Wednesday, May 22, 2019

What do scientists mean when they say that something exists?

Sabine Hossenfelder does her usual spot on job of navigating through the weeds of what it means in science to say that something exists, using the Higgs boson, quarks, and gravitational waves as examples. An excerpt:
When we say that these experiments measured “gravitational waves emitted in a black hole merger”, we really mean that specific equations led to correct predictions.

It is a similar story for the Higgs-boson and for quarks. The Higgs-boson and quarks are names that we have given to mathematical structures. In this case the structures are part of what is called the standard model of particle physics. We use this mathematics to make predictions. The predictions agree with measurements. That is what we mean when we say “quarks exist”: We mean that the predictions obtained with the hypothesis agrees with observations. 
She goes on to discuss the philosophical concept of "realism" and to, appropriately, dismiss it as basically irrelevant. 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Modern Humans Were Cooking Starchy Plants 120,000 Years Ago

Flour has been in use since the Upper Paleolithic era in Europe (ca. 40,000 years ago) and in pre-Columbian, pre-Neolithic North American, but this example is much older.
"Our results showed that these small ashy hearths were used for cooking food and starchy roots and tubers were clearly part of their diet, from the earliest levels at around 120,000 years ago through to 65,000 years ago," says Larbey. "Despite changes in hunting strategies and stone tool technologies, they were still cooking roots and tubers." 
. . .

By combining cooked roots and tubers as a staple with protein and fats from shellfish, fish, small and large fauna, these communities were able to optimally adapt to their environment, indicating great ecological intelligence as early as 120,000 years ago. 
"Starch diet isn't something that happens when we started farming, but rather, is as old as humans themselves," says Larbey. Farming in Africa only started in the last 10,000 years of human existence.
From here.

The paper is:

Cynthia Larbey, et al., "Cooked starchy food in hearths ca. 120 kya and 65 kya (MIS 5e and MIS 4) from Klasies River Cave, South Africa." 131 Journal of Human Evolution 210 (2019). DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2019.03.015

Proposed Solution To Voynich Code Published

Language Log has a nice analysis of the most recent published claim to have solved the great linguistic mystery of the Voynich Code.
"The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained" In Romance Studies. Published online: 29 Apr 2019 
[VHM: MS 408 is the call number under which the Voynich manuscript is catalogued in Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, to which it was donated by Hans P. Kraus in 1969.] 
Manuscript MS408 (Voynich) is unusual in a number of respects: 1. It uses an extinct language. 2. Its alphabet uses a number of unfamiliar symbols alongside more familiar symbols. 3. It includes no dedicated punctuation marks. 4. Some of the letters have symbol variants to indicate punctuation. 5. Some of the symbol variants indicate phonetic accents. 6. All of the letters are in lower case. 7. There are no double consonants. 8. It includes diphthong, triphthongs, quadriphthongs and even quintiphthongs for the abbreviation of phonetic components. 9. It includes some words and abbreviations in Latin. As a result, identifying the language and solving the writing system required some ingenuity and lateral thinking, but both were duly revealed. The writing system is rather more singular and less intuitive than modern systems, which may explain why it failed to become culturally ubiquitous and ultimately became obsolete. On the other hand, a significant vestige of the language has survived into the modern era, because its lexicon has been sequestered into the many modern languages of Mediterranean Europe. Here, the language and writing system are explained, so that other scholars can explore the manuscript for its linguistic and informative content.
Established experts strongly disagree that this proposed solution is accurate:
"Cheshire reCAsT", J. K. Petersen, The Voynich Portal (5/7/19) 
"Cheshire Reprised", J. K. Petersen, The Voynich Portal (5/16/19) 
"No, someone hasn’t cracked the code of the mysterious Voynich manuscript. Medieval scholar: "Sorry, folks, 'proto-Romance language' is not a thing."" Jennifer Ouellette, Ars Technica (5/15/19)

Etruscans in Poland?

"The Pomeranian culture, was an Iron Age culture with origins in parts of the area south of the Baltic Sea, from the 7th c. to the 3rd c. BC, which eventually covered most of today's Poland" that has a lot of material culture in common with the Etruscans of Northern Italy (one of the last attested linguistically non-Indo-European people in Europe) and other Mediterranean people of uncertain linguistic affiliation, according to a fairly convincing post at the Old European Culture blog. The most plausible route of the connection is via the Iron Age "Amber Road". But, the artifacts shared by these cultures don't appear in places in between them.