NPR: “Researchers have successfully decoded the genes of a 45,000-year-old man from Siberia. The results offer clues about early human life outside of Africa as well as how humans interacted with Neanderthals and other groups around at the time.”

Ars Technica (emphasis added):

Based on Y chromosome and mitochondrial genome, the Ust’-Ishim DNA appears to reside at the base of a broad group of populations that exist in current Eurasia. The rest of the genome indicates that it lacks many of the individual DNA changes that have appeared in current populations. All of which suggests that the population it belongs to is ancestral to Europeans and Asians.

But if you look at overall relatedness, the genome is slightly closer to current Asian populations than it is to Europeans. The authors note that other data has led researchers to hypothesize that Europeans have had an influx of DNA from a population that did not participate in the initial migration out of Africa—perhaps a second wave out of Africa.

Another source of DNA present in non-African populations that was not involved in that initial migration comes from archaic humans, the Neanderthals and Denisovans. The Ust’-Ishim skeleton has no indications of any Denisovan DNA, which furthers indications that this DNA might have been picked up somewhere along the southern coast of Asia.

Neanderthal DNA is present, and in roughly the same percentage that’s found in current human populations: about 2.3 percent. If you assume that interbreeding was common during the years of our coexistence with Neanderthals, then you might have expected that number to be higher, so this argues against it.

While the same fraction of Neanderthal DNA is present, there is a key difference: the stretches of Neanderthal DNA are quite a bit longer. You’d actually expect that, since recombination with the modern human genome will gradually break up the Neanderthal sequences over time. The authors of the paper use this process as a clock and date the time of our interbreeding with Neanderthals to about 50 to 60,000 years ago. That’s on the high end of previous estimates and places the interbreeding at a time where modern humans had just left Africa and were sharing the Mid-East with Neanderthals.

See also this New York Times story.

(For my previous blogging on this topic, see here.)

Posted by: Paul A. Forsyth | October 22, 2014

Hubble Finds New Targets for New Horizons Past Pluto

Hubble Survey Finds Two Kuiper Belt Objects to Support New Horizons Mission

Time-lapse Hubble images of two new Kuiper Belt objects that are potential targets for the New Horizons spacecraft after it finishes its Pluto mission. They desperately need new names.

The NASA unmanned spacecraft New Horizons has been traveling towards Pluto since 2006. New Horizons should be making its flyby of Pluto and its moons in July 2015, becoming the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and providing the first detailed images of the dwarf planet.

After its Pluto encounter, New Horizons will continue on its journey away from the heart of the Solar System. Mission planners have always intended that New Horizons, if possible, should visit some other object beyond Pluto. The problem: at the time of launch, astronomers had not identified any potential targets within range. The Kuiper Belt contains thousands (perhaps millions) of small bodies of rock and ice — including some dwarf planets — but New Horizons can only be steered toward objects within a small cone of space extending out from Pluto.

Last week, NASA announced that Hubble has identified three new Kuiper Belt objects within that cone — three new post-Pluto potential targets for New Horizons. Two of those objects are shown above. All three are quite small, probably with diameters in the range of 20-50 km. (For comparison: the asteroid Eros, the site of a base in the novel Ender’s Game, has a mean diameter of about 16 km. The Moon’s diameter is about 3,460 km, and Pluto’s diameter is [we think] 2,368 ± 20 km. See also this list.)

From what NASA and the Hubble folks tell us so far, it sounds like the most likely post-Pluto target for New Horizons — potential target 1 or PT1 — is KBO 1110113Y (the object on the left above). From Emily Lakdawalla:

What do we know about PT1 so far? Its orbit is circular and close to the plane of the ecliptic, so it is a Cold Classical Kuiper belt object, meaning that it has had a very different history from Pluto. Pluto is a member of a population of objects in the Kuiper belt whose orbits were changed as Neptune migrated outward, scattering them. Pluto now has an inclined and elliptical orbit that is locked in a resonance with Neptune, such that Pluto orbits the Sun twice for every three times Neptune does. In contrast, Cold Classical objects were probably never tossed around in this way. So PT1 could be very pristine, a cold, never-heated relic of solar system formation. On the other hand, it’s very small, estimated to be 30 to 45 kilometers in diameter, and scientists think that most objects of that size are not primordial, but are actually fragments from collisions of larger objects, which would make it less pristine.

If KBO 1110113Y is chosen, then New Horizons should make a fly-by of the KBO around January 2019. Before that happens, I strongly suggest that the Hubble folks pick a new name for the object; “KBO 1110113Y” does not exactly roll off the tongue. Something mythological would seem appropriate, but I’m not sure what mythological names are still available.


Astronomers haven’t even bothered to give a proper name to 2007 OR10 yet, and that’s after seven years.

