Mud Sweat and Tractors; Fossil Wonderlands: Nature’s Hidden Treasures; The Crusades

Mud Sweat and Tractors is a four part series about the changes in farming in Britain over the last century or so. It split it up into four areas – milk, horticulture, wheat and beef – and treated each as a separate story, so each episode seemed quite self-contained. Each time there were two or three farming families chosen who had photographs and video footage stretching back to the 1930s. So they made good case studies and could talk about why they or their Dad or Grandad had made particular decisions at particular points. And the old videos were good for showing what the actual changes were. As well as this there were several social historians or experts in other parts of the farming/food production process who could talk about the wider trends that the individual farmers & their decisions fitted into.

Separating it out like that worked for telling the individual stories, but I think I might’ve like a bit more explicit drawing together of the themes that affected all the areas of farming. I could work some of them out, it just would’ve been nice to see more discussion of it in the actual programmes. Some of the commonalities were that the Second World War, and the aftermath of it, were a turning point – farming had been in decline before that, but during the war food imports were cut off and so increased production was important. After the war there was concern that Britain shouldn’t return to the pre-war situation, so farmers were given financial incentives to stay farming and to increase food production. And a lot of effort put into scientifically improving the breeds and technology used in farming. And the common theme after that is of food production getting too high – too much that wasn’t being eaten – so the subsidies go and it gets much harder for farmers economically. In addition some of the previous good ideas become seen as not such a good thing – things like the increase in chemicals used in horticulture in the post-war era (like DDT). Or things like breeding beef cattle for larger size & less fatty meat, but then it turns out that doesn’t taste so good so you have to compensate and fatten them up a bit.

It was interesting watching this with J. I grew up in a town so it was just history for me, and someone else’s history if that makes sense. But J grew up in a very rural area, right near farms. For a while his family rented a house on a farm, most of the rest of the time they lived in a 10 house village with working farms around them. So a lot of the 70s and 80s footage included things he remembered seeing as a child. I think we watched one bit of it three or four times in the last episode, because it included a hay baler that was exactly the sort he’d been fascinated by as a little boy. It had a robot arm, and somehow hay went in, was moved around by the arm then came out as square bales. Which was kinda fascinating to watch πŸ™‚

In Fossil Wonderlands: Nature’s Hidden Treasures Richard Fortey visited 3 particularly important and rich fossil beds, and talked about what they’d taught us about the evolution of life. One commonality of the three is that they have fossils with the soft body parts preserved, which means we know so much more about the animals than is generally possible from fossils.

First (and most obvious to me) was the Burgess Shale – a section of the Rockies where early multicellular organisms are well preserved. We’d just seen that on the David Attenborough programme we watched recently (post) so this wasn’t new ground for us. Still nice to see tho, particularly as I remember reading about it when I was a teenager. The second episode took us to China and to some new fossil beds there which are re-writing our ideas of how birds evolved and what the differences between dinosaurs and birds actually are. This is because these recently discovered fossils include several feathered dinosaurs. And the last of the three fossil beds was in Germany, with many fossils from early in the explosion of mammalian diversity after the dinosaurs died out. These well preserved fossils include lots of bats (already looking very sophisticated), early horses, and the earliest known primate fossils.

This was an interesting series πŸ™‚ I’m sure I’ve said before that I wanted to be a palaeontologist when I was in my early teens – until I worked out that it would mean lots of being outside grubbing about in the dirt & rocks! So I particularly like seeing these sorts of programmes, and all the cool stuff that’s been discovered since I was reading so much about it.

We also finished watching a series about The Crusades this week. It was presented by Thomas Asbridge, and I’m pretty sure we’ve seen it before – but not during a period when I was blogging about the TV we watch so I can’t be 100% sure (this is one incentive to keep writing up the programmes we see!). Sadly the reason we’re pretty sure we’ve seen it is because the irritations seemed familiar. Some of that was the style – whenever there was a static image (like a painting from a manuscript) they’d tilt it or pan around on it in a particular irritating fashion. And there was a lot of over dramaticness to the script and the way Asbridge presented it. And for all it was billed as “groundbreaking” I didn’t really have any “wow I didn’t know that/remember that” moments (and I don’t think that’s just because I think I’ve seen it before).

