Wikipedia articles of interest

i. History of evolutionary thought (featured).


It’s hard to quote from this article but I decided to anyway; it’s an excellent overview article and you should really read it all even though it’s a rather long article. An interesting aspect here is how close to Darwin some people were back in the past, and how reasonably similar ideas have popped up again and again throughout history – to take some examples:

Epicurus (341–270 BC) anticipated the idea of natural selection. Lucretius explicated these ideas in his De rerum natura. In the Epicurean system, it was assumed that many species had been spontaneously generated from “Gaia” in the past, but that only the most functional forms survived to have off-spring. The Epicureans do not seem to have anticipated the full theory of evolution as we now know it and seem to have postulated a separate abiogenetic events for each species rather than postulating a single abiogenetic event coupled with the differentiation of species over time from a single (or small number of) originating parent organism(s).” […]

“the Afro-Arab writer al-Jahiz, wrote in the 9th century. In the Book of Animals, he considered the effects of the environment on an animal’s chances for survival, and described the struggle for existence.[25] Al-Jahiz also wrote descriptions of food chains.[26] Al-Jahiz speculated on the influence of the environment on animals and considered the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive. The Book of Animals states,

Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring.”


“In 1377 Ibn Khaldun wrote the Muqaddimah in which he asserted that humans developed from “the world of the monkeys”, in a process by which “species become more numerous”” […]

The article points out this aspect explicitly and notes that: “It is possible to look through the history of biology from the ancient Greeks onwards and discover anticipations of almost all of Charles Darwin‘s key ideas. […] but such anticipations should not be taken out of the full context of the writings or of cultural values of the time which could make Darwinian ideas of evolution unthinkable.[66]

A little more from the article; here’s a quote on the role of the church in the Middle Ages (and later):

“During the Early Middle Ages, Greek classical learning was all but lost to the West. However, contact with the Islamic world, where Greek manuscripts were preserved and expanded, soon led to a massive spate of Latin translations in the 12th century. Europeans were re-introduced to the works of Plato and Aristotle, as well as to Islamic thought. Christian thinkers of the scholastic school, in particular Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, combined Aristotelian classification with Plato’s ideas of the goodness of God, and of all potential life forms being present in a perfect creation, to organize all inanimate, animate, and spiritual beings into a huge interconnected system: the scala naturæ, or great chain of being.[6][32]

Within this system, everything that existed could be placed in order, from “lowest” to “highest”, with Hell at the bottom and God at the top—below God, an angelic hierarchy marked by the orbits of the planets, mankind in an intermediate position, and worms the lowest of the animals. As the universe was ultimately perfect, the great chain was also perfect. There were no empty links in the chain, and no link was represented by more than one species. Therefore no species could ever move from one position to another. Thus, in this Christianized version of Plato’s perfect universe, species could never change, but remained forever fixed, in accordance with the text of Genesis. For humans to forget their position was seen as sinful, whether they behaved like lower animals or aspired to a higher station than was given them by their Creator.[6]

Creatures on adjacent steps were expected to closely resemble each other, an idea expressed in the saying: natura non facit saltum (“nature does not make leaps”).[6] This basic concept of the great chain of being greatly influenced the thinking of Western civilization for centuries (and still has an influence today). It formed a part of the argument from design presented by natural theology. As a classification system, it became the major organizing principle and foundation of the emerging science of biology in the 17th and 18th centuries.[6]

As I pointed out above it’s hard to choose what to quote because there’s so much good stuff here; if you find this topic interesting you really should read it all. The article is probably easier to read if you’ve heard about people like Hutton, Mendel, Lamarck etc. before and have some familiarity with the concepts mentioned and the (diverse sets of) fields involved; but as the excerpts also illustrate there’s always a link (or several links) if a specific concept is unfamiliar, and I actually believe the article is very readable even if you don’t know a lot about this stuff – though I should note that I may be mistaken, given that I’ve read about most of the concepts and topics covered in the article before.

