Saturday, April 26, 2008

Darwin: I Think I've Got It

Darwin has been in the news quite a lot past couple of weeks and not just because of the release of that misleading, "worse than stupid" movie Expelled.

The New York Botanical Garden has launched an exhibit named "Darwin's Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure" which highlights Darwin the botanist and his many works on plants. Cornelia Dean has a piece on this exhibit in the New York Times. The exhibit recreates portions of a typical British garden as Darwin would have seen through the window of his room and on loan from Cambridge and Harvard University are a selection of Darwin's notes, books and sketches on botanical topics. Dr. David Kohn the exhibit curator says about The Origin of Species and Darwin's work on plants:

Though most people associate that book and Darwin’s ideas generally with his voyage to the Gal├ípagos and his study of finches there, his work with plants was far more central to his thinking


plants were the one group of organisms that he studied with most consistency and depth over the course of a long scientific career” of collecting, observing, experimenting and theorizing.

I knew reading Darwin historians that the finches of the Galapagos Island did not provide a eureka moment for Darwin and it took him some time after his return to London in 1836 to start putting together his thoughts on variation, adaptation and transmutation (evolution) into a coherent theory of evolution. I wasn't aware plants played a big role in this early thinking on evolution. But it makes sense since much of his observations on variation and the malleability of organisms relied on domesticated varieties and the effects of artificial selection. Plants would have made a good study material, easy to grow in your garden and manipulate to observe the effects of pollination and hybridization.

The exhibition opens Friday April 25th and runs through June 15th.

Also, Cambridge University has made available online more than 20,000 pages of documents, manuscripts, books and works of Charles Darwin. I went on the website and was lost. Where should one start exploring such an enormous quantity of material? I have settled on exploring -this is really a long term reading project- the Transmutation Notebooks (Notebook B, Notebook C, Notebook D, Notebook E), a series of notes Darwin complied during the period 1837-39 on some core ideas regarding the stability of species, common descent, extinction, variation, adaptation and natural selection. To say that the notebooks represent a "work in progress" has to be the greatest understatement of all. These writings contain the germs of ideas that changed biology and our understanding of life.

An example from Notebook B 1837:

Source: Darwin Online via NYtimes

The first sketch of the tree of life depicting evolutionary relationships and Darwin's rumination on common descent and the role of extinction in producing discrete gaps and degrees of relatedness between groups. There may not have been one big eureka moment for Darwin when all the pieces suddenly fell in place, but conceptualizing evolution as a branching process with a tree geometry must count as a breakthrough in his thinking, one of many "I've Got it" occasions, one piece of the puzzle clearer. The caption reads " I think", which is something the makers of the movie "Expelled" seem not to have done.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Those City Water Wells

Last week I came across a small report on groundwater levels in Pune and finally got down writing about it. The caption read: "Well" done! Water table has gone up in Pune. I am not sure how much significance to assign to this euphoric caption and particular findings detailed in the press report. One usual quibble I have regarding reports such as these is that a meaningful comparison and context is never given. Water table has gone up compared with what? The last measurement? A five year average? A ten year average ? What is the variation shown by the groundwater system over the last 100 years and how does this latest data point fit in? There are apparently some old observation wells that the Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA) monitors. This forms the basis of these periodic announcements of water table levels. The city has grown enormously over the last few decades and extrapolating from these few monitoring wells to the entire city does not seem to me a very sound idea. Basalt aquifers such as the ones that underlie Pune are quite heterogeneous in their groundwater transmissivity and storage capacities. What is happening to the water table in a few observation wells may not apply some distance away. Without understanding the variability of the system and its causes, simply reporting that the water table has gone up or gone down by a certain amount makes little sense.

The wells referred to in the report are shallow dug wells, which lots of old bungalows used to have when I was growing up in the 1970's. There are still some 5000 odd remaining according to the news report. I remember peering over the side to see how deep the wells were. The water table was shallow about 15-20 feet below surface and the wells always had plenty of water. But even then they were not being used as a drinking water source. Their use was for washing and for the garden. On Ananta Chaturdashi day many well owners used to let neighbors use the well for immersion of their Ganesh idol. It used to be quite a festive occasion. Over the last 3 decades or so their use as a water resource within the city has declined as the water has got more polluted. Still as a geologist I don't miss an opportunity to peer over the side. These dug wells tap the shallow groundwater system in the basalts. Image to the left below is a photo of a dug well I took a couple of days ago. The image to the right is a schematic which shows the hydrogeology of these wells (Source: ACWADAM).