It covered the Crusades in three chunks. First the start, and the initial successes (and their attendant brutalities). Next was Richard the Lionheart vs. Saladin. The final episode looked at the Muslim success in driving out the Christians, and at how it was actually the need to fight the encroaching Mongol Empire that drove this and the effects on the Christian Crusader Kingdoms were more of a side-effect.

Overall it was interesting enough to keep watching, but not as interesting as I’d hoped.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears – a look at how the geography of the USA affected the colonisation and history of the Wild West.

Episode 1 of Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

Around the World in 60 Minutes; Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters

Around the World in 60 Minutes was a hybrid of a programme – part “what’s it like to be an astronaut?” and part travelogue. The two strands of the programme were woven together by looking at what you see during one orbit of the International Space Station – which takes 90 minutes to go round the Earth. The travelogue side of it went to about a dozen different places round the world, in the direction of the orbit, and told us something about the place and an interesting stat or two. For instance at Greenwich they talked about the meridian, and how in some sense the charts produced by the British after longitude was formalised were the GPS of their day. There was also a distinct environmental message to the whole programme – for instance they visited Brazil where they talked about the Amazon rainforest and how it’s the lungs of the planet. Brazil has had laws against deforestation for decades, but it’s only since they’ve put up a couple of satellites to keep watch over the forest that they’ve been able to enforce the rules. Now any deforestation can be seen by comparing images and the landowner can be fined. But the rainforest still loses something like 450 acres of forest every orbit of the ISS (I think that number’s right, it was something close to that anyway).

This travelogue stuff was interspersed with footage from the ISS (both inside and out) and interviews with an astronaut who’s been to the ISS. The emphasis here was strongly on how cool it is to go to space although they did mention things like nausea in microgravity being a problem initially, and talked a bit about the difficulties of getting in and out for space walks. But overall it felt a little like a recruiting film in these bits πŸ˜‰ There were also sections about the sorts of scientific experiments that are done in space, like taking viruses up because once they’re returned to earth you can make better vaccines (tho I don’t think I followed why that happened).

It wasn’t quite what I’d expected from the description – I think I was expecting more travelogue and less recruiting for astronauts. It was cool tho, in its own hippy sort of way πŸ™‚

Another quirky one-off programme that we watched last week was Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters. This was presented by Tom Holland, who opened the programme with a description of how much he was fascinated by dinosaurs when he was a small child. It went on from there to look at how a variety of different cultures have interpreted the fossilised bones they discover – what they made of dinosaur bones.

His main theme was that even though we now know most of the stories are wrong, they’re still attempts to explain these bones and most have some element of truth (or at least you can see where they came from). For instance there are myths from Native American societies that live on the Great Plains that talk of huge birds with teeth and sea snakes with feet that lived a long time ago in a different age of the world when there was water over the land. And if you look at the fossils you find in the area then you can see that once it was a shallow sea (lots of sea creatures), with pterodactyls and aquatic dinosaurs.

He didn’t just stick to dinosaur bones – several Greek myths might have come from discoveries of large mammal fossils. He suggested that elephant skulls look a bit like one-eyed monsters, because of the gap in the skull for the trunk which might look like an eye socket. Back before the Greeks knew what an elephant was perhaps they told stories of the cyclops to explain these bones. But the most striking Greek one was his suggestion for where griffins originate. There aren’t any dinosaur fossils in Greek territory, but if you go out along the silk routes towards China, then there are fossils in the Gobi desert of dinosaurs – they are beaked, and have four legs (with claws) and even nests of fossilised eggs. Stories about these bones could easily have been the original travellers’ tales about griffins.