I should probably point out here that I believe this is really wikipedia at its finest – the featured rating is well-deserved. And note that this part of wikipedia in general contains some really great stuff; the article on evolution, the article about Darwin, and the article about genetics, to take but three other relevant articles about related topics, are also all of them featured. There’s a lot of stuff here. Another place to look is in the archives of Razib Khan’s blog; he’s written some good stuff on related topics.

ii. Triceratops (featured). I doubt there’s a reader of this blog who has not heard the name of these animals or could not tell me roughly how they looked like, but how much do you actually know about those guys? After reading this article you’ll know more..

iii. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (‘good article’). A lot of interesting lives have been lived by people in the past, and many of the stories of these people never get told. This guy lived a remarkable life:

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (French pronunciation: ​[maʁki də la fajɛt]; 6 September 1757 – 20 May 1834), often known simply as Lafayette, was a French aristocrat and military officer born in Chavaniac, in the province of Auvergne in south central France. Lafayette was a general in the American Revolutionary War and a leader of the Garde nationale during the French Revolution. […]

Lafayette was the most important link between the American and the French Revolutions. As an ardent supporter of the United States’ constitutional principles he called on all nations to follow the American example. […] Under Lafayette’s influence Louis XVI issued the edict of toleration in 1787 (Edict of Versailles), which particularly benefitted the Huguenots.[2] Back in France in 1788, Lafayette was called to the Assembly of Notables to respond to the fiscal crisis. Lafayette proposed a meeting of the French Estates-General, where representatives from the three traditional orders of French society—the clergy, the nobility and the commoners—met. He served as vice president of the resulting body. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was largely based on his draft.[3] Lafayette was appointed commander-in-chief of the Garde nationale in response to violence. During the French Revolution, Lafayette attempted to maintain order—to the point of ordering the Garde nationale to fire on demonstrators at the Champ de Mars in July 1791—an action for which he ultimately was persecuted by the Jacobins. In August 1792, as the radical factions in the Revolution grew in power, Lafayette tried to flee to the United States through the Dutch Republic. He was captured by Austrians and spent more than five years in prison.

Lafayette returned to France after Napoleon Bonaparte secured his release from prison in 1797. He refused to participate in Napoleon’s government, but was elected to the Chamber of Deputies under the Charter of 1815, during the Hundred Days. With the Bourbon Restoration, Lafayette became a liberal member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1815, a position he held until his death. […]

In France, Lafayette worked with Thomas Jefferson to establish trade agreements between the United States and France. These negotiations aimed to reduce U.S. debt to France, and included commitments on tobacco and whale oil.[57] He joined the French abolitionist group Society of the Friends of the Blacks, which advocated the end of the slave trade and equal rights for free blacks. In 1783, in correspondence with Washington, he urged the emancipation of slaves; and to establish them as tenant farmers.[58] […]

King Louis XVI convoked the Assembly of Notables on 29 December 1786, in response to France’s fiscal crisis. The King appointed Lafayette to the body, in the comte d’Artois’ division, which met on 22 February 1787. In an address first read to the assembly, then signed and endorsed by Lafayette, it was proposed to lower unnecessary spending, which included, among other things, purchase of useless estates and gifts to courtiers.[77] He called for a “truly national assembly”, which represented the three classes of French society: clergy, nobility, and commons.[78] On 8 August 1788, the King agreed to hold an Estates General the next year. Lafayette was elected to represent the nobility (Second Estate) from Riom in the Estates General.[79]

The Estates General convened on 5 May 1789; debate began on whether the delegates should vote by head or by Estate. If voting was by Estate then the nobility and clergy would be able to overturn the commons; if by head, then the larger Third Estate could dominate. Before the meeting, he agitated for the voting by head, rather than estate […]

Lafayette was unwilling to cooperate with Napoleon’s government. In 1804, Napoleon was crowned Emperor after a plebiscite in which Lafayette did not participate. He remained relatively quiet, although he spoke publicly on Bastille Day events.[134] After the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson asked if he would be interested in the governorship. Lafayette declined, citing personal problems and the desire to work for liberty in France.[135] […] As the restored monarchy of Charles X became more conservative, Lafayette re-emerged as a prominent public figure. […] Throughout his legislative career, he continued to endorse causes such as freedom of the press, suffrage for all taxpayers, and the worldwide abolition of slavery.[149] […]