Image Credit: (1) NASA, ESA, SwRI, JHU/APL, and the New Horizons KBO Search Team. Source: HubbleSite. (2) Artistic representations of the eight largest Trans-Neptunian Objects. Image by Lexicon. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | October 21, 2014

Tuesday Art Blogging


John William Waterhouse, Diogenes and the Young Women, 1882.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | October 17, 2014

Friday Diversion

Here’s a website to determine how conservative or liberal your first name is. “Crowdpac calculates this score based on the average of all campaign contributions made by people with this name since 1980.”

H/T: Ann Althouse.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | October 15, 2014

Random Art Blogging, Cynic Edition

Jean-Léon Gérôme - Diogenes - Walters 37131

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes, 1860.

Currently housed at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | October 10, 2014

About the Doctor Who Episode “Kill the Moon”


This post is about some thoughts I had while and after watching “Kill the Moon,” the seventh episode of the current season of Doctor Who. The episode originally aired on October 4, 2014. (There are spoilers below the fold.)

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Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | October 8, 2014

Graph of the Day

xkcd for the win:

“People often say that same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 60s. But in terms of public opinion, same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 90s, when it had already been legal nationwide for 30 years.”

Image by R. Munroe used under a CC BY-NC 2.5 license.

Map Gallia Tribes Towns

From Monday’s Marketplace Morning Report:

And in Latin class they used to teach that Gaul, as a whole, is divided into three parts. Hewlett-Packard, it seems, will divide into two…

The program goes on to discuss the announced split of Hewlett-Packard into two separate companies. (The printed story, which goes into a bit more depth than the quick morning radio segment, does not use the Gaul parallel; you can hear it in the Morning Report, starting at the 5:48 mark. I haven’t found any transcripts of the program.)

For those who did not study Latin: “All Gaul is divided into three parts” are the opening words of the Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar’s memoirs recounting the campaigns of his armies in what what is today France, the Low Countries, western Germany, and southern Britain. Like almost all military memoirs, Caesar’s Commentaries served as propaganda, self-promotion, and self-justification; in part, Caesar was using his accounts of the Roman campaigns in Gaul to advance his political fortunes. For this reason, he wrote them for wide circulation; the Commentaries are written in a very straightforward, uncomplicated Latin, designed to be accessible to common Romans. A side effect of this accessible prose style is that Caesar’s Commentaries have been used as a teaching text for students learning Latin; passages from the Commentaries are often some of the first “real” Latin passages (i.e., written by a real Roman) that students are assigned to translate.*

All of this is of secondary importance to my main point — namely that “Gaul, as a whole, is divided into three parts” is a really weird and strained historical parallel to use as a rhetorical garnish in this context. Caesar was describing a region, using somewhat arbitrary boundaries drawn along geographic and ethno-linguistic lines to break up the region into smaller units for purposes of comparison and more detailed examination. The breakup of Hewlett-Packard is an act of division; a legal entity is about to go through a process of division to form two new legal entities. It’s the difference between a descriptive demarcation and an act of separation.

So, my thoughts wandered to historical parallels that might be less…odd in this context. Say, “Charlemagne’s grandsons divided his empire into three kingdoms.”

Or, since HP is being divided into two new entities (not three), “In 1889, Congress divided the Dakota Territory into the new states of North Dakota and South Dakota.”

Or, if we want to stick with a Roman theme, “The later emperors divided the Roman Empire into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire.”

Theodosius I's empire

I mean, if we’re looking for an historical example of an aging empire dividing itself into two parts that are optimistically expected to be more nimble and better able to confront changing external threats…

* This was more true forty or fifty years ago than today; in former decades, students might spend weeks or months translating Caesar. Today, Latin textbooks and Latin teachers rely upon Caesar quite a bit less; but even so, some passages are still assigned in most second-year or intermediate Latin courses. In the normal progression, a high school student studying Latin would encounter Caesar’s Commentaries in the second year of Latin classes — say, sophomore year of high school or thereabouts. Nowadays, though, Latin students read less Caesar and are more likely to spend a lot of time reading the stupid extended story of Quintus and his family. I’m not sure that’s an improvement.

Image Credits: (1) Map of Gaul by Feitscherg, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons. (2) Boundaries of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires after the death of Theodosius I, AD 395. Map by Geuiwogbil, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | October 6, 2014

First Monday

US Supreme Court

The first Monday in October is the traditional start day for the annual term of the United States Supreme Court.

Burt Likko has a very good rundown of some of the cases that are pending before the Court.

The big news, of course, is the Court’s decision to deny all the petitions in the same-sex marriage cases. I cannot recall ever seeing so many people so excited over a denial of cert. The best explanation* for the SCOTUS decision may be that there is no circuit split, and therefore no need to wade into the issue at this time. (There is a ruling from a District Court in Louisiana upholding a SSM ban there, which does buck the trend in the appellate courts so far; but that decision may be overturned by the Fifth Circuit. There is also an anti-SSM ruling from a soon-to-retire trial judge in Roane County, Tennessee; but the continued efficacy of that ruling will hinge on what the Sixth Circuit does in a different case. [See also here.])

