marks to represent language from other people. The Harappan script from the Indus valley in what is now Pakistan and western India, seems to be another independent growth, though nobody has learned to read it yet. The civilisation which established it collapsed in about 1900 BCE, so the script did not develop further.

The oldest alphabets that we know about seem to have emerged in Egypt around 1800 BCE. They were developed by people speaking a Semitic language, and the writing only covered consonants. These variants later gave rise to several other systems: a Proto-Canaanite alphabet at around 1400 BCE and a South Arabian alphabet, some 200 years later. There were others, but we will stay with those examples.

The Phoenicians adopted the Proto-Canaanite alphabet which later became both Aramaic and Greek, then through Greek, inspired other alphabets used in Anatolia and Italy, and so gave us the Latin alphabet, which became our modern alphabet. Aramaic may have inspired some Indian scripts, and certainly became the Hebrew and Arabic scripts. Greek and Latin inspired Norse runes and also the Gothic and Cyrillic alphabets.
The Rosetta Stone solved a lot of puzzles.

Now the way was open for poetry, literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, recipes, technical information, tax, weather and astronomical records, religious teachings and more to be written down and passed from one generation to another, without the need for story-teller, whose main role was to memorise everything.

Just occasionally, we can get lucky, but most ancient systems are only ‘cracked’ by intensive work. Carved in 196 BCE, the Rosetta stone was found in 1799 by French soldiers fighting in the Napoleonic Wars in Egypt. The inscriptions all said the same thing, but in Greek, in Egyptian demotic script, and in hieroglyphics. In other words, for the first time, the mysterious hieroglyphics could be compared with a translation.

The content is fairly boring, a list of taxes repealed by Ptolemy V, but the use of three languages made the stone very exciting. When the French were defeated, it was handed over to the British, and placed on display at the British Museum in 1802.

The Rosetta Stone was described by its original French finders as ‘une pierre de granite noir’, a stone of black granite, but this was not a geologist’s granite. This term ‘black granite’, conferred in less geologically rigorous times, was applied 200 years ago by Egyptologists to a dark, fine-grained stone from Aswan. The British have always called the stone basalt, since they gained possession of it during the Napoleonic wars. Neither description is correct.

Recent cleaning and a careful examination has shown that the stone was probably sourced from Ptolemaic quarries to the south of Aswan. Probably nobody cared much what the stone was, as the important question was the text, not the material it was inscribed on.

From a geological viewpoint, though, it is neither a basalt nor a granite, but a fine-grained granodiorite, perhaps modified by metamorphic and/or metasomatic processes. For most purposes, we can think of it as a granodiorite, but in chemical terms, say the researchers who have looked at it, the stone is more like tonalite.

Granodiorite has quartz and plagioclase, but it also contains biotite and hornblende, and it is typically darker than granite. All the same, it is hard to see how it could be mistaken for basalt, but the secret to the issue lies in the reference to recent cleaning.

The confusion arose because the stone has been covered for many years with black carnauba wax, remnants of printer’s ink, used to obtain contact-prints of the inscriptions, finger grease and dirt, with white paint in the incised lettering to make it stand out.

When the stone was being cleaned in 1998, it became apparent that the stone was not basalt at all. Work based on petrographic examination and analysis of a fragment from the Rosetta Stone showed conclusively that it is a granodiorite. To be precise, the Rosetta Stone is made of a granodiorite that has probably been exposed to some extra heating. It is not basalt, but it should not be taken for granite, either.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

The First Koel

Canowie Brook, Budawang Ranges.
I have been busy, putting the final touches on (working title) Survivor Kids, a book scheduled to hit the shelves in February 2020. It's about how to survive in the wilds, places like the above, how not to get lost, stuff like that. I put the finishing touches on it last night, and now I will slowly and carefully start to polish it. And now, I have more time to muse, until the edits of Australian Backyard Earth Scientist begin coming back.

Sherlock Holmes would not have approved of the dog next door.  It started barking into the pre-dawn gloom, just a few nights ago.  When looking into the case known as The Hound of the Baskervilles, Mr Holmes was more interested in dogs that did not bark — as am I, come to think of it!

I had a good idea of what had provoked the dog to action, but I had to wait until last night to confirm it, when, from a deep slumber, I heard a shriek behind our house.

It was a frightful cry, very hard to describe.  The nearest I can get would be to suggest that it sounds rather like an elderly naked duchess being goosed with ice-cold tongs.  But if it is hard to describe, the meaning of the noise is crystal clear.  The koels have arrived.

In England, they write to The Times, overjoyed to report the first cuckoo of spring.  We Sydneysiders write to the Herald, rather more underjoyed about the first koel, even though it, too, is a cuckoo.  The name (it rhymes with Noel, as in ‘The First Noel’), reflects the sound of its call, described in one of my reference books as ‘koo-well’.  This description fails to convey the full flavour and savour of the bird's cry, and so I prefer the goosed duchess.  Of course, that might just be because I never did have much time for duchesses . . .

The koels fly south around the equinox or a few weeks later, coming down from Papua-New Guinea, the large lizard-shaped island that lies above the right-hand side of Australia on your maps.  Having arrived, they choose territories where they can exploit the local feathered baby-sitting facilities, just like their cuckoo relatives in other parts of the world.  Then in the wee small hours of our early spring mornings, around 3.30 or 4 am, they start their calling. This year, they seem to have arrived later than usual.

We really should not blame the koels, for they are simply staking a claim to a territory, although the resource they care most about is nesting sites for their target species.  They are too late this year, for  the noisy miners have already hatched their first brood for the year, but there will be a second sitting, a second chance, later in the year, when high summer arrives.  In a few weeks, the koels will realise that they need to play a waiting game for a while, and they will quieten down.  Maybe.  In the meantime, we will suffer fitful snoozing from false dawn to sunrise for a few weeks.

In Australian English, there are many different meanings of ‘clock’.  It can be variously a time-piece, an embroidered design on a sock, or a twelve-month prison sentence.  ‘To clock’ can be to give a punch or a blow, or it can mean to time (a horse or a runner), or it can have other lesser meanings as well.

Our koels may be Antipodean cuckoos, but nobody in their right mind would wish to make a koel clock that would bellow each quarter-hour so unmelodiously.  On the other hand, right now, most of us Antipodeans would relish the prospect of being able to clock the koels.  Hard.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

A second bouquet of scammers

This is a second excerpt from (and promo for) my recent Kindle e-book, Not Your Usual Clever Ideas  ( . For the other one, scroll down a bit, or click here:

The real hey-day of adulteration came with the industrial era, with large towns and better transport to carry the toxic concoctions away. Crooks in a small village were too likely to be caught in the act, or tracked down when there crimes came to light. In a large city, the sellers of adulterated foods could always blame their suppliers if the need arose. Then again, a larger world trade and new discoveries made many more adulterants possible.

