Scientists Determine Publication Date of “The Iliad”


Homer’s ‘Iliad’ codex from approximately the late 5th-early 6th century A.D. Image: Public Domain

Evolutionary theorist Mark Pagel (University of Reading) and his colleagues, geneticist Eric Altschuler (Univ. of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) and linguist Andreea Calude (also of Reading as well as  the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico) have dated  one of literature’s most ancient works, The Iliadto 762 B.C. “give or take fifty years.”

You might be surprised to learn that scientists have applied the same techniques used to track how genes mutate to dating the codex. “Languages behave just extraordinarily like genes,” Pagel says. “It is directly analogous. We tried to document the regularities in linguistic evolution and study Homer’s vocabulary as a way of seeing if language evolves the way we think it does.”

Pagel and his team explained to Inside Science how the process worked:

“[We] used a linguistic tool called the Swadesh word list, put together in the 1940s and 1950s by American linguist Morris Swadesh. The list contains approximately 200 concepts that have words apparently in every language and every culture, Pagel says. These are usually words for body parts, colors and necessary relationships like “father” and “mother.”

[Then we] looked for Swadesh words in the Iliad and found 173 of them. Then, [we} measured how they changed.

[We] took the language of the Hittites, a people that existed during the time the war may have been fought, and modern Greek, and traced the changes in the words from Hittite to Homeric to modern. It is precisely how [we] measure the genetic history of humans, going back and seeing how and when genes alter over time.”

The other thing that researchers have determined is that a single person named “Homer” is unlikely to have existed.  Brian Rose, professor of classical studies and curator of the Mediterranean section at the Univ. of Pennsylvania Museum, says “it is clear the Iliad is a compilation of oral tradition going back to the 13th century B.C.”  Rose contends that The Iliad is an “amalgam of lots of stories” — about Helen, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Ajax, and others — that “focused on conflicts in one particular area of northwestern Turkey.”

While researchers are unsure about the authorship of The Iliad, they are relatively certain that the city of Troy actually existed and think they know where it was located, thanks to the nineteenth century work of two archaeologists, Heinrich Schliemann and the Frank Calvert, who excavated the Citadel of Troy and found evidence of a battle. Schliemann and Calvert dated the conflict to the twelfth century b.c. but whether the artifacts are from the epic war described in The Iliad or are the remnants of a civil war remains unclear.

The Beginnings of a Sea Change

In an area of Nigeria that is “as densely populated as Paris” but contains only one primary school, innovative architecture aims to make education available to all.

In the water community of Makoko just off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria, an exciting new project attempts to turn the tide of limited education and unstable infrastructure. Though the Makoko’s population is soaring, a lack of well-constructed buildings means that the community  houses only one primary school to serve its approx. 86,000 residents.

Why the lack or solid infrastructure? It’s because the islands of Lagos amongst which the fishing village resides are vastly covered in water. Residents of Makoko have for years built their homes atop stilts embedded deep in the seabed. Now a team of architects led by native Nigerian Kunle Adayemi will update that idea in order to build schools that will not only withstand the rigors of West Africa’s current climate, but hopefully also for many years to come.

As pictured above, the increase in rainfall and rising sea levels Lagos has experienced over time, due to global climate change, renders the local Makoko housing unsuitable. Adayemi’s solution is to create a completely free-floating building—one unchanged by any rise or fall in water levels. He and his team have also worked to make sure the new schoolhouses will be eco-friendly and space efficient to boot:

Adayemi is hopeful that the design will help more than just the people of Makoko: “The building can be adapted for other uses, such as homes or hospitals. Ultimately, it’s a vision that can be used to sustainably develop [African] coastal communities.” But of course, such an inspirational story is inevitably accompanied by typical political woes; the government of Lagos is reluctant to encourage the expansion of a water-based community. Just in July of last year, “Nigerian government officials destroyed dozens of residences after giving residents 72 hours’ notice of eviction,” an act that resulted in the death of one Makoko resident. The reality Adayemi faces—one greater than the threat posed by natural disasters—is that this mere slum (for lack of a better description) occupies prime waterfront, a commodity the politicians of Lagos won’t readily relinquish.

