Linguists Identify 15,000-year-old Ultraconserved Words

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

According to this Washington Post piece summarizing this study, many of the words in the above sentence would have been understood by someone living 15,000 years ago:

That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then.

The traditional view is that words can’t survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic “weathering” and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drive ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era.

A new study, however, suggests that’s not always true.

A team of researchers has come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains surprises: “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.”

Fascinating.

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Full paper from The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesultraconserved_words.

A Brief History of the Mass-Market Paperback

Smithsonian Magazine has a short post on the origin of the paperback book in the United States:

Robert Fair de Graff realized he could change the way people read by making books radically smaller. Back then, it was surprisingly hard for ordinary Americans to get good novels and nonfiction. The country only had about 500 bookstores, all clustered in the biggest 12 cities, and hardcovers cost $2.50 (about $40 in today’s currency).

De Graff revolutionized that market when he got backing from Simon & Schuster to launch Pocket Books in May 1939. A petite 4 by 6 inches and priced at a mere 25 cents, the Pocket Book changed everything about who could read and where.

Per Wikipedia, the first ten numbered Pocket Book titles were:

  1. Lost Horizon by James Hilton
  2. Wake Up and Live by Dorothea Brande
  3. Five Great Tragedies by William Shakespeare
  4. Topper by Thorne Smith
  5. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  6. Enough Rope by Dorothy Parker
  7. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  8. The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
  9. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
  10. Bambi by Felix Salten

An important note: the Pocket Books were the first paperback books in the U.S.  But it was Albatross Booksa German publishing house based in Hamburg. that produced the first modern mass market paperback books.

Albatross was founded in 1932 by John Holroyd-Reece, Max Wegner and Kurt Enoch. The name was chosen because “Albatross’ is the same word in many European languages. Based on the example of Tauchnitz, a Leipzig publishing firm that had been producing inexpensive and paperbound English-language reprints for a continental market, Albatross set about to streamline and modernize the paperback format.

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Related
: How the paperback novel changed popular literature (also from Smithsonian Magazine)

The Single Most Valuable Document in the History of the World Wide Web

Subject to debate, but according to this article in the BBC, the claim of the “most valuable document in the history of the World Wide Web” belongs to a legal document that made the web publicly available in such a way that no one could claim ownership of it and that would ensure it was a free and open standard for everyone to use.

A team at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) has launched a project to re-create the first web page.

The aim is to preserve the original hardware and software associated with the birth of the web.

Interesting.

The Origin of the “Plus” and “Minus” Symbols

A very interesting post by Mario Livio, searching for the origin of the “+” and “-” symbols we find ubiquitous today:

The ancient Greeks expressed addition mostly by juxtaposition, but sporadically used the slash symbol “/” for addition and a semi-elliptical curve for subtraction.  In the famous Egyptian Ahmes papyrus, a pair of legs walking forward marked addition, and walking away subtraction.  The Hindus, like the Greeks, usually had no mark for addition, except that “yu” was used in the Bakhshali manuscript Arithmetic (which probably dates to the third or fourth century).  Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the French mathematician Chuquet (in 1484) and the Italian Pacioli (in 1494) used “\boldmath{\bar{\bf p}}” or “p” (indicating plus) for addition and “\boldmath{\widetilde{\bf m}}” or “m” (indicating minus) for subtraction.

There is little doubt that our + sign has its roots in one of the forms of the word “et,” meaning “and” in Latin.  The first person who may have used the + sign as an abbreviation for et was the astronomer Nicole d’Oresme (author of The Book of the Sky and the World) at the middle of the fourteenth century.  A manuscript from 1417 also has the + symbol (although the downward stroke is not quite vertical) as a descendent of one of the forms of et.

I thought this was an interesting sidenote for “+”:

As a historical curiosity, I should note that even once adopted, not everybody used precisely the same symbol for +.  Widman himself introduced it as a Greek cross + (the sign we use today), with the horizontal stroke sometimes a bit longer than the vertical one.  Mathematicians such as Recorde, Harriot and Descartes used this form.  Others (e.g., Hume, Huygens, and Fermat) used the Latin cross “†,” sometimes placed horizontally, with the crossbar at one end or the other.  Finally, a few (e.g., De Hortega, Halley) used the more ornamental form “\maltese.”