In the 19th century, “cider” claimed to be prepared from concentrated apple juice, might well turn out to be sugar, fruit essence and aniline dye, with no trace of apple juice. Sweet potatoes, chicory and rye might find their way into coffee—the rye was detected when a South Brooklyn family showed symptoms of ergotism, caused by a fungus that attacks rye.

Used tea leaves might be dressed with gum and treated with iron sulfate for green tea, or black-lead for black tea, or with any mix of ferric ferrocyanide, lime sulphate, turmeric, the leaves of beech, elm, chestnut, plane, oak, willow, poplar, hawthorn, sumach, holly and sloe. There were no doubt others that were never identified.

Chocolate might be expanded by the addition of flour, starch, sugar, cocoa-nut oil, lard, tallow, sweet ochre and chalk. Sugar might contain gamboge (a resinous pigment), starch, flour, pipeclay, plaster of Paris, chalk, and even copper carbonate, lead, and mercury bisulfate.

In the middle of the 19th century, Scientific American offered a copper diammine test for detecting copper in pickles, and a test for lead in beer that involved adding sodium sulfate and looking for a precipitate of lead sulfate, while beer was to be boiled down, burning it and treating the ash with ammonia to being out the tell-tale copper diammine blue.

In London, brewers were accused of adding strychnine to beer to add a bitter taste, which they denied. Tobacco's devotees were equally at risk. Snuff might contain red lead or lead chromate, though tobacco, it seems, was poisonous enough. Either that, or the ingenuity of the crooks wasn't up to the challenge.

There was also a test to identify counterfeit guano, the 19th century's wonder additive for boosting farm production. Soon the crooks were busy, diluting the valuable Peruvian guano, but the scientists were hot on their tail, explaining how a bushel of guano weighs about 70 pounds, but if clay, marl or sand is added, it will weigh more. Then there was another test: when Peruvian guano was burned, it should lose 55 to 60% of its weight, and its ash should be white, dissolving readily without effervescence in dilute muriatic acid, leaving an insoluble residue of around 2%.

One invention caught my eye in a Scientific American paragraph from December 1855. It said that a miner at Mount Alexander (a goldfield near Bendigo) named Thomas Golightly had a process to cast quartz. The products, he claimed, were as good as chinaware. It added that he had come upon this while trying to extract gold by melting the quartz. The journal added that they had no later information on it.

I hate an unclosed story, and queried the Australian Historical Newspapers database, and found a flurry of Thomas Golightly stories and advertisements in 1854-5. The first owner of that name was a “medical galvanist” who seems to have practised his calling, treating rheumatism in Sydney, while training up two other galvanists in the Sydney area, after which he announced that he would practice in Maitland, north of Sydney. He announced that he would lecture there on galvanism, but after that, there is no trace of Thomas Golightly, medical galvanist.

Six months later, another of the same name, clearly somebody with a bit of an interest in science, appears, announces a discovery, and then disappears again. There is a mystery here: did he have to flee, and if so, was it from the law, creditors or a wronged wife? I suppose I will never know, but my greatest regret is that we cannot drink from Golightly cups and dine from Golightly plates, all produced from that easily-obtained material, quartz.

Another easily-obtained material in the appallingly unhygienic 19th century was rat skins. Even as they improved their hygiene, the Victorians made more homes for rats, and in 1850, Scientific American declared that rats were bring hunted in the sewers of Paris for their skins. But what would people use them for? 

A few years later, a gentleman in Liskeard, Cornwall, somebody with both time and ingenuity made himself a suit, entirely out of 670 rat skins, collected over three and a half years. It included hat, neckerchief, coat, waistcoat, trousers, tippet, gaiters and shoes. There was probably a limited demand for that sort of apparel, and the rat skins would need to be disguised.

While it wasn't mentioned in the article, the heading made it clear that the skins, obtained after their owners were lured by mutton tallow and killed, were destined to become gloves. The purchaser was named as John Warton, a rich leather dresser from London, who planned to buy them all. In short, the reader would understand, these would become kid gloves.

In 1864, the journal described the making of kid gloves, mentioning that egg yolk was used to male the leather supple, and stating bluntly that rat skins were not used. Given that the article failed to mention the important role played in dressing the leather by “pure” (white, dry dog droppings), the article may have been a bit of Victorian spin, perhaps.

Practical people knew back then that everything could be used to make something, though self-important British lordlings, promenading superciliously around the Australian goldfields used to be puzzled at the cry that went up: “Who killed the donkey?”. The common herd knew in their hearts that the only stuff that could be used to make a white top hat was the hide of an ass. Who could deny this delightful piece of folklore, given the match the hat then made with its wearer?

A German author looked at the plant world and declared that of 278 families, there were just 18 species for which no practical use was known. There were 740 plants used in building and another 48 could be used to roof them. Then there were the 615 known to produce poisons, 50 that gave a sort of coffee, 129 yielded a tea and 250 provided weaving fibres. There were 1350 assorted edible fruits, berries, and seeds, 460 vegetables and salads, 31 yielding sugar, rubbery substances came from more than 100, 44 could be used to make paper.

Soap could be made from 47 plants, 140 were a source of tannin, 330 yielded greases and oils, 389 provided resins and gums, 650 produced dyes while “vinous drinks” could be obtained from 200. And that was without counting 103 cereals, 37 onions, 32 arrowroots and 40 species of palm.

He might have failed to mention seaweeds, but the inventors knew about it. Thomas Ghislin (or Ghisling) patented (US Patent 40619) a material that was referred to as a “plastic compound capable of being moulded, embossed and stamped into various articles useful in the ornamental arts, like gutta percha, as it becomes very hard and durable when cold.” The ingredients include members of the Laminaria (kelps), caustic lime, sulfuric acid, India rubber, naphtha, coal-tar, sulfur, resin and alum.

Others were making artificial whalebone for horn, to be used as the ribs of umbrellas, but one clever Briton, unnamed by Scientific American, took out a patent in 1848 for an alpaca umbrella, which would cost more, but be waterproof, look better and resist fading. Perhaps the maker could have joined forces with Mr. A. B. Balcon, who exhibited a clever umbrella lock in Boston in 1847. This did not prevent theft of the locked umbrella, but it did stop an unauthorised appropriator using it.

Sadly, no picture of either of these has come down to us, leaving me with the image of a portly gentleman, trudging through wet streets, bearing aloft an alpaca on a stick.

Some inventors preferred to go for old materials, even rock. Somewhere around 1855, Honoré Baudre completed the first version of his silex piano, also called a flint piano or a lithophone. This used a set of carefully about 40 selected flints that delivered musical notes, set up rather like a xylophone, but on an iron frame. The set included two pieces of schist, which seemed to be the only rock capable of delivering two of the tones in his scale.

He played the instrument in Paris for some twenty years, mainly for the amusement of friends, but he toured his device to London at the end of 1875, when The Times said there but 28 stones which delivered a “some very sweet sounds” as M. Baudre struck them with two other pieces of flint.

