Cluster Map

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Here comes Pollyanna again-January 7, 2011

Welcome to the first Pollyanna blog of 2011.  We Jews get to celebrate New Years Day twice, one in synagogue and once wherever having fun.
This has not been a week that Pollyanna would have enjoyed in Israel or around the world.  We are hearing about floods in Australia,  assassination  of a liberal politician in Pakistan and the passage of fascist legislation in Israel.   I would like to wish a Merry Christmas to our friends who observe the Orthodox calendar, especially the Copts in Egypt who suffered a terrible terrorist attack on their church in Alexandria last week.

Nevertheless, I shall try to find some good things to share with you.  We can start with something quite amusing:

Some of you may recall that serious news media in Saudi Arabia picked up on an Andy Borowitz satire in which he claimed that Obama was willing to admit to the Republicans that he was a Muslim and that his birth place was negotiable, possibly in the mid-Atlantic in return for the odd vote in the House of Representatives..  The Saudis took it seriously and trumpeted that indeed Obama was one of the Faith.  This week they cemented their claim to be the village idiots of the Middle East with the story of an espionage vulture used by Israel to spy upon them.

The poor griffin vulture (an endangered species) was carrying a GPS device placed on it by Israeli zoologists to track its migration pattern.  This competes very well with Egyptian claims that the shark of Sharm el Sheik had been sent by the Mossad to harm the Egyptian tourist industry.  Of course, since the Mossad does not own sharks, it must have borrowed it from Steven Spielberg, which of course makes it a loan shark.  (adapted from a bad pun by Aaron Barnes).  If there was only one shark, it also was a lone shark.  Sorry about that...
BTW, I was told once by an Amnesty International colleague from Norway that, according to Swedish TV, the Norwegians are the descendants of the village idiots of the Mediterranean.  The proof lies in the fact that when the ice sheets receded they followed them.  I have never figured out what this implies about the Swedes, but we have enough troubles of our own without concerning ourselves with the internal politics of Scandinavia.
January 1, 2011, ushers in the International Year of Chemistry. The American Chemical Society has compiled on online calendar that points to landmark events and trivia to celebrate on roughly 250 days, if you’re so inclined.  Some of the events are more earth shaking than others, but this is  chemistry not seismology...
Another piece of news from the Chemistry Department is the updating of the format of the periodic table to reflect the existence of isotopes and to show the range of masses of each element found in nature.

Before we go on to the science fun, let me report on a  soccer tournament  in Jerusalem 
that brought together Jewish and Arab children.
  It will not make peace in the Middle East but at least a few kids learned that the other is not a demon.

As a space plasma physicist, I have long shared the frustration of not understanding why the solar corona is several hundred  times hotter than the surface of the Sun.  Judy (thank you) pointed out a recent publication that indicates that we might have a handle on it and that instead of the magnetohydrodynamic waves whose absorption never provided a satisfactory answer in terms of energy, it may be in the spicules.  These wispy filaments coming out appear to have enough energy to drive the heating.  So let us salute Bart De Pontieu for this exciting result.  For details go to Physics World  or to Scientific American..  For those with library access, the paper was published in Science, January 7.
Physicists are mapping out how T cells (yellow) and other immune players respond to threats like viruses (blue).

 Biologists have long struggled to figure out how the immune system protects us from disease and infection.  Until recently the details have remained a mystery.  Now the introduction of statistical physics to model the interactions has shed light on the conundrum.  I am linking to a  report on recent progress.   It is somewhat long and detailed, but IMHO well worth the read.  I found it fascinating.

I quote here  a press release from Tel Aviv University about new findings in Israel that may shake up our view of the earliest history of our species.   For those of you who have library access to Nature News  I append a link to an interview with the researchers  that will also show some of the controversial aspects of the discovery and its interpretation.

The Qesem Cave site in Israel has yielded ancient human teeth with controversial implications.