American President Andrew Jackson ordered that Lafayette be accorded the same funeral honors as John Adams and George Washington. Therefore, 24-gun salutes were fired from military posts and ships, each shot representing a U.S. state. Flags flew at half mast for thirty-five days, and “military officers wore crepe for six months”.[157][158] The Congress hung black in chambers and asked the entire country to dress in black for the next thirty days.[159] […] Lafayette reputation in America has always stood very high, and both the popular mind and the scholarship. […] Lafayette reputation among French historians is more problematic. François Furet includes him among the 14 most important actors of the French Revolution, where he played a critical role in 1789-92. He is praised as the embodiment of the liberal ideals of 1789, but he had few eulogies. French historians have said he was too ambitious and yet too mediocre an intellect to play a bigger role. […] To historians on the left, he was a traitor to the glorious cause. To historians on the right, he was too ineffective to be their hero. [168]

Although I’ve blogged some of them before, I guess I should point out that Khan Academy has some quite good videos about the French Revolution and related stuff here.

iv. Klondike Gold Rush (‘good article’).


“The Klondike Gold Rush, also called the Yukon Gold Rush, the Alaska Gold Rush, the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush and the Last Great Gold Rush, was a migration by an estimated 100,000 prospectors to the Klondike region of the Yukon in north-western Canada between 1896 and 1899. Gold was discovered here on August 16, 1896 and, when news reached Seattle and San Francisco the following year, it triggered a “stampede” of would-be prospectors. The journey proved too hard to many and only between 30,000 and 40,000 managed to arrive. Some became wealthy; however, the majority went in vain and only around 4,000 struck gold. The Klondike Gold Rush ended in 1899 after gold was discovered in Nome, prompting an exodus from the Klondike. […] To accommodate the prospectors, boom towns sprang up along the routes and at their end Dawson City was founded at the confluence of the Klondike and the Yukon River. From a population of 500 in 1896, the hastily constructed town came to house around 30,000 people by summer 1898. Poorly built, isolated and unsanitary Dawson suffered from fires, high prices and epidemics. Despite this, the wealthiest prospectors spent extravagantly gambling and drinking in the saloons. The Native Hän people, on the other hand, suffered from the rush. Many of them died after being moved into a reserve to make way for the stampeders.”

An estimated 100.000 people tried to reach the goldfields. The 1900 United States Census put the population of the US at 76.2 million at that time so the estimated number of people leaving their homes in order to dig for gold corresponds to ~0,13% of the total population of the United States at that time; more than one in a thousand of the entire population… (not all prospectors were Americans, but a great majority – ~60-80%, according to the article – were).

“The region was mountainous, the rivers winding and sometimes impassable; the short summers could be hot, while from October to June, during the long winters, temperatures could drop below −50 °C (−58 °F).[60][61][n 10]

Aids for the travelers to carry their supplies varied; some had brought dogs, horses, mules or oxen, whereas others had to rely on carrying their equipment on their backs or on sleds pulled by hand.[64] Shortly after the stampede began in 1897, the Canadian authorities had introduced rules requiring anyone entering Yukon Territory to bring with them a year’s supply of food; typically this weighed around 1,150 pounds (520 kg).[65] By the time camping equipment, tools and other essentials were included, a typical traveler was transporting as much as a ton in weight.[65] […]

Of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people who reached Dawson City during the gold rush, only around 15,000 to 20,000 finally became prospectors. Of these, no more than 4,000 struck gold and only a few hundred became rich.[28] By the time that most of the stampeders arrived in 1898, the best creeks had all been claimed, either by the long-term miners in the region, or by the first arrivals of the year before.[131] […]

Skagway rapidly became famous in the international media; the author John Muir described the town as “a nest of ants taken into a strange country and stirred up by a stick”.[181] […] the White Pass leading from Skagway to the Klondike closed in late 1897 and around 5,000 prospectors found themselves stuck in the town, unable to progress or to return home.[182] […] The town was effectively lawless, dominated by drinking, gunfire and prostitution.[184] The visiting NWMP Superintendent Sam Steele noted that it was “little better than a hell on earth … about the roughest place in the world”.[185] Nonetheless, by the summer of 1898, with a population—including migrants—of between 15,000 and 20,000, Skagway was the largest city in Alaska.[186] […]