Speaking of crosses, and doing a bit more research, Wikipedia notes that:

A Jewish tradition that dates from at least the 19th century is to write plus using a symbol like an inverted T. This practice was adopted into Israeli schools (this practice goes back to at least the 1940s) and is still commonplace today in elementary schools (including secular schools) but in fewer secondary schools. It is also used occasionally in books by religious authors, but most books for adults use the international symbol “+”. The usual explanation for this practice is that it avoids the writing of a symbol “+” that looks like a Christian cross.

+1 for learning more, right?

On Albert Einstein’s Unusual, but Average-Sized, Brain

After Albert Einstein died in 1955, a pathologist named Thomas Harvey removed Einstein’s brain, photographed it with great care, cut it up into 240 blocks, sliced some of those blocks into slides, and prepared a roadmap to help future scientists navigate the pieces. Slides and photographs were distributed to researchers, but many have since been lost.

Dean Falk, a senior scholar at Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research, has spent years studying the photographs of Einstein’s brain and is the lead author of a new study, published in the journal Brain, that relies on a collection of rarely seen photographs to analyze it.

Falk’s team compared Einstein’s brain with those of 85 other humans already described in the scientific literature and found that the great physicist did indeed have something special between his ears. Although the brain, weighing 1230 grams, is only average in size, several regions feature additional convolutions and folds rarely seen in other subjects. For example, the regions on the left side of the brain that facilitate sensory inputs into, and motor control of, the face and tongue are much larger than normal; and his prefrontal cortex—linked to planning, focused attention, and perseverance in the face of challenges—is also greatly expanded.

The key takeaway: Einstein’s brain was normal sized, but had a lot more convolutions than that of the average human brain (on record).

Photographs of Einstein’s brain.

The link to the full paper is here.

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(via Washington Post)

The History of the Escape Key

The New York Times provides some fascinating history behind the “Escape” key, ubiquitous on computer keyboards:

The key was born in 1960, when an I.B.M. programmer named Bob Bemer was trying to solve a Tower of Babel problem: computers from different manufacturers communicated in a variety of codes. Bemer invented the ESC key as way for programmers to switch from one kind of code to another. Later on, when computer codes were standardized (an effort in which Bemer played a leading role), ESC became a kind of “interrupt” button on the PC — a way to poke the computer and say, “Cut it out.”

Why “escape”? Bemer could have used another word — say, “interrupt” — but he opted for “ESC,” a tiny monument to his own angst. Bemer was a worrier. In the 1970s, he began warning about the Y2K bug, explaining to Richard Nixon’s advisers the computer disaster that could occur in the year 2000. Today, with our relatively stable computers, few of us need the panic button. But Bob Frankston, a pioneering programmer, says he still uses the ESC key. “There’s something nice about having a get-me-the-hell-out-of-here key.”

Will the keyboard come with computers in ten to fifteen years?

Unheard Martin Luther King, Jr. Audio Found in Attic

Stephon Tull was looking through dusty old boxes in his father’s attic in Chattanooga a few months ago when he stumbled onto something startling: an audio reel labeled, “Dr. King interview, Dec. 21, 1960.” The interview was made four years before the Civil Rights Act became law, three years before King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and eight years before King’s assassination. The AP reports on the significance of the finding:

Many recordings of King are known to exist among hundreds of thousands of documents related to his life that have been catalogued and archived. But one historian said the newly discovered interview is unusual because there’s little audio of King discussing his activities in Africa, while two of King’s contemporaries said it’s exciting to hear a little-known recording of their friend for the first time.

In the interview, King says:

I am convinced that when the history books are written in future years, historians will have to record this movement as one of the greatest epochs of our heritage…I had the opportunity to talk with most of the major leaders of the new independent countries of Africa, and also leaders in countries that are moving toward independence,” he said. “And I think all of them agree that in the United States we must solve this problem of racial injustice if we expect to maintain our leadership in the world.