As well as these older myths Holland also talked about the first more scientific attempts to figure out what dinosaur bones were. He visited Crystal Palace and looked at the dinosaur reconstructions there – which to modern eyes look ludicrously wrong, with their heavyset clumsy looking frames. And he did note that there are still many things we don’t actually know and are still just extrapolating according to our own prejudices.

This was a fun programme, it covered quite a lot of ground and all with a sense of humour. Although it did at times get a bit too carried away with itself (lots of “surely it must’ve been based on this!!”) but mostly it stayed the right side of the line, and anyway it wasn’t taking itself too seriously.

Other programmes watched this week:

Episode 2 and episode 3 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

Episode 2 of Unnatural Histories – series about human influence on areas of the world that we traditionally think of as “untamed nature”.

Viking Art: A Culture Show Special – programme about the current British Museum exhibition, tho the programme concentrated more on Britain than the exhibition does.

Monday Link Salad

This week I start my next Future Learn course – Shakespeare and His World.

I’m starting to quite look forward to Evolve (the new game from the guys who did the original L4D) … hopefully it doesn’t disappoint when it finally gets here πŸ™‚

The Writ of Years is a delightfully creepy fairytale-esque short story.

I’m catching up (slowly, slowly) with reading at – Jo Walton’s post on if there’s a right age to read particular books caught my eye. I’m in agreement with Walton, I think. Even though I re-read less these days than I did as a kid, it’s odd to think that reading a book “too early” would do anything but mean you missed a bunch of stuff that you’d notice on a future read through (or fail to comprehend it entirely but understand it later).

More book stuff: I’ve set myself up an account on WWEnd which curates a list of authors & books who’ve won SFF awards or been on “must read” type lists. You can set what you’ve read and it gives you stats (like I’ve read 47% of all Hugo award winning books), they also encourage people to rate & review books. I’m about halfway through their list of authors marking what I’ve read that I remember (although only rating stuff I’ve read recently). (I was going to link to my account, but I can’t seem to find a way to directly link to it, oh well.)

Mass groups of whale fossils found in Chile – probably the result of at least four different mass strandings caused by a group of whales eating toxic algae then their dead bodies being washed up on shore.

10 Facts about Ichneumonidae describes these parasitic wasps near the start of the article as “think chestburster from Alien, but for insects.”.

Less creepily here’s 37 photos from history ranging from the moving to the “wtf?” (particularly the baby cage for ensuring your infant offspring get sufficient sunlight and fresh air if you live in an apartment block). Thanks to J for that link πŸ™‚

I think I’ve seen this before, but it’s pretty striking – due to different streetlight lightbulbs you can still see the East/West divide in Berlin.

The only new TV programme I’m setting to record this week is When Albums Ruled the World next Monday – but the BBC’s schedule page was a little broken this morning and I’ve not been able to look at what’s showing on Saturday & Sunday.

Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve; Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures

Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve was a three part series that was partly a travelogue and partly about the history of Christian pilgrimage across Europe and the Holy Land from medieval times through to the modern day. Reeve made it pretty clear several times that he’s not a Christian himself, so this was an outsider’s view on the subject. He did, however, talk to several people who do pilgrimages for religious purposes today, so we got both sides of the subject represented. The first episode started in Lindisfarne and made its way down to Canterbury and mostly talked about medieval experience of pilgrimage. Then the second episode went through France and Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, and then across the alps to Rome. The third episode went from Istanbul to Jerusalem (via Bethlehem).

Reeve seemed focussed primarily on the question of what people get out of pilgrimage. His conclusions were that as well as the visiting of spiritually significant sites the journey itself has spiritual benefits for the people who do pilgrimages. They have a time to step outside of their daily lives and reflect on how they’re living and what they’re doing with their lives. Be that in a religious sense or a purely spiritual sense, various of the modern pilgrims he talked to weren’t people who called themselves Christian.