In the photo you can see that the well is lined. Below that level is the basalt rock which has a slab like appearance. That is due to horizontal sheet joints or fractures along which groundwater flows. Basalt is a volcanic crystalline rock which has a tight interlocking crystal fabric. Water is not stored and transmitted through the rock matrix i.e. spaces between crystals but along cracks and fractures that develop in the basalt. Vesicular amygdaloidal basalt is a type of basalt that has horizontal sheet joints. Another type of basalt known as compact basalt usually develops vertical joints. Basalts with horizontal sheet joints have higher transmissivity and storage capacity and yield more water than compact basalt. These controls are shown in the schematic in the figure to the right (above)

This shallow groundwater system within the city is underutilized today. The trend has been to fill up these wells as bungalows make way for bigger apartment complexes and to bypass the shallow system and tap the deeper aquifers using bore-wells. Many new apartment complexes have bore-wells and utilize the water for washing and the garden. There is an assumption that this deeper aquifer contains cleaner water but that might not always be true. As the graphic to the left shows (source: ACWADAM) deep aquifers are replenished through the shallow system by penetrating vertical fractures. There is a real chance of contamination of the deeper system as well and using that water without adequate treatment is a health risk.

The population of Pune metropolitan area today is around 3 million or so. The city is fortunate to have lots of big surface water reservoirs (Khadakvasala, Panchet, Varasgaon) and the water supply per person is about 2oo litres per day according to the Pune Municipal Corporation Env. Status Report 2004. These reservoirs have adequate capacity to meet projected water demands over the coming decades and the PMC claims to be building water supply infrastructure to supply a population of about 6 million by 2025. Besides surface water the Municipal Corporation keeps talking about using these groundwater aquifers as a supplemental water resource to be used for non-domestic purposes. Rain water harvesting, artificial recharge of aquifers, sustainability, these are the latest buzzwords the city government likes to throw around. But I see two problems for any sustainable use of these systems. The first is a lack of basic science. City officials admit that they don't have any rigorous quantitative estimates on how much water is there and how much extraction is possible given natural replenishment rates. The second problem has to do with how to regulate the use of this resource. Currently groundwater use is not regulated in India and allows the owner of the land to extract as much groundwater as needed. Without changes in the regulatory framework, there will be overexploitation and the danger of degradation of the groundwater system.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sea Level Rise And Your City

From my Geology News Feed a link to a pretty cool application for assessing the impact of sea level rise on coastal areas. The application written by Alex Tingle of uses NASA elevation data and the Google Maps API to create dynamic maps of flooding. I played around a little with Mumbai. It's tempting to run a disaster scenario. Just choose a sea-level rise of 10-15 meters and watch the city go under water. But the results are not very surprising and not too realistic either. This massive a rise in sea level is at the extreme end of the climate change and sea level rise scenarios possible if the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheet completely melts. May happen but unlikely for the next couple of centuries. I wanted to find out whether the elevation data underlying the application was fine enough to depict subtle variations in topography and the effect of a small change in sea-level. I used just a 1 meter rise in sea-level. The resulting map impressed. The flooded areas were restricted to the low-lying mudflats and mangroves along the Panvel, Thane, Mahim, Gorai and Vasai Creeks. The rest of the city was unaffected, which is to be expected since the land surface of Mumbai is hilly in places or has been raised by several meters during land reclamation projects. Climate scientists give scenario based range of values for sea-level rise this century and a sea-level rise of 1 meter by the end of the century is a distinct possibility. This would mean large areas of Mumbai and surrounds will be at risk. Image below shows Mumbai and its suburbs and exurbs. Pink areas are the built up concrete jungle, lighter green is land vegetation, blue is water and dark green-brown areas are tidal mudflats and mangroves.