Every kind of waste material was valued in the 19th century, and for the most part, the people were far from squeamish about matters relating to bodily functions. This did not extend far enough to encourage Francis Peters and George Clem of Cincinnati to explain the rationale behind their US Patent 90298 of 1869, which was for a privy seat made of four rollers in a square, able to be sat on but designed to make it impossible for anybody to stand on it.

You have to wonder about their manners in those days! Four years earlier, in 1865, German chemist Justus von Liebig went to London to oversee the application of London sewerage to agriculture. His verdict was discouraging, reported Scientific American in July:
Baron Liebig is engaged, through the corporation of London, in a controversy upon the question whether grass will grow upon sea-sand if nutriment be supplied in solution. The corporation proposes to grow Italian rye-grass on-the English sands by impregnating the sand with London sewage -in solution; but Baron Liebig tells the-Lord Mayor that the scheme is not feasible.
— Scientific American 1 July 1865, 3
People worried about the huge waste of nutrients that were running through their sewers and out to sea. Some suggested the earth closet, as a way to preserve the minerals that people were starting to realise crops needed, but nobody took any notice. In 1916, chemist Sir William Tilden wrote that “…practically the whole of the nitrogen from the food of the human population is irrecoverably wasted”.
— Sir William Tilden, Chemical Discovery and Invention in the Twentieth Century, London, 1916, p. 395.) 

In France, scientists had been exploring ways of artificially ageing wine. One favoured method involved covering bottles in horse dung in a cellar and heating it, but the researchers discovered that gentle heating in an oven, with bottles partially filled, before topping them up and re-corking was best. The horse dung could be left to fertilise the vineyards,

Sometimes though, there would be things that we just could not use. In the 1950s, Egon Larsen, science writer and my boyhood hero for his eternal optimism, the man who wanted to gamma-sterilise the washing, was optimistic about the wastes of nuclear plants:
Solid wastes can be disposed of by incineration, closed storage, open burial, or drainage out to sea. Incineration is especially valuable for treating animal carcases and as a means to reduce the volume of the solid waste, but it gives rise to active gases and ash. The discharge of the gases should be clear of windows. Burial may be used on permanently enclosed sites at levels depending on the rainfall so that local groundwater is not contaminated. Even highly radio-active solid wastes can be disposed of safely in the sea provided all relevant factors are kept in mind: movement of the surface water, the breeding and migratory habits of fish, and the possible hazard to seaweed where it is harvested for food, fertilization, or industrial use.
— Egon Larsen, Atomic Energy, Pan Books, 1958, p. 136.
Well, that was probably better than letting people take it into their sheds and playing with it!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Climbing Mount Exmouth

This went to air on the ABC on Sunday 29 October 2006 8:45AM, and you can still listen to it through this link, if you wish. One reason for placing this here is that Jeff McGill has just been in touch with me to correct a couple of points. I have sought and gained his permission to add his comments as a guest blog: you can find it here.

I keep a standard CV ready for the times when po-faced people ask me for an account of my experience, skills and habits. Among other thing, it says, more or less truthfully, that my hobbies include walking upsmall mountains slowly and sitting on top of small mountains wondering how to get down. Last September, I re-defined my sense of 'small', but I never planned it that way.

Another hobby is having temporary obsessions, cascades of curiosity that end up as talks like this, or books. This time, my obsession was with explorers in Australia and the methods they used. It will probably end up as a book, but it's had me off chasing all sorts of oddities. I rode camels in Central Australia a couple of years back, in part to work out how John Horrocks came to be shot by his camel.

This time my target was a mountain in the central west of New South Wales, a peak that John Oxley spotted from 130 kilometres away in 1818. By world standards, we have sad mountains in Australia. Our highest peak is barely 2200 metres above sea level, and most ranges are much less.

The Warrumbungles are volcanic remnants in central New South Wales, the result of our tectonic plate having passed over a hotspot some millions of years ago. Mount Exmouth reaches 1206 metres, making it the highest peak in the Warrumbungles. There used to be a road part of the way up, but that's long since closed, so I walked all the way from a car park at about 330 metres, but I thought I had started out much higher up. I'd looked at an old map and when I was thinking about walking up Mount Exmouth, I assumed the top of the old road was my starting place. This was not a good idea.

I'd looked at the contours and worked out the vertical part of the climb, going from the top of the old road about 750 metres above sea level. When I found the road wasn't there any more, I forgot to look at the map again, and missed noticing that I was starting much lower down. I headed off, expecting to walk up a small mountain and sit on it, but I was much more than 450 metres below the summit.

The first part is suitable even for old-age pensioners (indeed I met two British OAPs as I was walking out), and while it rises a bit, maybe 30 metres from end to end, it isn't extreme. Then you come to the old road, and that suddenly becomes steep pinch after steep pinch. It's pleasant enough if you can make your own pace, and because it bends, it's deceptive. You go up a rise, turn, and find another rise, or on one occasion, two kangaroos hurtling down the track. In one straight line it would be heartbreaking; here, it offers constant variety.

I always wear Volley sandshoes when I walk. This upset our English guide in the Troodos mountains of Cyprus recently; she wanted me to wear boots, until I showed her the soles and explained that roofing contractors here wear nothing else. Her eyes flickered at this curious Australian custom, then another Australian in our group clarified, 'On their feet', he said.

This kangaroo saw me coming and stood his ground.
Anyhow, Volleys are traditional with wilderness walkers of a certain vintage. I am of that vintage, and I've walked in them for 35 years or more. They let you feel the ground, so I walk quietly, especially when I am alone. My silent progress meant I was frequently alarmed by kangaroos feeding by the track. Animals that saw me only at the last minute and fled, thumpingly through the bush. My heart thumped even louder, but I knew they'd been equally alarmed.

Something like 250 metres to go!
Two-hundred-and-fifty metres below the peak, you come close to the mountain proper, and from a small saddle, you start walking up. That was the point where I looked more closely at the map and wondered why I was feeling so worn.

I realised my error, that the total climb was more like 850 metres, not 450. I'd now climbed 600 metres, not 200 metres, but having gone that far, I thought I would try a bit more. My legs were querulous but I spoke sternly to them. We would do the last 250 metres, I snarled.

The final climb begins as a narrow trace across and up a scree of loose rock. There was nothing too daunting, but the track drives steeply up to a bend and then doubles back on itself. Off the scree, there's a flat bit through trees, before the path slides up the mountainside again.

At one point I needed to work around a rock face carefully, with strands of fencing wire strung between two trees behind me. It was slippery, nothing dangerous, but I'd seen no fresh footprints on the way up (and I was in fact the only person up that far that day), so I knew help would be a while coming.

