Saturday, September 25, 2010

Angry reaction feared to new evolution claim

Worker bee - sterile
Photo: Albert Freeman
A revealing insight into the sociology of science.  The 26th August edition of the Nature podcast (the leading scientific journal) carries an interview about a new theory of kin selection.  What causes worker bees to help the queen bee to reproduce, when they themselves are sterile?  Since the 1960’s it’s been widely held that natural selection can't account for this, so a theory of kin selection is required. Harvard’s Martin Novak now says that the kin selection theory is redundant and natural selection can fully account for the worker bees’ behaviour. Mathematics is adduced in support.

I didn’t follow the argument, but it’s not important for the point which I'm coming to.

After an interview with Novak, Nature editor Patrick Goymer comments “Given how core kin selection has been, this is the sort of thing that will ruffle many feathers.”

Presenter Kerry Smith then prompts him: “Yes, to say the least – what do you think will be the implications of Martin Novak and his team’s new work?”

Goymer adds: “There will be some anger from some people. It will take quite a while for people to digest the maths and work out how this fits in with things that have gone before. So I think the debate will move on possibly slowly.” 

Wot!  Faced with a new theory, scientists get huffy?  They ought to say “aha! so that’s how it works!” and be really pleased.

Richard Dawkins tells a story from his undergraduate days of a professor who admitted he had been wrong for 15 years about a pet theory, and publicly thanked and shook the hand of the man of who had proved his error.  He cites this example to show how science works, in contrast to religion where dogma rules. The Nature editor's comments suggest it’s frequently not as tidy as that.

More about podcasts

Friday, September 24, 2010

Shakespeare never saw the sea

Clarkson Stanfield  Shakespeare Cliff Dover, 1849
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Shakespeare never saw the sea. He saw the Thames and the Avon but that was as far as he got, waterwise. This was asserted most confidently by Simon Winchester who was interviewed on an Australian radio show on 1st September, about his book The Atlantic Ocean: a biography

I’ve learnt subsequently that to Shakespeare scholars Will-never-saw-the-sea is an old chestnut, and probably true.  Apparently there are notorious examples of Shakespeare getting it wrong about the sea, though I have no chapter and verse.  I hope to come across these one day.  Must look up The Tempest.
But could someone who had never seen cliffs, I ask myself, have written the cliff passage in King LearIntending to do away with himself, the blind Gloucester asks Edgar (his son but he doesn’t know it) to lead him to Dover.
There is a cliff, whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep:
Bring me but to the very brim of it ...
Edgar fools his father into thinking he is at the cliff edge and describes the scene:
Here's the place! - stand still - how fearful
And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eye so low!
   ... half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire: dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
In homage to this passage, Dover boasts a Shakespeare Cliff. The Dover museum website tells us that samphire is one of those plants which abound on chalk grasslands and even on the cliff face. The Rock Samphire is a native perennial with small yellow florets, and was once a favourite vegetable, the leaves and stalk of which were cooked and eaten like asparagus. Samphire gatherers collected the plant by attaching themselves to a rope suspended from the cliff top. In 1768 a highwayman escaped from confinement in Dover Castle down a cliff by way of a rope left by a samphire gatherer.
The museum offers the additional information that in medieval Dover, Sharpness Cliff was a place of execution. The prosecutor had to double as executioner and throw the thief off the cliff. 
But I digress. Could Shakespeare have written those lines without ever seeing a cliff, that’s the question. Hm. Maybe. And perhaps the same applies to the beetling cliff in Hamlet? Horatio fears the ghost will lead the prince there to his death and warns him in these words …
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.  
Talking of what Shakespeare saw or didn’t see, there are no cliffs near Elsinore, so this passage gives the lie to the notion that Shakespeare ever went there, an idea that’s explored in the Elsinore guidebook.  For more on this see my visit to Elsinore in 2009. 

References Lear Act IV, Scene 1; Hamlet Act I, Sc 4