A 1 meter sea-level rise will affect these mudflats the most. Yet at places I have marked with arrows near the Panvel and Thane Creeks, pink is intruding upon the dark-green, which means construction is eating up those low-lying areas. All these new constructions are raised a few meters above the original surface and that may protect them against a future sea-level rise. But there are other factors at play and these were demonstrated with terrifying clarity during the flooding by the Mithi river of Bandra-Kurla complex and adjoining low lying areas on July 26-27 2005. As shown by arrows near the Mahim Creek area which trace the Mithi river, mudflats and mangroves were built upon and the river channel reduced to a narrow drain. Since no natural holding areas for the water such as mangroves were left, a combination of high rainfall and high tide led to water level rising up several meters and inundating buildings and even the airport. But we never seem to understand and learn from history. The same mistakes are being repeated at Panvel and Thane Creeks. When I was growing up, one of the great pleasures of driving to Mumbai from Pune was the gorgeous landscape after Panvel, all those unspoiled tidal channels, creeks and mudflats and mangroves until you crossed the Vasai Bridge. Today that area is an ugly sight. Mud-flats and natural drainages are being filled up and we may soon have constructions coming right up to the banks of the main Panvel tidal channel. The events of July 26 2005 showed how even at present sea-level, bad urban planning can led to severe flooding. The consequences of just one meter rise in sea level can be difficult to predict and may be more damaging than anticipated if you start thinking of its effects on tides and coastal erosion. And add to that are monsoons and storms which may become more powerful as oceans warm up over the century leading to water pileups and storm surges several meters high locally. I really don't know if the new constructions are being built with future sea-level rise in mind but every time I drive past Panvel all I see is more constructions on those mud-flats. There is no doubt that we are putting the people who will live adjacent to these creeks and channels at a very high risk of flooding and storm damage.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

And I Thought Geologist's Were Doing Great

Starting salaries for college graduates from Marginal Revolution who got it here:

Missing from the list are geologists who believe it or not would be top of this list. Both the petroleum and mining industries are on a hiring spree. College graduates in Australia, Canada and the U.S are in great demand. Average salaries for geology graduates in the U.S and Canada are now comparable to an M.B.A. More than a decade of low oil and metal prices meant that geology was not seen as an attractive career and there was a growing tendency to specialize in environmental related fields rather than in petroleum or mining geology. Today with prices skyrocketing and natural resources companies expanding their exploration and R&D programs there is a sudden shortage of these type of geology skills in the market. India is doing well too. Starting salaries for Master's students with oil services companies are around Rs. 4-5 lakh per year. Maybe not as much as an IIM graduate but not bad either.

Shear Sensibility has a good post on how teachers can cope with a sudden influx of geology students which is a now a likely scenario given these heady times and Geotripper writes a somewhat idealistic post on whether geologists are unique in that they are in it for the love of the field and not so much the money.

Geology hiring have always been boom and bust affairs. I thought I had the wretched luck of graduating in the mid-nineties when oil prices were really low, but in retrospect it did help me diversify my skills and work experience. My old geology skill sets won't go away and I have already got feelers from oil companies on whether I would be interested in rejuvenating those skills after a gap of so many years. It's always interesting to speculate what the geology job market will look like 15 -20 years from now. Will the current crop of petroleum geology graduates feel the need to go back to school to diversify their portfolio to include renewable energy and environmental geology to meet the demands of a changing energy mix?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Is the Saraswati Still Flowing Underground

[ Update: Please refer to these posts for the latest results on the river Ghaggar

1) Yamuna and Sutlej stopped flowing into the Ghaggar by Early Holocene
2) Fluvial History and the Fortunes of the Harappan Civilization   ]
3) K.S. Valdiya on the glacial Saraswati in Current Science


I have been working on this on and off for the past few days. The Times of India (March 31 2008, couldn't find it online) carried a big new report on how the governments of Haryana and Rajasthan are trying to revive the ancient lost river Saraswati which Indologists have identified as the ephemeral river Ghaggar which flows through Haryana and Rajasthan. The news reports had lots of stuff about ancient channels under the Thar desert and as expected lots of misconceptions about geological terms and concepts. I thought I will clarify some of the geological understanding regarding the river Ghaggar /Saraswati.