Evidence was discovered pointing to the existence of modern man (Homo sapiens) in Israel as early as 400,000 years ago
This is the earliest evidence for the existence of modern man anywhere in the world : Up to now remains have been found of modern man from around 200,000 years ago only in Africa, and the accepted approach has been that modern man originated on that continent.
Researchers from Tel Aviv University have uncovered finds that indicate the existence of modern man (Homo sapiens) in Israel as early as about 400,000 years ago. This is the earliest evidence for the existence of modern man anywhere in the world. The findings were discovered in the Qesem Cave, a pre-historic site located near Rosh Ha’ayin that was uncovered in 2000, and are now being published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Researchers Prof. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai of the Institute of Archaeology, who run the excavations at the Qesem Cave, and Prof. Israel Hershkowitz of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine, together with an international team of scientists performed a morphological analysis on eight human teeth found in the Qesem Cave.
The detailed morphological analysis of the teeth, which included CT scans and X-rays, indicates that the size and shape of the teeth are very similar to those of modern man, early findings of which were previously discovered dating back only 200,000 years on the African continent. The teeth found in the Qesem Cave are very similar to evidence of modern man from Israel, dated to around 100,000 years ago, discovered in the Skhul Cave in the Carmel and Qafzeh Cave in the Lower Galilee near Nazareth.
Qesem Cave is dated to the period between 400,000 and 200,000 years BP (before the present) and archaeologists working there believe that the findings indicate significant changes in the behavior of ancient man. This period of time was crucial in the history of mankind from cultural and biological perspectives, and the fact that teeth of modern man were discovered indicates that these changes are apparently related to evolutionary changes taking place at that time.
Prof. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai noted that the findings that characterize the culture of those who dwelled in the Qesem Cave, such as the systematic production of flint blades, the habitual use of fire, evidence of hunting, cutting and sharing of animal meat, mining raw materials to produce flint tools from subsurface sources and much more, reinforce the hypothesis that this was, in fact, innovative and pioneering behavior that may correspond with the appearance of modern man.
According to researchers, the discoveries made in the Qesem Cave may change the perception that has been widely accepted to date, according to which modern man originated on the continent of Africa. In recent years archaeological evidence and human skeletons have been discovered in Spain and China that are liable to undermine this perception, but the findings now uncovered at Qesem Cave are significant and invaluable, and their early age is undoubtedly an extraordinary archaeological discovery. Excavations at Qesem Cave continue and the researchers hope to uncover additional finds that will enable them to confirm the findings published up to now and to enhance our understanding of the evolution of mankind, and especially the appearance of modern man.


Last month we (YandA) visited the Jewish Museum in San Francisco where we saw a video of the work of a female Torah scribe.  We reported on it in our YandA travel blog. which I invite you to visit.  Now we have a report on another female Torah scribe who is fighting against male chauvinism while remaining within the Orthodox fold.  Let us all salute her.


There is a widespread myth that educated Israelis speak and write English fluently. Over the years as a
Tel Aviv University faculty member I encountered countless counter examples. I taught a course in
scientific writing in English for Ph.D. students and while some of them were reasonably competent in the language, I turned down most of the applicants for the course. I might add that the writing skills of
most of them in Hebrew were not much better since the techniques that are (were?) taught in schools in
the US are absent in the local school curriculum. Even if we leave aside the total inability to come to
terms with perfect tenses and other mysteries of the universe, far too often we are called upon to read
something that is nearly incomprehensible. As an example, I append a
weather forecast   that could make
you both laugh and cry. I wonder if it was done by a computer. For example, why would Friday have more than one afternoon and "Tomorrow the winds have changed..." is priceless. This site appears to be a private meteorological company and I wonder if anyone paid for this forecast. Someone named Boaz Dayan has his name on it. He also has a Facebook link so I suggest you all go there and castigate him for the terrible English that he writes.

Of course I am not going to send you off without a Gene Weingarten Below the Beltway comment.

Have a nice week everyone.  I apologize for some of the format irregularities.  Sometimes this blogger software seems to have a mind of its own.

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