I'd posted a walk plan, giving as the alarm time to send out searchers, which now seemed a bit late. So I needed to go extra carefully over stuff I wouldn't think twice about down at sea level. There was a steep drop below me, so I just took my time, leaning in and keeping three limbs attached at all times. Serious climbers might sneer at my Nervous Nellie technique, but I felt safer.

That eagle only came close when I wasn't ready.
A wedge-tailed eagle had been circling the peak all morning, and now it swooped in repeatedly, about five metres over my head as I worked around the face. Of course, as soon as I rounded the corner and got my camera out, the rotten magnificent bird lost interest in me and drifted away out of range.

So I just kept plodding up the track, wondering if I really needed all this. Suddenly, I was on top. Well, I was on the ridge, and that meant I only had little jump-ups along the ridge to the peak. My knees groaned a bit, but in the end, they jumped.

It was a perfect day for being on top of a mountain; two days later, I drove past, coming back from the west, and the peak was all wrapped in cloud. But that day I had a perfect monarch-of-all-I-survey view of the Warrumbungles. I ate salami, cheese and dried apples, I drank water, I mooched.

On top of the world.
I went there to see what Oxley saw. I wanted to see Mount Harris (which I'll get to in a moment), but it was hidden in haze. I wanted to see the mountains to the east, which drew Oxley on, through Tamworth and Walcha, down to Port Macquarie, and I saw them, but only as distant smudges.

That teasing eagle stayed well up, but kept flying so its shadow passed over me - it had to be deliberate - and because it was in the sun, I was unable to capture it with the camera. It circled at a distance until a second eagle came into view. They flew wingtip to wingtip, then the new bird rolled over and grasped at the first eagle with its talons, after which the two of them dropped, talons together, falling down the sky before they parted, recovered, and did it again. I wondered at this: was it a mating display or aggression? As far as I could see, they never made actual contact with their feet.

My knees continued to remind me that they're elderly. They'd had enough, they averred. Four hours from starting, I headed back down, each step carefully placed. The day wasn't hot, but I still used most of the four litres of water I took. I never used my kiwi jacket, my sweater, the extra food, the torch or the other emergency stuff, but they were insurance. Best of all, I didn't use the bivvy bag, an orange plastic sack large enough to put broken people in to keep them warm, dry and visible. I've carried it for 19 years, and never needed it yet.

It took three hours of slow and careful treading to get back to the car. I swore occasionally at Mr Oxley, who said that he got up there in two brisk hours, and seems to describe the route I was on. Like most of the so-called explorers, he was probably following what some of them called 'a native road', in other words, a foot track worn by generations of Aboriginal feet.

It was a hard climb.
The day after Mount Exmouth, I drove west, and then north, to walk up Mount Harris, described by a later explorer, Charles Sturt, as 'a hill 120 feet high', but one of just two rises near the Macquarie River. Mount Harris is private property, but the owner, John Egan, gave me permission to walk up it.

John Oxley visited that hill in 1818, saw the Warrumbungles, the Arbuthnot Range, as he called it, and decided to go there. He saw the Great Dividing Range from Mount Exmouth, and decided to push on to Walcha and then to the coast at Port Macquarie. Mount Harris is north of Warren and far enough west for the flies to be bad already. It was of course, the only day that my trusty fly veil wasn't in my pack.

Photography in dense fly swarms is no fun, as anybody who's been in the high country in summer will know. In spite of the flies, in spite of no veil, I came back with 500 pictures. It was spring, and there'd been rain in the west. Not a lot, but enough to make flies and wildflowers flourish.

The area's dead flat, right across the flood plain, so I was amused at one point to find a flood depth indicator in the middle of nowhere. It would be most useful in a flood to have a sign telling you that you'd been driving in two metres of water for the past five or ten kilometres.

It's the sort of country where explorers climb trees or each other's backs in desperation, seeking the sight of a landmark, any landmark, on the horizon. There are no 35-metre trees, so a hillock reaching that locally amazing height is a boon, especially when a person on top can see an interesting peak, almost 130 kilometres away.

Explorers like distant landmarks to take sights on as they travel, because it helps them map their way. One of my beefs with the school curriculum is that trigonometry would be a lot more interesting if the applications of triangulation were given better coverage in maths classes, and it'd be nice if the reliance of explorers on 'native roads' became an element in the history class.

Anyhow, there I was on Mount Harris, which I hadn't seen from Mount Exmouth because it was lost in the haze, but now I could see the Warrumbungles and Mount Exmouth from Mount Harris. They were faint, but they were there. Mr Oxley managed to see each from the other, so he must have been lucky.

Mount Harris was named for John Harris, the surgeon who patched up Governor Phillip after he was speared near my home in Manly. He also gave his name to Harris Street, Ultimo, the Sydney home of the ABC, to Harris Park in Sydney and to at least one other mountain.

In 1801, Harris went on the first expedition to study the resources of the Hunter River, and a hillock there was labelled 'Mount Harris' as well. It was used as a reference point while they were mapping the river, but this mere pimple has since fallen off the map, so I went looking for it.

There's another hill on the Hunter, originally named Mount Ann, and then dubbed Comerford's Hill, and if you go there as I did, it has a road up it called 'Mount Harris Drive', but it's not the original Mount Harris of 1801, so I was glad to have found the surgeon's second and rather more important personal mountain out west. I'm glad I toddled up Oxley's Mount Harris.

And looking back, I'm equally glad I went up Mount Exmouth, but I probably wouldn't do it again on my own, and possibly not even in company; one has to learn one's limitations with age. Or maybe one should ignore the limitations and go out in style? Not just yet though, there are too many Mount Harris-sized small mountains to walk up and sit on top of. I just need to clarify my internal concept of 'small mountain' a bit. Small is beautiful, but the genuinely small can be a joy forever.

Now make sure you read the preceding item in this blog.

The wrong Mt Exmouth

This is the story of how you can get things wrong. Jeff McGill alerted me to my error, and I believe in setting the record straight, so I suggested to him that I could add the original talk to this blog, with his notes.

His response was:

No problem, peter, as long as we cite john whitehead....he's the expert. I was struggling to understand the inconsistencies until I read his work. He is now acting as a brains trust on my own book on the warrumbungles which is about 95 per cent finished, and now in the process of being double-checked :)

So, with thanks from both of us to John Whitehead, here’s his correction:

Dear Peter,

I just wanted to send you a little bit of info to ease your mind on one particular topic – your climb to the top of Mount Exmouth.

I'm a former newspaper editor and keen writer of history...and am doing a book at present on my family, who were pioneers in the Warrumbungle Mountains from 1841, holding several farms in the range.

My great-great grandmother was Rachel Jane Kennedy/McGill/Inglis who became quite a folk hero of the region as a midwife, squatter-fighter and horsewoman. She, and my family, always knew Mount Exmouth as 'Mount Wambelong'.

Peter, I read about your experience climbing Mount Exmouth, "to see what Oxley saw". You said it took you many hours, and your knees groaned in the steepest sections, and on the way down, you said: ‘It took three hours of slow and careful treading to get back to the car. I swore occasionally at Mr Oxley, who said that he got up there in two brisk hours…’. 

