On Easter Sunday, 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen came across a small island in the Pacific Ocean with about 2000-3000 inhabitants. Considering the date, he named the Island “Easter Island”, but its local name is Rapa Nui.
The Rapa Nui population of Easter Island was already in decline at this point, and continued to decline further until an all time low of just over a hundred people in 1877.
A classic theory that explains the population decline involves the massive statues found all over the island. The Easter Island heads, or moai, were carved from volcanic stone between approximately the year 1100 and 1650. This coincides with the time during which, according to paleobotanists, Easter Island went from being heavily forested to completely treeless, which led to the idea that the population used up all the trees in carving and transporting these giant statues. Thanks to this theory, the historic population of Easter Island has been widely used as example of humans being too selfish, using up resources for their own enjoyment, without considering the consequences.
Since all Easter Islands heads were made in the same rock quarry, they had to be transported to their final locations. The classic suggested method to do this would have been to cut down trees, and roll the statues over logs. But a few years ago, one group of researchers suggested that the historic Rapa Nui population could have walked the statues upright to their locations. They even recreated their theory using a concrete replica of a head, in a field in Hawaii:
If this is indeed how the islanders moved their statues, they wouldn’t have had to cut down trees for it, and not used all their efforts in making statues. But regardless of this theory, making statues was probably not the islanders’ only concern, and without that they would likely have seen deforestation and population decline anyway, perhaps due to Polynesian rats eating all the tree nuts.
So if you discover any islands this Easter weekend, perhaps plant some trees while you’re there.
#260 - Running Low
This week, Science for The People looks across the Periodic Table and assesses the scarcity of modern society’s essential elements. They’re joined by Dr. Thomas Graedel, Director of the Center for Industrial Ecology at Yale University, to talk about the rare metals that play a role in our electronic devices. They’ll also speak to physics Professor Dr. Moses Hung-Wai Chan about our dwindling supply of helium. And they’ll talk about the phosphorous that plays a critical role in modern agriculture, with ecology professor Dr. James Elser, co-organizer of the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative at Arizona State University.
William Carlos Williams’ “Labrador” (1948)
It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re continuing our focus on the poems of William Carlos Williams.
As much as we might wish to have a unified understanding of nature, we have no choice but to break it into tractable chunks. Richard Feynman put it eloquently in his Lectures on Physics:
If we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts – physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on – remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!
This week’s mythbusting prize goes to researcher Claudia Fritz of the Sorbonne, who led two studies, both of which revealed that despite their mystique, antique “master” violins – even Stradivari – produce no better sound quality than modern instruments.
In a piece in National Geographic Phenomena, Ed Yong walks readers through the stages of Fritz’s research, involving a number of different testing protocols, and her findings, which ultimately indicated that professional violinists found no difference in sound quality between old instruments and new.
Of course, our classically-trained kitty will tell you that her particular invisible violin sounds much better than that screeching monstrosity next door.
lolcat via Cheezburger.com
I use twitter primarily to keep up with what’s new and newsworthy in science and science communication. It’s a great tool to quickly catch up on new discoveries or controversies. It also can expose opportunities you had no idea existed. The other day I saw a tweet about small grants to fund science outreach projects. So cool! I didn’t realize these small scale funding mechanisms existed to help encourage scientific outreach.
From The Cryobook Archives, Tagny Duff, 2008-11
The internet was all a-squeal this week over the revelation that Harvard University’s libraries house a number of books bound in human skin. (Actually, the news that launched a thousand blogposts was that a Harvard-owned volume alleged to be bound in “all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma” was, in fact, bound in sheepskin. ) Horrified and delighted, journalists gleefully explained that “anthropodermic bibliopegy” was once a thing, way back in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Well, it’s still a thing. Canadian artist Tagny Duff undertook a project from 2008-2011 called The Cryobook Archives, in which she used human and animal skin and modern biotechnology to grow “living” covers for handmade books. Duff even used a sort of ink made from a lentivirus to make designs on the book covers, which she displayed in a custom-built cryogenic freezer unit.
Duff explains that her cryobooks, which use skin cells donated by surgical patients and are stitched with surgical suture, are a way of reclaiming knowledge from its disembodied, electronic form. “We often overlook the fact that information is created from physical bodies” through the study of anatomy and biology.
I’m not sure Harvard’s libraries would be interested in these particular skin-covered tomes. For all the years of study and preparation that went into creating their covers, these books are blank.
Duff blogged extensively about The Cryobook Archives here. You can watch a video of her presenting the work at Dublin’s Science Gallery here.
I’ve added a few blog posts by other people to our ever-expanding science travel map.
1. Edmond Halley memorial at Westminster Abbey. There are a lot of scientist graves and memorials at Westminster Abbey in London, but Edmond Halley’s comet-shaped memorial is in a lovely spot, away from the crowded sections. Matt Brown wrote about it a few years ago on the now defunct (archived) London Blog for Nature Network.
2. Tycho Brahe’s observatory on the island of Hven. Heather Frizzell has been writing science tourist posts on her own blog, The Science Tourist. In one post, she describes a visit to the island of Hven, between Denmark and Sweden, where she visited Tycho Brahe’s 16th century observatory.
3. Field work in Siberia. The Polaris Project studies climate change in the Siberian arctic region, and graduate students on the project keep blogs on the site. We added a post by Kelsey Dowdy to the map, which describes permafrost sample collection.