Thus the project, while furthering the possibilities of architecture, science, and education, faces its biggest opposition in near-sighted bureaucracy: a reminder that advancing education in Africa is never as simple a task it seems on its glass-like surface.

For more on this amazing project, head to the Guardian. Its article contains an interesting video that provides a bit of visual insight into life on the waters of Makoko.

Shakespeare? It’s in the DNA


Are you old enough to remember when floppy disks were actually floppy? Or maybe when disks were 3″ wide? (Yes, kids, that’s what that little icon to “save” your work to your hard drives and flash drives represents, a hard little disk that held approximately two Word files or a half a dozen pictures (but not at the same time).

Maybe you think data storage has reached its pinnacle. It is rather startling to realize you carry more technology in your pocket on your smart phone than was available for the moon landing (but with considerably less LOL cats).  But when you understand that there is now over one trillion gigabytes of information in the world, not even the iPhone 204 can keep up with that pace. (Here’s what 10 trillion gigabytes looks like in numbers: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000…. ten plus twenty one zeroes).

Every method of storage we have thus far employed has had long-term storage problems. CDs and DVDs scratch and wear out, as do magnetic tapes. But what about DNA, nature’s storage system? DNA is compact and durable. We can extract DNA information from bones that are millions of years old.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s actually science-in-action. Nick Goldman heads up a research team at European Bioinformatics Institute in the U.K. Goldman and his fellow scientists are studying DNA data storage and Goldman has written a paper on the process which appeared  in the journal Nature last week.

In an interview with Ira Flatow on NPR’s “Science Friday,” Goldman explains that DNA utilizes a storage system much like computers use ones and zeroes so “[w]e wrote a computer program that embodied a code that would convert the zeros and ones from a hard disk drive into the letters that we use to represent DNA, and then we – our collaborators in California  - were able to actually synthesize physical DNA.”

Once the scientists realized this was possible, they decided what they would first try to encode and store:

[W]e chose a photograph of our own institute because we’re sort of self-publicists at heart, I guess, and an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream,” all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a PDF that contained in fact the paper, the scientific paper by Watson and Crick that first described the structure of DNA itself.

All of this information, Golman says, is saved  on the equivalent of a speck of dust. How large of an area would contain all 10 trillion gigabytes of the world’s information? It would “fit in the back of a station wagon.”

Catcher in the Rye To Be Dropped from Curriculum? Puh-lease

New Common Core Standards drop classic novels in favor of “informational texts.”

The US school system will undergo some big changes within the next two years, chiefly due to a decision to remove a good deal of classic novels from the curriculum, or so the recent media reports would have you think.

The idea behind discouraging or reducing the teaching of old favorites like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird is to make room for non-fiction “informational texts” in the curriculum. These should be approved by the Common Core Standards of each state. Suggested texts include, “Recommended Levels of Insulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California’s Invasive Plant Council,” among others.

Mmmm, I just love me a good read on insulation levels while I soak in the tub.

So, the idea behind this is that children who pass through such a school system will be better prepared for the workplace, their brains packed with useful, practical knowledge rather than brimming with literary fluff (my personal summation). It has the backing of the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief of State School Officers, and even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which partially funded the directive.

But is that estimate correct? Will reading more non-fiction in favor of fiction breed better writing, or more informed graduates? The discussion is extremely divided. One Arkansas teacher wrote in this Telegraph article,

In the end, education has to be about more than simply ensuring that kids can get a job. Isn’t it supposed to be about making well-rounded citizens?

Meanwhile, another reader weighed in for the pros of teaching more scientific texts:

I don’t understand how adding non-fiction books to reading lists REDUCES imagination.  Hard science is all about imagination–the “what ifs” of nature and the universe… I am sick of English professors acting like English Literature is the only bastion of imagination/critical thinking/culture.