There was no need to be so hard on yourself, Peter. Oxley was on a completely different mountain. He actually climbed Mount Bullaway, to the north.

The mountain range was of course first seen by European explorers in 1818 when Oxley approached from the west. Three peaks stood out on the skyline, so he cited their compass bearings and named them: Mount Exmouth [Mount Bullaway], Mount Harrison [Mount Wambelong/Exmouth] and Vernon’s Peake [Tonduron Spire].
On his way through, Oxley camped at ‘Kangaroo Hill’ (today's Mount Tenandra) and then spent a few nights at ‘Loadstone Hill’, easily-identified as present-day Black Mountain, because of the wild effect its magnetic rocks had on his compass.

From this campsite, Oxley looked due east to the large peak that he called ‘Mount Exmouth’ – today’s Mount Bullaway.

He wrote in his journal: ‘We set off early this morning to ascend Mount Exmouth, distant four or five miles: at its base we crossed a pretty stream of water, having its source in the Mount; it took us nearly two hours of hard labour to ascend its rugged summits…’.

Mount Bullaway is 8 kilometres from Black Mountain, fitting perfectly the ‘four or five miles’ described by Oxley, and the ‘pretty stream’ flowing out of the mountain was Caleriwi Creek, also called Frasers Creek. And, today it still takes about two hours to climb Mount Bullaway.

The modern peak that is incorrectly-named Mount Exmouth – Oxley’s ‘Mount Harrison’ – was in a different direction and much further away. For Oxley to walk more than 12 kilometres across a marshy plain (a full day’s work given the marshy flooding that it was experiencing at the time), and then climbing to the top of the mountain (a 5-7 hour round-trek, according to the National Parks & Wildlife Service), only to then battle it back across the flooded plain to return to Loadstone Hill by 4pm, as Oxley noted in his journal, seems impossible.

When the explorer left Loadstone Hill, he described his route to the north-east, ‘over low strong ridges, the sides and summits of some of which were very thick brush of cypress trees…We [camped] in an extensive low valley north of Mount Exmouth and running under its base, bounded on the north-east by low forest hills.’

That describes present-day Goorianawa valley. If Oxley’s ‘Mount Exmouth’ was truly the Mount Exmouth of today, the only ‘valley’ would be the one underneath Siding Spring Observatory – and it does not have ‘low forest hills’ to the north-east, but rugged mountain ridges.

When you throw in the explorer’s own maps and bearings, it is clear Mount Bullaway was the peak climbed. John Oxley never set foot within the present-day boundary of Warrumbungle National Park.

Oxley’s route was, in the 1960s, comprehensively plotted by local researchers such as John Whitehead – a keen historian who was a shire engineer of Coonabarabran Council  and a national park trustee. His conclusions and maps are explained in detail in his painstaking 2008 book, The Warrumbungles: Dead Volcanoes, National Parks, Telescopes and Scrub.

Oxley’s original mountain names from 1818 were forgotten by the white settlers of the 1830s-1850s who used Aboriginal words instead, and knew the tallest peak in the range as ‘Mount Wambelong’. That name was also cited on parish maps and in newspaper articles.

The confusion began in the 1930s when environmentalist Miles Dunphy – who was spearheading the campaign to create a Warrumbungle National Park – drew up a tourist map for the use of early visitors. It was a beautiful piece of work, but Dunphy took it upon himself to rename Mount Wambelong as ‘Mount Exmouth’, based on his mistaken belief that it was that peak that had been climbed by Oxley.

Dunphy’s map – the only of its type in existence – was printed and reprinted, and government staffers and others cited from it for decades, entrenching the error.

By the early 1970s, local researchers had mounted such a strong case that Dunphy was mistaken, that the peak was officially renamed Mount Wambelong. This, however, left some influential noses out of joint.

‘Having Oxley pass through Warrumbungle National Park was seen by many to enhance its status as a tourist and historical attraction,’ John Whitehead explained, whereas Mount Bullaway – Oxley’s real Mount Exmouth – was narrowly outside the park boundary. Others, he believed, were simply reluctant to contradict Dunphy, the great founding father of the park.

In March 1979, the NSW Geographical Names Board reversed its decision and reinstated the Mount Exmouth name, a concession being that a trig station on its summit was to be known as ‘Wambelong Trig’. The reason given by Board was that the peak was already too commonly known by the local community and park visitors as Mount Exmouth. This was an unlikely claim, but was accepted by officialdom.

The problem is, history is now being unwittingly misrepresented. It is not hard to find scores of examples of media outlets and websites incorrectly claiming that it was today’s incorrectly-named Mount Exmouth that was climbed by John Oxley.

I’d just didn't want you to feel bad about your inability to match Oxley's fitness, Peter.... time yourself up Mount Bullaway instead :) 

Cheers, Jeff McGill

Sunday, 15 October 2017

A bouquet of scammers

This is an excerpt from (and promo for) my recent Kindle e-book, Not Your Usual Clever Ideas  (

People were prepared to try almost anything. From the 1840s, “crude oil” could be obtained, but it didn't come from wells: it was distilled from coal, and most of the techniques that would be used in the 1860s to separate the fractions in “rock oil” began with research on getting liquid fuels from either coal or Trinidad asphalt (bitumen).

By 1858, the asphalt was being exported as a raw material, but The Times (Monday, July 19, 1858; p. 10) reported that asphalt oil was expected soon to replace coconut oil for lighting in the islands. By October 1863, The Times was discussing a basin filled with asphalt with springs of asphaltic oil nearby and large pitch banks off the shore. The paper estimated that the lake could produce “three hundred million gallons of oil, and forty or fifty gallons are considered equal to a tun of coal”. 

Already, a Mr. Stollmeyer, of Port of Spain had suggested that this oil might be used as liquid fuel for oceanic steam navigation.