1) Where is the river Saraswati?

There are many Saraswati's. The one of interest is the Ghaggar river system. The Rig-Ved describes the Saraswati as flowing between the Sutlej and the Yamuna. This has led Indologists to identify the Vedic Saraswati with the present day Ghaggar. The present day Ghaggar system originates in the Siwalik sub Himalayan region. There is also a small tributary in the Ghaggar river system named Saraswati. It originates in the Siwalik hills near Ambala and joins the Ghaggar river system in the plains of Haryana. I looked around for a good annotated map of this river system and could not find any. Most maps depict the entire north Indian plains and claim that as the Saraswati river basin. This is misleading. Below is an annotated map of the Ghaggar -Saraswati basin that I've prepared. Click on image for larger map.

2) In the past the Ghaggar-Saraswati system contained a lot more water than it does today.

This is true. Today the Ghaggar is an ephemeral river flowing only in the monsoons. Near Sirsa it dries up. Across the border in Pakistan it is called the Hakra. Remote Sensing studies have shown the Hakra to continue southward through the Thar desert terminating in the Rann of Kutch. Several channels have been identified below the Thar sands in western Rajasthan and are believed to represent the ancient channel system associated with the Ghaggar -Hakra drainage. There are hundreds of Harappan age sites along the Hakra and Ghaggar indicating that few thousand years ago, these rivers flowed year round. Paleochannels are also present in Haryana and likely represent abandoned channels of the Ghaggar river system. See image below. Arrows point to paleochannel.

3) In the past, glacially fed tributaries of the Sutlej and the Yamuna flowed into the Ghaggar river system. Tectonically induced stream piracy resulted in a diversion of these streams away from the Ghaggar system causing it to become seasonal.

This argument has been supported by geomorphological and petrological lines of evidence. Near Roopnagar (see map above) the Sutlej make an abrupt westward turn and eventually joins the Indus. Indologists have claimed that this westward turn is a relatively recent phenomenon induced by tectonic uplift in the Siwalik area. Before the Sutlej or major tributaries of it flowed into the Ghaggar. To support this they point to a widening of the Ghaggar channel where the paleo-Sutlej would have joined the Ghaggar. Literature on the web has maps showing the paleo-Sutlej joining the Ghaggar, but no such channel has been found in Haryana.

The hypothesis that the Yamuna or channels of the Yamuna systems flowed into the Ghaggar system is based on petrology. The Marakand river is one of the tributaries of the Ghaggar. It originates in the Siwalik hills (Sub Himalaya) in the western part of the Paonta Valley. This river has a series of abandoned terraces at different elevations which indicate continued down-cutting of the river. Think of these terraces as where the river channel used to be. The topmost terraces are the oldest dated to around 5000 year before present. These older terraces have been found to contain pebbles of quartzite and other metamorphic rocks (V.K.M Puri and B.C Verma, 1998; Glaciological and Geological Source of the Vedic Saraswati in the Himalayas, Itihas Darpan Vol IV, No 2: 7-36). The present drainage of the Marakand flows through only the lesser and sub Himalayas which is mostly a sedimentary terrain along with very low grade metamorphic rocks and the present channel does not contain metamorphic clasts of the type found in the older terraces. This has been taken to indicate that around 5000 years ago the Marakand was receiving sediments from streams draining metamorphic terrain and this source was cut off sometime later. Map below shows this scenario. The only way for the Marakand to have received sediments from metamorphic terrains was for the tributaries of the Yamuna - which have their source in the high Himalayas composed of metamorphic rocks - to have flowed west-north west through the Paonta Valley and joined the Marakand. Later the Yamuna captured these tributaries and this sediment supply stopped. I have not read the original paper and cannot assess the details of the sediment petrology, but taken on face value this finding supports the hypothesis that the Ghaggar was once supplied by glacial streams from the high Himalayas. Map below shows the Paonta Valley. T refers to river terraces.