Video of the interview below:

 

A Brief History of Toilet Paper

A brief history of toilet paper, from The Frailest Thing blog:

Toilet paper, in case you’re wondering, was in use  in China as early as the fourteenth century and it was made in 2′ x 3′ sheets. Everywhere else, and in China before then, people made use of what their environment offered. Leaves, mussel shells, corncobs were among the more common options. The Romans (what have they ever done for us!) used a sponge attached to the end of a stick and dipped in salt water. And yes, as you may have heard, in certain cultures the left hand was employed in the task of scatological hygiene, and in these cultures the left hand retains a certain stigma to this day.

Until the late-nineteenth century, Americans opted for discarded reading material. It’s not clear if this is why Americans still today often take reading material into the bathroom, or if the practice of reading on the toilet yielded a eureka moment subsequently. In any case, magazines, newspapers, and almanacs were all precursors to the toilet paper as we know it today. It has been claimed that the Sears and Roebuck catalog was also known as the  ”Rears and Sorebutt” catalog. The Farmer’s Almanac even came with a hole punched in it so that it could be hung and the pages torn off with ease.

Toilet paper in its present form first appeared in 1857 thanks to Joseph Gayetty. It was thoughtfully moistened with aloe. In 1879, the Scott Paper Company was founded by brothers Edward and Clarence Scott. They sold toilet paper in an unperforated role. By 1885, perforated roles were being sold by Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company.

In 1935, Northern Tissue advertised its toilet paper to be “splinter-free.” Apparently, early production techniques managed to embed splinters in the paper. Three cheers for innovation! And finally, in 1942, two-ply toilet paper was introduced in St. Andrew’s Paper Mill in the UK. An odd development considering wartime austerity and rationing. Speaking of rationing, the Virtual Toilet Paper Museum (you’re learning all sorts of things in this post) reports that the first toilet paper shortage in the US took place in 1973. Presumably, it was overshadowed by the oil embargo.

Very interesting.

Five Men Agree To Stand Directly Under An Exploding Nuclear Bomb

On July 19, 1957, five Air Force officers and one photographer stood together on a patch of ground about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. They’d marked the spot “Ground Zero. Population 5” on a hand-lettered sign hammered into the soft ground right next to them. On that day, an F-89 jets drops off a nuclear missile carrying an atomic warhead.

There is a countdown; 18,500 feet above them, the missile is detonated and blows up. Which means, these men intentionally stood directly underneath an exploding 2-kiloton nuclear bomb. One of them, at the key moment (he’s wearing sunglasses), looks up.

Atomic Men. Population: 5.

Robert Krulwich uncovers the details behind this fascinating bit of daredevil history:

This footage comes from our government’s archives. It was shot by the U.S. Air Force (at the behest of Col. Arthur B. “Barney” Oldfield, public information officer for the Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs) to demonstrate the relative safety of a low-grade nuclear exchange in the atmosphere. Two colonels, two majors and a fifth officer agreed to stand right below the blast. Only the cameraman, George Yoshitake, didn’t volunteer.

The country was just beginning to worry about nuclear fallout, and the Air Force wanted to reassure people that it was OK to use atomic weapons to counter similar weapons being developed in Russia. (They didn’t win this argument.)

Click through to find out what happened to these men, and which ones are still alive.

Earliest Human Use of Fire: One Million Years Ago

An international team led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University has identified the earliest known evidence of the use of fire by human ancestors. Microscopic traces of wood ash, alongside animal bones and stone tools, were found in a layer dated to one million years ago at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.

The analysis pushes the timing for the human use of fire back by 300,000 years, suggesting that human ancestors as early as Homo erectus may have begun using fire as part of their way of life…

This research was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From the paper’s abstract:

Here we show that micromorphological and Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy (mFTIR) analyses of intact sediments at the site of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa, provide unambiguous evidence—in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains—that burning took place in the cave during the early Acheulean occupation, approximately 1.0 Ma. To the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context.

From this Boston Globe article, a note on the surprising finding:

The BU team wasn’t looking for evidence of fire. The discovery was so unexpected that Francesco Berna, a research assistant professor who led the work, found himself trying to poke holes in his provocative observation. But he ruled out that the fires could have been caused by the spontaneous combustion of bat droppings, or that the signal he was seeing was due to the age of the burned bones, by comparing them with 8-million-year-old bones.

Sounds like history books need to be rewritten…