The hunt was on, because by then, everybody knew that loading coal was a long, slow and onerous business. In foreign ports, British ships would be tied up for days while 'coolies' carried loads of coal on board and stowed them below decks. It was this need that started Europeans becoming tourists, because the passengers needed something to do while the ship was “coaling”. The report continued:
To oil a ship would not take above a tenth of the time it takes to coal her, if pipes were employed, and the oil would not take above a fourth of the space occupied by coals. He recommends that it be applied at once as auxiliary to coal, by throwing jets over the burning mass, but contemplates, eventually, upright tubular boilers, the liquid fuel to be supplied as fast as it can be converted into flame. Of course, the North American oil springs are another source of supply.
— The Times, Tuesday, October 6, 1863; p. 4. 
The beauty of steam engines was that you could burn almost anything in there, so long as a stoker could safely feed it into the furnace. Even fish weren't safe, if they had stopped wriggling.
The Cleveland (Ohio) Herald says :— The other day, at the Islands, we noticed a novel kind of steamboat fuel. When the Philo Parsons was wooding at North Bass Island, she took on board a large number of sturgeon which had been, landed from the fish ponds in that vicinity. As these fish had been lying a day or more in the sun they were, like the exploded dog, not good for much as fish. Curiosity as to the design of such freight was soon satisfied on seeing a huge sixty-pound sturgeon go head foremost into the furnace. Inquiring into this novel species of steamboat fuel, we were told that the oil from the fish assists the combustion of the wood very much, and that the boatmen are glad to clear the docks of sturgeon, which would otherwise be deemed worthless, unless to enrich the soil. “It is said twenty sturgeon make as much steam as a cord of wood, though we do not know that the. wood-measure tables have been 'reconstructed' so as to read, 'a score of sturgeons make one cord.'
— Scientific American 
30 June 1866, 4. 
The problem now was that there were so many wonders about that nobody was quite sure what to believe. If coal gas could be improved by the addition of water (it made water gas), why shouldn't trams run on compressed air? (That particular scam—one can hardly put it higher than that—is still alive and well today.)

Perpetual motion was another. Every small boy must have dreamed of using capillary action to draw water up in order to have it fall and turn a water wheel, or to have a generator producing the energy to electrolyse water so the hydrogen can be burned to drive the generator, or some such. Most of them learn, one way or another that you can't get something for nothing—though this scheme might have worked:
Improvement in Light Houses. A gentleman in Oxford, Mass., (whose name we withold for the present) has submitted a drawing and description of a mode of furnishing light houses with the Drummond light, to be supported by gasses produced by magneto-electrical machines, which are to be kept in operation by the power of water descending from an elevated reservoir, which reservoir is to be occasionally replenished by pumps operated by a wind mill mounted above the lantern. That such an arrangement is practicable there is no reason to doubt, though it might be attended with considerable expense in the first instance. We may present a more full description with an engraving in a future number.
— Scientific American 27 March 1847, 212. 
Reading from the context in a couple of partial records, Harris Ransom, of Colchester was a prisoner in jail in the 1770s, probably in Connecticut. What is quite certain is that this gentleman, on the principle that one can't be hanged for trying, petitioned for a patent of 100 years, for making water rise thirty feet high from any pond, or spring, to convey it to towns or cities.

The height specified is a give-away that was merely the common siphon, though Ransom called the effect “a perpetual water motion.” The records are clear on one thing: his petition was not acted upon. Still, people tried, and it seems that 1863 was a very good year for perpetual motion devices:
Messrs Editors: —I have understood that you had a standing offer of some amount to any man that would bring a machine to your office that would run of itself, or, in other words, a machine that would run until it was worn out, or a perpetual motion. have you ever had any machine brought to you for that purpose? If you have any, please inform me by letter all about how much the premium is and what the terms of the offer are. If the machine works according to expectation it will be brought to your office before taken to any other place, or applying for a patent. The man that is at work on it is very certain that it will run, and will have it ready in three or four weeks.
— Scientific American 28 March 1863, 198. 
Just as modern scientists know that when they see a letter or an email promising that a proof is almost ready to show that <Darwin, Einstein, Maxwell or whoever> is wrong, the proof will never appear. Equally, promised miraculous machines never eventuate. The editors of the journal knew that and commented as follows:
We print the above communication as there seems to be, from the innumerable letters we receive on the subject, a popular impression that we are desirous of obtaining a perpetual-motion machine, and that a premium has been offered by us for a satisfactory one. We are not particularly anxious to procure a machine for private use, but we will guarantee to find a purchaser for a machine that is what it purports to be — a perpetual mover. When that is found we shall immediately start on a journey to the moon with it. — Eds
In August of that year, the journal reported on a display of perpetual motion in Vermont, and suggesting that hidden bellows were involved. “Several contrivances on the same plan were subsequently exhibited at Barnum's Museum. This Vermont show is probably one of them.” (Scientific American 29 August 1863, 138.)

In November, the journal dismissed out-of-hand the scheme of one Carruthers, saying that he had “… lost ten years of his life in prosecuting a useless idea.”

Another scam that is still around today is the wonderful fuel additive that makes engines go further, or turns worthless material into fuel. That one has a long history as well.
ASHES FOR FUEL FURORE: The daily papers have gone wild during a lull in the ordinary supply of news and are filling columns with the wonderful discovery (!) of a poor Pennsylvania shoemaker who “burns ashes”. One teaspoonful of his secret “dope” in two gallons of water, when poured on ordinary ashes and lighted, is declared to keep a stove red hot for an hour. We recall that the Keeley motor was raised in the same state.
— Popular Mechanics, May 1907, 522.
The art of ingeniously putting one over one's fellows will be addressed in the last chapter, but it is worth noting that novelties were always misunderstood, and became the subject of superstition with no real intent to deceive. It just came from ingenious enthusiasm. In the 1950s, people truly believed that gamma radiation would be a good way to sterilise the dirty laundry.
Within a few years isotopes will turn up in many more expected or unexpected places — perhaps the slogan 'Gamma Washes Whiter', will become quite familiar to us when our ultra-sonic washing machines are equipped with some gamma source to sterilize shirts and socks and napkins.
— Egon Larsen, Atomic Energy, Pan Books, 1958, p. 136-7.
No thanks, Mr. Larsen!  In such a case, a little well-placed ingenuity could go a long way. Not long before he died in 1603, a physician named William Gilbert wrote De Magnete (All About Magnets). In it, he set out to debunk some of the wild beliefs sailors held about the lodestone or magnet. He wrote in Latin, but here is what he said, translated into (period) English:
But when I tried all these things, I found them to be false: for not onely breathing and belching upon the Loadstone after eating of Garlick, did not stop its vertues: but when it was all anoynted over with the juice of the Garlick, it did perform its office as well as if it had never been touched with it.
— William Gilbert (1540 - 1603),
Like new machines, new ideas and new discoveries, new materials brought new problems. Some of these came from a lack of standards, some from a lack of understanding, and some by the machinations of unscrupulous and clever rogues, because dangerous mixtures being sold as safe oil, all over the world. There were warnings in Scientific American, but it was also a problem in Australia.
Several varieties of paraffine oil were shown. These are now much used for lamps, and some are too volatile to be safe. The following simple rule is given for testing the volatility of such oils :— Place a few drops in a teaspoon, float the spoon on a cup of boiling water, and hold a lighted match an inch above it. If the vapour ignites, the liquid is not safe. 
John Smith, 'The International Exhibition of 1862', Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1862, 2.
Here, the problem might have been careless producers, failing to remove all of the lighter fractions that we would now call petrol, when they fractionated “rock oil”. It was an old problem: adulteration in bread was known in ancient Rome, and bad ale was a problem in the time of Edward the Confessor. Tobias Smollett knew about it:
What passes for wine among us, is not the juice of the grape. It is an adulterous mixture, brewed up of nauseous ingredients, by dunces, who are bunglers in the art of poison-making …
— Tobias Smollett, The Expedition Of Humphry Clinker, 1771. 
I will come back to this in my next entry. I have been away hunting rocks and dingoes (with a camera), so I haven't been posting here, but I have been drafting, so there will be a few, close together.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Sandstone facts

Hawkesbury sandstone, Fairlight Sydney, showing bedding,
cross-bedding and vertical joints.
The city of Sydney is the child of its geology.  That is the first lesson you must learn if you are to understand our scenery.  Nearly all of the rock you see exposed around Sydney will be sandstone.