Another study using geochemistry of the Ghaggar sediments has refuted this interpretation. This study uses strontium (Sr) and neodymium (Nd) isotope composition of sediments to track down the sources of sediment. This is how it works. Radiogenic Sr is enriched in crustal components which are highly differentiated from their original mantle sources. So rocks like granites, sediments derived from their weathering and their metamorphosed equivalents tend to be enriched in radiogenic Sr. The high Himalayas where all the glacial streams originate are composed of such rocks. Crustal components such as oceanic basalts, deep sea sediments and their weathered and metamorphosed equivalents are enriched in Nd isotopes reflecting less differentiation from the original mantle sources. The Indus Tsangpo suture zone, the Tibetian sedimentary series and sub-Himalayan terrains such as the Subathu formation have such high Nd signatures. So a plot of Sr vs Nd isotope composition of sediment works well to discriminate sources of sediment. Such an analysis has shown that Ghaggar sediments for the past 20 thousand years are much less Sr and more Nd than sediments of the Yamuna, Ganga and Sutlej. The inference is that the Ghaggar did not receive sediments from high Himalayan Sr rich terrain. It was never glacially fed and the drying of the Ghaggar was a result of aridification in Rajasthan beginning around 3500 B.C. and not due to tectonic controls on drainage patterns. This paper does mention the clast hypothesis favoring a glacial origin but besides presenting geochemical data does not give an alternative explanation for the metamorphic clasts.

Isotope composition of fresh water in buried channels of Jaisalmer district, Rajasthan interpreted as part of the Ghaggar system, using isotopes 2H, 18O, 3H and 14C appears to indicate that this water is ancient on the order of several thousand years old, was replenished when the river was flowing, but the d18O (ratio of 18O to 16O) composition does not show any signatures of glacial origin. The oxygen isotope composition of rainfall in affected by altitude. More than 99% of oxygen is 16O and 1% is 18O. As water vapor condenses at a particular altitude 18O is preferentially removed in rainwater leaving rising clouds depleted in 18O. This is really a temperature effect on oxygen isotope fractionation. At lower altitudes and therefore higher temperatures the lighter isotope 16O will fractionate preferentially in the vapor phase. This effect is reduced at low temperatures. So rainfall falling on the Siwaliks at lower altitudes will have a higher d18O value compared with rainfall/snow falling in the low temperature glacial region of the high Himalaya. The composition of ancient fresh water in the paleo-channels of Rajasthan has higher d18O value compared with Himalayan glacial standard indicating that glacial water did not contribute to this ancient river. This further supports the hypothesis that the Ghaggar system never had any glacial connections and always drained only the Siwalik- Sub Himalayan region.

So the petrology of the clasts in Markand terraces support a past glacial contribution to the Ghaggar while the geochemistry of sediments and ancient water does not. I would really like to take a look at those metamorphic clasts.

There is another line of evidence which seems not to have been explored in this context and that is paleo-current analysis of the older terraces along the Paonta valley. Paleocurrents and therefore the direction of stream flow can be found out by analyzing the orientation of sedimentary structures such as channel bedding surfaces, imbricate patterns of pebbles in conglomerates, ripple marks in finer sands etc. This type of analysis can tell us if at any point in the past streams flowed west-north west along the Paonta valley which would support the glacial origin hypothesis.

Update: I just had to write this update seeing this post has generated a lot of traffic. Saying that metamorphic clasts are present in the river terrace sediments of Marakand river is not enough evidence that there was a source from the high Himalayas. The lesser Himalayas in which the Marakand originates contain some low grade metamorphic rocks. The high Himalayas contain medium to high grade metamorphic rocks. So specifying the grade of metamorphism is important and at least in the literature available I did not see any specific description. Even if high grade metamorphic fragments were present in the Marakand terrace sediments it does not necessarily mean that the present day Marakand had a source in the high Himalayas. It is important to understand what type of component do the high grade metamorphic fragments form within the terrace pebbles. Are the pebbles entirely composed of the high grade metamorphic minerals? That would indicate that the pebbles are broken off pieces of high grade metamorphic rocks indicating a primary source. Or are the pebbles composed of older sedimentary rocks (lithoclasts) which contain high grade metamorphic minerals as detrital grains. That would indicate that the high grade metamorphic minerals have been recycled into the Marakand terraces by the weathering of an earlier sedimentary sequence, which in turn were made up of detritus eroded from older high grade metamorphic terrains. Simply put rocks of higher Himalayas and lesser Himalayan sequences eroding to form the Siwaliks, which in turn eroding to shed detritus in the present day Marakand. Metamorphic minerals recycling as detrital grains through earlier sedimentary sequences into the present day river terraces without the Marakand river being connected to streams draining high grade metamorphic terrains. Sediment provenance studies can be complicated in terrains like the Himalayas which has seen successive orogenic episodes and recycling of the sediments, and I want to find the original paper on these clasts to write a more detailed post.