Ann Althouse speculates that the Court may be waiting for a circuit split. Also, since every federal appellate court that has heard a case post-Windsor has ruled in favor of SSM, the Court “has reason to believe that condition [i.e., a circuit split] will never occur, and it can preserve its political capital by never weighing in on the subject.”

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan H. Adler

Most commentators have assumed the Supreme Court would take one or more of these cases and (perhaps) conclusively determine whether the federal Constitution bars states from refusing to recognize same-sex marriages under state law. Yet all seven cases below had come out the same way. In all seven, lower courts struck down the challenged state laws, so there was no circuit split.

Given the lack of a split, I do not think it is at all surprising that the court denied these petitions. … There are several more cases pending in lower courts, including some in which there are reasons to suspect the states will prevail. If so, the court will have a split to resolve, making a grant a sure thing. If not, and same-sex marriage advocates run the table, the court can avoid resolving the issue.

Adam Liptak, writing in the New York Times, had predicted something like this back in February (emphasis added):

Since June, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to equal treatment in at least some settings, federal judges in Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia have struck down laws barring same-sex marriages. In state legislatures and state courts, too, supporters of same-sex marriage have been winning.

“The pace of change has perhaps outstripped the Supreme Court’s preferences, but the momentum is tremendous,” said Suzanne B. Goldberg, a law professor at Columbia.

Rapid changes in public opinion are also playing a part, said Andrew M. Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern. “It is becoming increasingly clear to judges that if they rule against same-sex marriage their grandchildren will regard them as bigots,” he said.

Still, the justices are often wary of a backlash and might prefer to let the democratic process and lower courts work through contentious social issues before weighing in.

Building on Liptak’s column, Emily Bazelon wrote in May:

What’s amazing is that so far, all the courts have followed the equality move, and the momentum raises a question no one would have dreamed of a year ago: Will gay marriage become the law of the land without the Supreme Court doing anything more?

We’ve arrived here so much faster and more agreeably than anyone could have predicted even a year ago, when the challenges post-Windsor looked like they would split the district courts, take their time wending their way through the appellate process, and maybe arrive back at the Supreme Court in, say, 2017, safely after the next election. Instead, no judge wants to write the opinion denying the benefit of marriage.

Since Liptak and Bazelon published the above pieces, a couple of judges have bucked the trend (see above), but those decisions from trial-level courts are outliers. The momentum is still on the side of the pro-marriage equality forces; the state bans continue to fall, either at the ballot box or in the appellate courts.

Coming back to today: Andrew Sullivan is jubilant, and includes this:

What I also love about this conservative but extraordinary decision from SCOTUS is that it affirms the power of federalism against the alternatives. Marriage equality will not have been prematurely foisted on the country by one single decision; it will have emerged and taken root because it slowly gained democratic legitimacy, from state to state, because the legal and constitutional arguments slowly won in the court of public opinion, and because an experiment in one state, Massachusetts, and then others, helped persuade the sincere skeptics that the consequences were, in fact, the strengthening of families, not their weakening.

Dahlia Lithwick is less impressed. At LGM, Scott Lemieux observes that deciding not to decide is itself a decision.

Meanwhile, Mother Jones has a map of where SSM is legal now, incorporating the immediate results of today’s SCOTUS non-decision decision.

Howard Bashman, at his How Appealing blog, has a roundup of coverage and opinion on the Court’s decision to deny cert.

* To the extent that any explanation is needed to explain why SCOTUS doesn’t grant cert in any particular case, when the annual percentage of cert grants is on the order of 1%.

Image Credit: Photo by Kjetil Ree. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | September 30, 2014

Tuesday Art Blogging: Saint Jerome


Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, St. Jerome Visited by Angels, early 17th Century.

In the Western Churches, September 30 is traditionally the feast day for St. Jerome, the hermit and Biblical scholar.

Jerome is most famous for his Latin translation of the Bible, which remained the dominant and standard translation of the scriptures in Western Christianity for over a millennium after his death in 420. Most artists portray Jerome in his study, a book nearby and usually open in front of him.

Supposedly, Jerome began his translation of the Bible at the urging of Pope Damasus, with whom he corresponded. In subsequent centuries, this relationship became the basis of a belief that Jerome had been a cardinal — even though there is no contemporary basis for this proposition. Thus, he is often portrayed with a cardinal’s hat and/or with the red clothes of a cardinal.


Niccolò Antonio Colantonio, Jerome in his Study, 15th Century.

Joos van Cleve - Der heilige Hieronymus im Gehäus

Joos van Cleve, Jerome in Study, circa 1520-25.

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