News from academe

Philosophical ruminations.
Feb. 21 1998 3:30 AM

News from academe

News from academe.

(Continued from Page 1)

Men Who Sleep With the Monkeys

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Did man first sleep in trees? An article in Current Anthropology speculates that the earliest hominids did indeed nest in trees, much like the chimps from which they had descended. The reasoning: If Australopithecus had slept on the ground, he would have been promptly gobbled up by the savanna's carnivorous beasts. According to Jordi Sabater, a researcher at the University of Barcelona, Spain, it was only the discovery of fire that allowed hunter-gatherers to snooze on the grass. (To this day, African tribesmen sleeping in the savanna keep a fire going at all times.) Sabater says the theory helps explain the "persistence of arboreal characteristics"--that is, our ability to climb trees.

Wireless Telepathy

Guglielmo Marconi, who won the Nobel Prize in 1909 for his contributions to wireless telegraphy, may have committed intellectual theft in the process. Marconi is remembered for having been the first person to decode a wireless message sent across the Atlantic Ocean, in December 1901. His achievements laid the foundation for the modern radio. Yet in the engineering journal IEEE Proceedings, historian Probir Bandhopadhyay reveals that a crucial component of Marconi's telegraph, the "self-recovering coherer," was swiped from the Indian engineer Jagdish Chandra Bose (no relation to Amar Bose, founder of the American audio-equipment company). J.C. Bose had announced the invention in an 1899 paper presented at the Royal Society in London. The coherer--an iron-and-mercury-based gizmo--allowed radio waves to be converted into audible sound. Bandhopadhyay says the Indian scholar probably realized that Marconi purloined his device, but that Bose was a dreamy sort who "shunned crass commercialization of inventions."

Saucy Bills

Where did e pluribus unum, the motto on U.S. dollar bills, come from? Classicists like to remind us that it seems to have first appeared in--of all places--an ancient Roman recipe for pesto. (Out of many flavors, one delicious sauce.) Suspecting that the founding fathers had looked elsewhere for inspiration, classicist Margaret Brucia emphasizes a more recent derivation. In an article in the ClassicalOutlook, she points out that the phrase was the motto of a popular 17th-century London periodical, Monthly Miscellany; the expression was then adopted in 1731 by another British journal, the Gentleman's Magazine. Brucia adds that this magazine was read by "literate Americans"--including, presumably, Pierre Eugëne du Simitiëre, the designer of the seal of the United States.

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Datable Hair

Some of the oldest cave paintings are in France, but who painted them? Proto-Gauls or migrating Sami? Most archaeologists have been content to leave that question a mystery. But Science reports that Oregon State University archaeologist Robson Bonnichsen recently adapted contemporary forensic methods to solve it: He excavated four caves in the Pyrenees for human hair, found several strands, and is currently dating the hairs with a new radiocarbon technique. If the hairs are old enough, Bonnichsen will scour the hairs for DNA, and quite possibly identify the pedigrees of some of the world's first artists.

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