4) The Saraswati is still flowing underground

A river system has several flow regimes associated with it. The most common is the surface flow. At present the Ghaggar has surface flow only during the monsoons. River channels have sometimes hundreds of feet of sand and sediment deposits. There is groundwater in these sands and this groundwater flows through this sand or even through subsurface bedrocks. Such a flow must exist below the present channels of the Ghaggar river system at least in Haryana where the river still flow during monsoons. Another type of underground flow is when there is a subterranean cave system. Surface waters can disappear underground and flow through such caves. This type of terrain is not present along the Ghaggar-Hakra. So the underground flow of the Ghaggar-Saraswati river is really groundwater flowing along the present and abandoned channels replenished by monsoon water from the channels and the surrounding plains. At places this groundwater appears at the surface as springs. There are temples with holding ponds to tap these spring water at several places in Haryana such as Kapil Muni. These springs are taken as evidence that the river is flowing underground. Rates of groundwater flow vary depending on permeability of the aquifer and hydraulic gradient, usually averaging to 10's of meters per day. Such rates are possible for groundwater flowing under the Ghaggar channels in the Siwalik region and the upper parts of the stream in Haryana and may explain reports of "waves" coming out of springs, the "waves" being groundwater flowing out as a spring at a fair rate. Downstream towards Rajasthan is a different story. Radioactive tracer studies have shown that at least in Rajasthan the flow in buried channels is measured in few tens of cm per year, suggesting near stagnation of groundwater and no replenishment from the Himalayan headwaters of the Ghaggar system. This water is likely to be old water which recharged the aquifer when Rajasthan was wetter. This has been borne out by isotope studies carried out by India's Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Isotope data also indicates no glacial contribution to this old water. So the groundwater system associated with the Ghaggar drainage is likely to be a series of disconnected aquifers being recharged primarily through monsoon discharge of the river and through surrounding plains in Haryana and possibly not being replenished much in Rajasthan.

5) Targeted drilling in these paleochannels will yield a lot of water.

It is likely that these paleochannels will yield a lot of water. In Punjab and Haryana there are already thousands of bore wells extracting groundwater. Many of them no doubt have been unknowingly sunk in buried channels. Groundwater levels are falling in both these states through over-exploitation. Exploitation of these buried aquifers by targeted drilling has the potential to benefit Rajasthan more, though I feel that claims that these buried channels may contain as much water as the Sutlej canals are exaggerated. Preliminary drilling in Rajasthan along interpreted buried channel has yielded fresh water. These fresh water zones are linear and roughly trend N-S, coinciding with the direction of the ancient drainage. But more work needs to be done to understand the quantity and quality of these water resources in Rajasthan.

6) In Libya an ancient river channel has been discovered and rejuvenated into a man made river. The Saraswati can similarly be rejuvenated.

In Libya groundwater is being extracted from the Nubian sandstone aquifer which is made up of marine sedimentary sequences ranging in age from lower Paleozoic to the Cretaceous. The aquifer was last replenished several thousand years ago when north Africa was wetter. Water extracted from this aquifer is being distributed through a connected system of underground pipelines which is called the man made river.