The sand that would become this sandstone was laid down in a time when plants were ferns, reptiles were becoming dinosaurs, and mammals were only just being thought about.  True, there are some remnants of more recent volcanoes around, but almost everything that you can see is good old-fashioned sedimentary rock, lying in almost horizontal layers.

The sandstone has also influenced local architecture, since it was readily available as a building material, but the beauty of the stone carries a high price.  Many local buildings of carved sandstone are now beginning to deteriorate as the stone frets and falls apart, returning to sand again.  I don't think I have once seen the 19th century buildings of the University of Sydney free of stonemasons' scaffolding in over thirty years, and the Anglican St Andrew's Cathedral, near Town Hall, is also suffering the ravages of time.

At the Heads, in the cliffs at the harbour's mouth, there is sandstone from sea level and below, all the way up to the top of the cliffs.  If you visit North Head, you can look back along the near coast-line to the north.  If you look down, you will see a few lenses of shale scattered through the cliff face, almost lost among huge layers of sandstone.

The heat of the lava 'baked' the sandstone, changing it to
quartzite. This is called contact metamorphism.
There are a few remnants of more recent volcanoes which have pushed up through the older sedimentary rocks, including one volcanic neck right on the coast north of Bondi
, but the shale lenses and volcanic rocks are very much the exception, and Sydney is Sandstone City.

North and south, the bottom of the basin starts to curve up.  This curving brings the buried shale beds up to show at sea level near Narrabeen in the north and at the Royal National Park to the south.  To the west, the surface of the land rises as the rocks curve up, so right up into the Blue Mountains, a kilometre in the air, the surface rocks are still Triassic sandstone of the Narrabeen series that lies under the Hawkesbury sandstone on the coast.  Beneath that again, there are beds of Permian coal which are nominally about twenty five million years older, but these lie hidden under a ponderous overburden of sandstone.

These lurking coal beds bob up above sea level when you go further away, at Wollongong in the south, and Newcastle in the north, and they break the surface at Lithgow in the west, once you drop down off the mountain tops.  Around 1900, coal was actually mined in Balmain, a Sydney suburb, thousands of feet below sea level, with the coal starting at about 3000 feet (900 metres) from sea-level, with the bottom of the coal lying between there and some 4500 feet (1250 metres).

A cap of younger Wianamatta shale tops off some of the higher sandstone ridges, giving patches of rich soil.  The early development of Sydney was partly determined by people moving out along these ridges, either for farming, or for brick-making clay.  The roads, the farms, and the railways all followed the ridges.

But almost the whole of Sydney's vegetation and the topography of the harbour and the north has been determined by the Hawkesbury sandstone, and it is there that we must concentrate our attention.  The plants of the Sydney region have to thrive in soil miserably poor in essential minerals, sandy soil that quickly drains away most of the moisture.  As a result, many of the plants that are native to the area have evolved special survival tricks.  Our plants either live on the smell of an oily rag, or they use guile and cunning to gather what they need.

Sundew, Drosera spatulata.
Some of them have allies, fungi and bacteria, living in their roots, able to make nitrates for them out of the nitrogen in the air.  Sundews in the swamps trap passing insects on sticky leaves, and carefully digest them with enzymes, extracting valuable phosphorus and nitrogen.  Grow these plants in good soil, and they will stop making the sticky traps.  When they die, these plants put their hoard of minerals back into the common pool for all the other plants to share.

Usually, cliffs wear away fastest at the top, forming gentler and gentler slopes.  But when a cliff of jointed rock is undercut by waves or running water, the rock above the cut falls down, breaking off along the joint-plane.  This keeps the cliff-line vertical, like the cliffs of Sydney's headlands, and some of the inland cliffs of the Blue Mountains.

The whole of the Sydney area was once a flat coastal plain that was lifted up to a height of some hundreds of metres — either that, or the sea level fell, but the effect was much the same.  Small streams on the new plateau ran along the rectangular joint-lines, and cut down almost to the new sea level, making a fern-leaf pattern of valleys at right angles to each other.  Then the sea rose, drowning the deeper river valleys and giving us the rich structures of Sydney Harbour, Broken Bay, and Port Hacking.  Botany Bay has a shape that depends more on the placement of recent sediment, though the Georges River, which runs into the bay, shows the same basic pattern.

By controlling the road and railway routes, the Hawkesbury sandstone determined where people would live and build their homes.  The deep sandstone valleys were left largely alone, for roads were too hard to build, and the ground too precipitous for easy building.  Now, when bushfires come in the summer, they spread through the bush in the valleys and rush up the hills to sear the houses above.

The sandstone has also had a strong influence on public works.  Steep-sided drowned river valleys demand bridges for road transport.  Worse, the sandstone is very hard to carve or tunnel through.  The chalk of Paris and the London clay, make underground railways much more feasible in those cities, but only the very centre of the city sees our trains going beneath the surface.  Sydney is a city of bridges, with just the occasional tunnel, all ruled by the sandstone that lies beneath our feet.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Human intelligence

Whoops: long silence!  Look, I'm busy on Not Your Usual Science, so here's an excerpt from that.

We would all agree that humans are intelligent, but what is it, and how is it defined? One description says that intelligence is what is measured by intelligence tests — which is not really very helpful.
Intelligence is more usefully defined as the ability to respond adaptively to novel situations, but the standard IQ test is designed to measure the likelihood of success in learning and examinations, which has only a small overlap with responding adaptively. The IQ measure is useful in counselling and placement, but only when used in skilled hands. IQ is of little use in assessing true worth.

Most tests are based on an assumption that the mean score will be set at 100, with people’s scores distributed on a bell-shaped curve, allowing psychologists to assert that 2/3 of all people have a score between 84 and 116, and 95% of people will have scores between 68 and 132.

The original IQ tests were designed mainly to identify students who were of below average intelligence, to select students for placement in remedial education. While teachers could be asked to perform this selection, their judgements might be shaded by conscious and unconscious biases, so objective tests seemed like a good idea.

By giving these tests to large numbers of students at various ages, averages for each age group (“norms”) could be determined. The tests, even when the questions were simplistic, served (and still serve) a useful function. If a child is having difficulties in class, but at the same time, the tests indicate an above-average IQ, this normally indicates a problem which needs to be dealt with, mainly by counselling.