It wouldn’t be a Simon Reeve programme if it didn’t also look at the less uplifting parts of the subject! In the last episode there he was travelling through the West Bank (as one has to, if one’s visiting Bethlehem), and took the opportunity to contrast the modern political situation with the spiritual significance of the region to so many people. Another example was his visit to a very modern cult centre – the town where Padre Pio lived, who died in 1968. This has a massive new cathedral, a TV station of it’s own (run by monks), lots of fancy hotels in the town for all the touristspilgrims. And various rumours of how he kept his stigmata open during life by the judicious application of carbolic acid … He was canonised, but Reeve implied that was more an attempt by the Vatican to keep it in house so’s to speak. The cult was growing up anyway, so he was officially made a saint.

An interesting series πŸ™‚ And in a piece of serendipity the first episode overlapped in subject matter with the end of Neil Oliver’s recent series about Sacred Wonders of Britain that we’d just finished watching (post). The second episode had some overlap with the second episode of Waldemar Januszczak’s series about Baroque art which we’re also watching at the moment. The three presenters have very different styles so it was interesting to get the various perspectives all so quickly together!

The other series we finished watching this week was Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures – a three part series about species that didn’t die out in mass extinction events presented by Richard Fortey. Each episode covered a different extinction event, and Fortey tracked down 10 species that survived it through to modern times. The first one was about the Great Dying (which occurred 252 million years ago) which is the most significant extinction even with the greatest die-off of species. For this one he looked at things like horseshoe crabs, sea cucumbers and lampreys. The second covered the KT boundary – i.e. death of the dinosaurs, so had an emphasis on birds, mammals and crocodiles. And the third one looked at the Ice Age and at the cold adapted species that made it through to our own times.

This was definitely more my sort of thing than J’s. I thought it managed to combine a bit of geology, a bit of evolutionary biology and a bit of modern day travelogue into an interesting whole (even tho I think I knew of most of it before, it’s nice to actually see things sometimes). Fortey was an engaging presenter, who was also pretty entertaining as he tried to handle live specimens with varying degrees of success and comfort. I had a great deal of sympathy with that as someone who’s significantly worse at handling live animals than he was yet is still a biologist πŸ™‚ Oh, and it also had a running theme of Fortey eating some of these survivors & telling us how they taste, which was a slightly odd (but fun) addition.

Other TV watched this week:

The Coffee Trail with Simon Reeve – one-off programme about coffee growing in Vietnam. Vietnam is the main supplier of coffee for the instant coffee trade, and it’s as exploitative a trade as you’d expect. The regime in Vietnam isn’t particularly nice either.

Episode 2 of Baroque! From St Peter’s to St Paul’s – gloriously over the top series about Baroque art and architecture, presented by Waldemar Januszczak.

Episode 1 of The Stuarts – a series about the Stuart Kings of England & Scotland, presented by Clare Jackson, and about how they shaped the United Kingdom and how they were shaped by it. Broadcast on the Scottish version of BBC2 only.

Nigel Slater’s Great British Biscuit – a similar programme to Slater’s previous one on sweets (post), part nostalgia, part history of biscuits. Lots of “oh I remember those” moments πŸ™‚

Greek Myths: Tales of Travelling Heroes – programme presented by Robin Lane Fox about the early Greek myths about the origins of their gods. Also looking at the links between the mythological stories and the landscape the Greeks knew, and also the links to Hittite mythology. We both had quite a lot of deja vu watching it, and figured out eventually that we’d watched it before about 3 years ago and had just forgotten (brief post on my livejournal). Interesting & worth watching, even for a second time πŸ™‚

Treasures of Ancient Egypt (Ep 2); Strange Days: Cold War Britain; Rise of the Continents

The second episode of Alastair Sooke’s series about the art of Ancient Egypt covered the Middle Kingdom (briefly) and most of the New Kingdom. He only picked a couple of objects from the Middle Kingdom – both from Senusret III’s reign. He gave the impression that this is because the New Kingdom was the Golden Age, which is true in some ways, but the Egyptians themselves looked back at the Middle Kingdom as their “classical age” where art and culture first achieved great heights. I think it’s a shame he didn’t make it more clear the reason it gets short-shrift in programmes like these is because not as much survives for one reason or another. Often because sites were re-used or updated by New Kingdom Egyptians wanting the association with past glories.