Plans to rejuvenate the Saraswati are really linked to projects like the National Water Grid. The idea is to use excess water from the Indira Gandhi Nahar Project (IGNP) and the floodwaters from the Ghaggar river to recharge the aquifers in the Thar desert, some of them coinciding with buried channels of the Ghaggar and Hakra system. Bombastic claims have been made that a sustainable system of a million tube wells can be developed. Sustainability depends not on the original water stored in these aquifer but upon recharge of groundwater from surface water brought by the Rajasthan canal which is being extended into Gujarat. I have to say that geo-engineering projects may become necessary as climate change will affect the water resources in the Gangetic river system. Say Himalayan glaciers decline and monsoon becomes concentrated in short bursts, how do we deal with an overall decline in water but also an excess during very short periods. Is storing water in underground aquifers like to one's identified in Rajasthan a viable option? What are the engineering hurdles and environmental problems likely to crop up?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is Science Blogging Useful

The geoblogosphere is abuzz with a debate about blogging on peer reviewed science. Chris at Highly Allochthonous summarizes it here. My first reaction was, if you cannot blog about actual research what is left to blog about in science? I know this is an extreme reaction, I mean science ideas that you throw around at happy hour Friday are also fun to blog about but peer reviewed research represents the guts of science. Myles Allen the scientist against the idea of peer reviewed blogging is afraid that

criticism of peer-reviewed results belongs in the peer-reviewed literature. Direct communication over the Internet, far from creating a level playing field, just ploughs it up and makes the game impossible.

Blogs are often written in a hurry, ideas are put down in pixels without having thought through them, you can just have an angry knee jerk reaction to a result you did not anticipate or one that goes against your favorite theory. Allen thinks you should check informally with the researchers before blogging about it. He doesn't like this informal criticism of research and prefers it to be restricted to the comments and reply section of the journal. Let's be clear. I agree that science cannot be practiced in the blogosphere and the correct way to formally address your criticism is in the comments and reply section. But peer reviewed articles reveals the innards of the scientific method. The rationale for a hypothesis, the way data has been collected to validate it and how it is analyzed, a journal article is a way to formally present this inner working of science. Blogging about it makes the working of science transparent to just about anyone interested in it. Most of the general reading public do not have subscriptions to technical journals. Blogs written by scientists about science and peer reviewed research have opened up an immensely enriching learning avenue. I definitely have benefited from this.

Allen is fearful that a hasty reading of the research and airing of personal views by scientists may lead to confusion and bad press. This might occasionally happen, but scientists realize that blogs are not a formal means of communicating science and will read the blog as an informal assessment of the research and comment on it in that spirit. Yes, occasionally research does get misrepresented in blogs but the way ahead is to write another blog clarifying it. I prefer a feisty blog exchange than a sterile press report any day.

Update: Myles Allen has kindly clarified his position in the comments section. Kim Hannula who blogs at Shear Sensibility also has some good thoughts on this topic.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Ancient People Were Smarter Than Us

Any cursory reading of our scriptures and literature like the Ramayana and Mahabharata tells us that these early people were intellectually superior to modern humans, capable of fantastic feats. Telepathy, telekinesis, no-contact insemination through chanting of verses, nuclear warheads mounted atop arrows, these are some of the achievements of our ancients, faithfully and accurately depicted in the television series Ramayana and Mahabharata.

But as a scientist I always felt something was missing. Anthropological evidence that these people really were smarter. Now two neuro-scientists Gary Lynch, Richard Granger have come up with irrefutable proof that some ancient people were super smart. Brains don't fossilize but the size and shape of skulls can tell us a lot. They have analyzed a set of unusually large human skulls several thousand years old and concluded that these fossil skulls represent a highly intelligent race named the "Boskops". They summarize their finding in a new book titled Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence.

Here's what the book description says about the Boskops:

They possessed extraordinary features: forebrains roughly 50% larger than ours, and estimated IQs to match--far surpassing our own. Many of these huge fossil skulls have been discovered over the last century, but most of us have never heard of this scientific marvel........

The authors speculate in an interview with Discover Magazine

"Just as we're smarter than apes, they were probably smarter than us." More insightful and self-reflective than modern humans, with fantastic memories and a penchant for dreaming, the Boskops may have had "an internal mental life literally beyond anything we can imagine."

The slight hitch is that the Boskopoid race lived in South Africa. But no matter. I am sure someone will come up with an Indian connection.

John Hawks has the details.. :-)