In late summer 1897 Skagway and Dyea fell under the control of Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith and his men, who arrived from Seattle shortly after Skagway began to expand.[187][188] He was an American confidence man whose gang, 200 to 300 strong, cheated and stole from the prospectors traveling through the region.[189][n 23] He maintained the illusion of being an upstanding member of the community, opening three saloons as well as creating fake businesses to assist in his operations.[191][192] One of his scams was a fake telegraph office where one of his men dressed as a telegraph operator would charge to send messages all over the US and Canada, often pretending to receive a reply.[193] Opposition to Smith steadily grew and, after weeks of vigilante activity, he was killed in Skagway during the shootout on Juneau Wharf on July 8, 1898.[187][194] […]

Prices remained high in Dawson and supply fluctuated according to the season. During the winter of 1897 salt became worth its weight in gold, while nails, vital for construction work, rose in price to $28 ($760) per lb (0.45 kg).[218] Cans of butter sold for $5 ($140) each.[219] The only eight horses in Dawson were slaughtered for dog food as they could not be kept alive over the winter.[218][n 27] The first fresh goods arriving in the spring of 1898 sold for record prices, eggs reaching $3 ($81) each and apples $1 ($27).[222]

Under these conditions scurvy, a potentially fatal illness caused by the lack of vitamin C, proved a major problem in Dawson City, particularly during the winter […] Dysentery and malaria were also common in Dawson, and an epidemic of typhoid broke out in July and ran rampant throughout the summer. […]

Gambling was popular, with the major saloons each running their own rooms; a culture of high stakes evolved, with rich prospectors routinely betting $1,000 ($27,000) at dice or playing for a $5,000 ($140,000) poker pot. […] Wealthy prospectors were expected to drink champagne at $60 ($1,600) a bottle, and the Pavilion dancehall cost its owner, Charlie Kimball, as much as $100,000 ($80 million) to construct and decorate.[234] Elaborate opera houses were built, bringing singers and specialty acts to Dawson.[235] Tales abounded of prospectors spending huge sums of money on entertainment — Jimmy McMahon once spent $28,000 ($760,000) in a single evening, for example.[236] Most payments were made in gold dust and in places like saloons, there was so much spilled gold that a profit could be made just by sweeping the floor.[223]

v. Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit. A very (advanced? sophisticated? expensive?) aircraft.


“The Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, also known as the Stealth Bomber, is an American strategic bomber, featuring low observable stealth technology designed for penetrating dense anti-aircraft defenses; it is able to deploy both conventional and nuclear weapons. The bomber has a crew of two and can drop up to eighty 500 lb (230 kg)-class JDAM GPS-guided bombs, or sixteen 2,400 lb (1,100 kg) B83 nuclear bombs. The B-2 is the only aircraft that can carry large air-to-surface standoff weapons in a stealth configuration.

Development originally started under the “Advanced Technology Bomber” (ATB) project during the Carter administration, and its performance was one of the reasons for his cancellation of the B-1 Lancer. ATB continued during the Reagan administration, but worries about delays in its introduction led to the reinstatement of the B-1 program as well. Program costs rose throughout development. Designed and manufactured by Northrop Grumman with assistance from Boeing, the cost of each aircraft averaged US$737 million (in 1997 dollars).[3] Total procurement costs averaged $929 million per aircraft, which includes spare parts, equipment, retrofitting, and software support.[3] The total program cost including development, engineering and testing, averaged $2.1 billion per aircraft in 1997.[3]

Because of its considerable capital and operating costs, the project was controversial in the U.S. Congress and among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The winding-down of the Cold War in the latter portion of the 1980s dramatically reduced the need for the aircraft, which was designed with the intention of penetrating Soviet airspace and attacking high-value targets. During the late 1980s and 1990s, Congress slashed plans to purchase 132 bombers to 21. In 2008, a B-2 was destroyed in a crash shortly after takeoff, and the crew ejected safely.[4] A total of 20 B-2s remain in service with the United States Air Force.

The B-2 is capable of all-altitude attack missions up to 50,000 ft, with a range of more than 6,000 nautical miles unrefuelled and over 10,000 nautical miles with one refueling. Though originally designed primarily as a nuclear bomber, it was first used in combat to drop conventional bombs on Serbia during the Kosovo War in 1999, and saw continued use during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.[5]


May 28, 2013 - Posted by | Engineering, Evolutionary biology, Genetics, History, Wikipedia

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