The other eight treasures on the programme were from the New Kingdom between the reigns of Hatshepsut and Tutankhamun. As well as looking at some of the iconic art from her reign he spent some time talking about the iconography of Hatshepsut as Pharaoh. Pharaohs are male, so Hatshepsut was represented with all the male accoutrements and a masculine body in her official art works. One thing I hadn’t realised before (or had forgotten) is that it was during Hatshepsut’s time that the term Pharaoh actually started to be used – it translates to “the palace” so it’s the equivalent of talking about the White House doing X or Y in the USA (and surprisingly the example Sooke used was Brits talking about the Crown which I don’t even think is the best of the possible UK equivalents – No. 10 would be better).

There was obviously some considerable discussion of the new art style that Akhenaten brought with him when he changed the state religion. Both in terms of the slightly bizarre body shapes of the earliest stuff, and the new informal poses and domestic scenes on official art works. Which does give a very different impression of the royal family of that time, even as I remind myself it’s propaganda first & foremost. Obviously the bust of Nefertiti featured in this section, you can’t really miss it out. But the item from around that era (just before it) that struck me most was the little glass fish, that’s now in Berlin. I’ve seen it before & it’s a lovely piece, but what made it the highlight of this programme for me was that they showed us how it was made. I’ve read about how these glass objects were made before but it’s different actually watching it happen. And as always I’m somewhat in awe of what people were able to do before the advent of modern technology.

Obviously the programme ended with Tutankhamun’s mask – another iconic piece you can’t miss out, which also illustrates how what we have to admire depends so much on chance. The next episode covers the rest of Egyptian culture up to Cleopatra, quite a wide range. There’ve been a few clips of the temple at Abu Simbel, so presumably that’ll feature πŸ™‚

This week we finished watching Dominic Sandbrook’s series about the Cold War – Strange Days: Cold War Britain. This three part series looked at British history from 1946 through to 1989 through the lens of how the Cold War affected politics and culture. So part of the series was Sandbrook telling us about the major events of the Cold War, and giving some indication what life was like on the other side, to give us context for the effects on Britain. And the other part was looking at events in Britain from a perspective we don’t always think of. Some stuff was obvious when you thought about it – like the popularity of James Bond films tying in to revelations about Russian spies in the UK. And the John le CarrΓ© novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as the much less glamorous and more cynical take on the same thing. Other things less so – consumerism being a part of how we differentiated “us” from “them” makes sense when I think about it, but I’d never’ve thought of how capitalism was in some ways kept in check by a desire to prove it was better than the alternatives. Which made more sense when Sandbrook talked about it than I have quite managed to articulate here!

The threat of nuclear war and how that shaped our culture was one of the strands running through the programmes, and the various attempts government made to prepare people for this. Sandbrook highlighted several times the contrast between the almost optimistic government handbooks which aimed not to panic people (even if this backfired at times) and the bleak films and TV serieses which were closer to what the reality might be. He showed us clips from The War Game (a 60s film that wasn’t shown on TV for about 20 years) which was a meticulously researched documentary, and Threads (an 80s film) which was more overtly fictional. Both grim enough even in excerpt that I know I don’t want to watch them in full. In the third programme Sandbrook also mentioned a book he’d read for class when he was 10 (I looked him up on wikipedia, he’s a couple of months younger than me) – as he started to talk about it I knew exactly which book he meant before the reveal. It was “Brother in the Land” by Robert Swindells, which I’ve read. Once. I’ve dipped into it occasionally since, and it’s still on my shelves, because I remember it as a good, well written book. But I’ve never re-read it cover to cover, despite my love of post-apocalypic novels. It’s just an extremely grim and depressing and unrelentingly bleak tale of the first months after a nuclear war. I read it at about 13 or 14, a few years after it was published, and it’s stuck with me since then – it must’ve been pretty traumatising to read at the age of 10 particularly when you had to think about it for school rather than stick your head in the sand (I’ve always adopted the ostrich approach to the idea of The End of the World As We Know It catastrophes).