When I first read that article stating that The Catcher in the Rye and other novels specifically would be gone from curriculums nation-wide, I was alarmed and frightened, though I now know it was needlessly so. The reactions of protesters are a tad hyperbolic, given that the two soporific texts I named above are found amongst a long list of alternate suggestions in various subjects, for instance Circumference: Eratosthenes and the Ancient Quest to Measure the Globe by Nicholas Nicastro, and The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston, interesting and well-written books in their own right. English Literature classes will not be barred from teaching certain classic novels, as some of the reports would have you believe, though they may have more limited time to teach them than before. Yes, the school system will be changed and possibly not for the better, but Salinger and Lee aren’t going anywhere.

All in all, the arguments for both sides make overblown assumptions: on the one, that students will miraculously be better prepared for the job market, on the other, that all imagination and creativity will be drained from impressionable young adults. So, which side do you stand on, if either? Is the teaching of informational texts merited, or best left to vocational studies? Tell us in a comment below!

The Enchantress of Numbers

The curious tale of the world’s first computer programmer.

Today I stray a little from the ordinary literary and educational news updates, after coming across a nod to an exceptional woman I couldn’t pass the day without commemorating, not only for her role in mathematics, but also for her role as a woman in mathematics, far ahead of her time. I hope that her story inspires women in the sciences, or indeed anyone who perseveres to think beyond the capabilities of modern technology.

Sadly I’m usually behind the times on Google’s artistic and quirky depictions of special days via their homepage. But today, gmail just happened to crash, sending me to the Google homepage where I saw the below image:

I was curious. Who was this woman in 19th century garb, scribbling mathematical functions with quill and ink? And so, by way of technological error, I learned of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace was born on December 10th, 1815, to the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anna Isabella Byron. She had a miserable childhood, considered a disappointment from birth for not having been born a boy. Ada was abandoned by her father before she was a month old and resultantly never knew him, as he died abroad when she was eight. Meanwhile her mother chose to keep little connection with her, possibly because young Ada reminded her of her devious husband, with whom the Baroness had an acrimonious divorce. So Ada was raised by elderly relatives and relegated to a life of suspicious observation via her mother’s friends, dubbed “the Furies.” Fortunately for us, though, she was also subject to a life of education–intended to squash any deviation she might have inherited from her father–and took a keen interest in mathematics from a young age.

Around the age of seventeen, Ada’s special abilities became clear to her tutors, all famed in mathematics in their own right. The noted mathematician Augustus de Morgan even reported of Ada to her mother that she seemed destined to become, “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.” Meanwhile another one of Ada’s instructors and friends, Mary Somerville, introduced her to Charles Babbage, future inventor of the world’s first computer. Ada was not yet eighteen at the time.

Babbage and Ada thus began a friendship that produced their academic collaboration on the former’s Analytical Engine. In 1843, Ada translated Italian mathematician Luigi Meanabrea’s explanation of the machine, complete with her own set of notes and conclusions (which were actually longer than Menabrea’s). In her depiction of the Analytical Engine, Ada imagined its potential as being greater than simple “number crunching,” something not even Babbage indulged in. She wrote:

[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine…

Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

Along with these forward-thinking notes, Ada wrote “a computation of Bernoulli numbers for the Analytical Engine” (below). It is this part of her thesis, “Note G,” that is universally considered to be the world’s first computer program, making Ada correspondingly its first programmer.

So there you have it: the world’s first techie was a noble lady, The Right Honourable Countess of Lovelace. That means that on this day, as you browse the Internet in search of Google poetry, GIFs, or the Ikea Monkey, you have Miss Ada Lovelace to thank for her place in imagining the capability of computers to change our lives in the myriad of ways they have today.

Ada was such an interesting woman, there is only so much of her life I could include in this post. I highly recommend her Wikipedia entry as an overview of her amazing achievements and somewhat scandalous personal affairs. In her mere thirty-six years, Ada gave us much to appreciate and stands as a prime example of the role women have played in science and technology, though they are often overlooked. She truly lived up to Charles Babbage’s nickname for her, “The Enchantress of Numbers”:

Forget this world and all its troubles and if
possible its multitudinous Charlatans – every thing
in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.


Teachers, instruct your students on the history of “The Enchantress of Numbers” with eNotes’ document on Ada Lovelace, found here. It comes with an activity to help students write their very own programs and is recommended for Grades 4-8.


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