At their best, the various IQ tests have never shown themselves to be really effective predictors. A correlation of 0.5 between scholastic success and IQ is the normal expectation, indicating an overlap between what the two measures cover of no more than 25%.

The scores on alternative forms of the test (“parallel forms”) are controlled as tightly as possible, but the tests will always be unreliable to some extent. In particular, high and low scorers, when retested will, on average, score closer to the mean on the second attempt at the test, due to an effect called “regression to the mean”.

IQ test scores have been more abused than used wisely, and now their use is restricted. The tests have not failed, in their original purpose: rather, too many of the users of the test scores, especially untrained teachers, have failed to use the scores properly.

Much of the opposition to using IQ tests has come from teachers who have seen only the damage that the misuse of test scores can lead to. To this criticism, they add the valid complaint that there is more to intelligence than the ability to score well on IQ tests, that intelligence also includes creative thinking and divergent thinking. How, they ask, can an objective (multiple-choice) test allow for the child who suggests that the plural of “leaf” is “tree”?

Multiple intelligences

Teachers today are far more at home with a notion, first proposed by Howard Gardner, which breaks away from the usual narrow definition of intelligence, either as IQ, or as Spearman’s g (look it up!). At best, the old tests cover verbal and non-verbal IQs, but the school of thought founded by Gardner, and widely accepted by teachers around the world, expands into a wide range of other evidences of intelligence.

Gardner’s intelligences are not well-suited to measurement, but they are eminently useful as a way of planning instruction which allows all students to shine in their strong areas, and to develop their weak areas.

Musical intelligence is shown best in child musical prodigies. Gardner also cites examples such as autistic children who can play an instrument beautifully, but who cannot speak. (This also raises an interesting way of looking at one solution offered to people who stammer, who are often advised to sing the statement they wish to make.)

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is found in the natural sports player, or the talented dancer.

Logical-mathematical intelligence is largely the attribute measured by traditional IQ tests of non-verbal IQs, a skill which is clearly distinguished from verbal intelligence. The “idiot savant” who calculates brilliantly is an extreme case, a person who seems to have only this intelligence, and no other, although there are also remarkably “ordinary” people who have similar powers of calculation and reasoning.

Others, like Sir Isaac Newton, who are able to consider a falling apple, wonder why the Moon did not fall in the same way, and leap intuitively to the idea that gravity obeys an inverse square law.

Linguistic intelligence even has its own area of the brain, Broca’s area, which is responsible for assembling grammatical sentences. But while we all have the gift of language, some have it in much greater degree than others. Gardner points out that, at the age of ten, T. S. Eliot created eight issues of a magazine called ‘Fireside’ in three days, each featuring a wide variety of linguistic styles.

Spatial intelligence is important to the navigators of Polynesia and Micronesia, who have a feel for the oceans they travel. It can also be seen in the work of visual artists, and is probably important in sports such as tennis and squash. It may well be just as important to the better chess player, who “chunks” the relationships on a chess board at a glance, instantly perceiving the spatial relationships between the different pieces.

Interpersonal intelligence is all about being able to work with other people. As we will see later, Sir Isaac Newton clearly had a number of intelligences in vast supply, but he seems to have been limited when it came to interacting successfully with other people. A good politician, sales representative or teacher needs to have a good supply of this intelligence.

Intrapersonal intelligence involves the skill of knowing oneself. This is the most hidden intelligence, since it can only be demonstrated by the use of the language, music, or other more expressive forms of intelligence.

My own definition? I think intelligence is a construct, most useful as a weapon which can be used to skewer and damn those on the other political wing. 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Darwin's error

This is a small excerpt from a new book, probably to be called Background to Science. Drawing on a lifetime of writing essays, articles and talks about matters of science, I am repurposing a lot of old prose, 405,000 words at the last count.  It should be released on Kindle, later this year. I am rewriting most of it, and all so filling in some of the gaps.

It is that work which has led to the lack of posts here. Sorry!

While I always say Darwin’s work has never been shown to be false, there were a few minor errors in some of his examples, mistakes which don’t affect his overall correctness. There was also one major error in his thinking, which also made no difference in the long run, but it has to do with one of my favourite animals, the ant lion, so it gets a quick run here.

In Australia, ant lions are the carnivorous larval stage of lacewings. They make little pit traps in sandy soil and catch ants and other insects (I have seen one catch a small weevil). Their prey fall into the pits the ant lions make, and they are sucked dry.
Ant lions are small. I move them with a small paint brush.

Because there is some rather marvellous physics involved in the way they make their pits, I have often used these animals in teaching and in books, so I know quite a bit about keeping and feeding them.

In the early days of 1836, a young man called Charles Darwin slipped into Sydney on HMS Beagle. Nobody really noticed him, as he rode out to Lithgow, stayed for a while, saw a few animals, returned to Sydney, slipped aboard his ship, and departed.

Temporary guest ant lions.
He left, though, with the key idea that started him thinking about evolution, because he had seen ant lion pits of two sizes, and started musing on variation. Two species, two sizes of pit, he thought, and that was, legend tells us, the start of the whole evolution-by-natural-selection saga.

Jump forward now to the 21st century, when a film maker was planning a doco on the Darwin story. The producer came across the ant lion story, and thought it would be neat to recreate this, but where does one find an ant lion wrangler at short notice?

Because I had written a book on the Darwin story (Mr Darwin’s Incredible Shrinking World, still available as a e-book), a researcher contacted me to see if I had any idea of where a wrangler might be found, able to take ant lions to a suitable site, and get them making their pits.

I said modestly that I was probably just about the best bet they could find, and then explained a few of the realities. The researcher said that all they wanted was the two sizes of pit, and I said that was easy: the photograph at the head of this section shows that much.

But, I said, it was my firm opinion that the two sizes of pit were made by the same species, and would be the result of two lots of eggs being laid in the sand: the older and larger ant lions make larger pits, and the younger and smaller ant lions made the lesser pits.

In short, Darwin had been inspired to think about variation after a false inference. It made no difference to the validity of his later thinking, but it would be difficult to get this across in a short documentary. I offered to help with the wording.

The result was that the producer had a melt-down, followed by a hissy fit, and the whole sequence ended up on the cutting-room floor, even before it was shot.

In this way, I missed out on the chance to feature “ant lion wrangler” on my CV, but at least we side-stepped the risk of giving cherry-picking idiots the chance to shout “Look! Darwin got it wrong, so logically, evolution is wrong!”, all the while ignoring the many other valid examples of variation within a species that might have got him started.

The secret behind evolution is genetic variability that can be passed on to offspring. Fair-haired people mostly have fair-haired children, dark-haired people mostly have dark-haired children, but they are all humans, all part of the same species.

That was the part that Darwin got right, and that was the part that mattered.

Now here's a tip if you are keeping them: ants added as food have an annoying habit of escaping. The outer tub here has water in it, so the ants can't escape.