Anyway, that was a bit of a digression. I liked this series, in particular I thought they did a good job of mixing archival footage with new stuff seamlessly switching between the two in a way that made the old stuff seem more immediately relevant. I even liked the somewhat overblown style, but I think J found the sweeping generalised claims made at times a little irritating.

We also finished another series this week – Rise of the Continents – which I really enjoyed so I wanted to say a few words about it even though this post is already quite long! This was a series about plate tectonics and the geological history of the earth, presented by Iain Stewart. Each week Stewart looked at a different continent (Africa, Australia, the Americas and Eurasia) and followed the geological story of the continent after it split from Pangea (the supercontinent that existed when the dinosaurs roamed the earth). He showed us the evidence that tells us about this geological story, and he also showed the impact that geology has had on both evolution and on human history. He’s a geologist so was strongest on that subject, pretty good on palaeontology but said a couple of dubious historical things we noticed (but otherwise was OK on that). Basically what you’d expect as he got further from his actual area of expertise. He was also a charmingly enthusiastic presenter.

One reason I enjoyed it so much is because I think the idea of plate tectonics is inherently cool. The earth not being static but consisting of vast sheets of crust all moving around and crashing into each other is awesome. It’s also an area I don’t know much about – I think the last time I read a book on it was in the 80s, when the science was still fairly new. So there were all sorts of things I didn’t know, and most of them were in the “neat facts” category. Like did you know that as India travelled on its way to crashing into Eurasia it moved over a magma plume, which turned a big chunk of it into a zone of volcanoes. This thinned the land so India started to move quicker. But also while it sat over this region for a few hundred thousand years the amount of volcanic eruption dumped toxins in the oceans and changed the climate – so this is thought to have contributed to the decline of the dinosaurs (before an asteroid finished them off). Or did you know the silver mines in South America exist because of subduction of the Pacific Ocean floor carries water down under the land. I can’t quite remember how Stewart said this then lead to the silver deposits, but the very idea of water being carried down under the crust is one I’d not thought of before (and it’s kinda cool as a concept).

I think J didn’t like the visual effects on the programme much – there were quite a few transitions where they used a jumble of still shots and mixed up audio before Stewart explained something. It didn’t bother me as much though.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Sacred Wonders of Britain – Neil Oliver visits several sacred sites in Britain dating from prehistoric times through to the Reformation.

Episode 2 of The Brain: A Secret History – Michael Mosley series about brains, minds and experimental psychology. We never managed to record episode 1 but we decided to watch the other two anyway.

Episode 6 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Shakespeare, Evolutionary Vertebrates, Greek Drama & Jewish History

The Wonder of Dogs

More about dogs – this episode concentrated on their senses & intelligence. This included demonstrations of how good their hearing, smell & eyesight is (in particular that a dog’s field of view is much wider than a human’s). They also talked about the sorts of behaviours that dogs have been bred for – using gun dogs as the primary example. The desired behaviour has changed over time, as gun tech & hunting styles changed. So at first it was pointers (who found and pointed to the game) then spaniels (to bounce around and flush the game out) and finally retrievers like labradors (to bring the game back to the hunter). And they demonstrated how training is needed as well as the innate behaviour using one of Kate Humble’s dogs – who is a herding breed, but who wasn’t a very useful sheepdog after only one lesson (although very enthusiastic).

They also had a bit on how intelligent dogs are, including a German group who are studying dog intelligence by getting them to push pictures to get treats. They’re offered a choice of a dog picture & a landscape picture each time, and they learn that dog pictures get treats. Which is quite an abstract level of thought – it’s not one dog v. one landscape, it’s a variety of pictures of a variety of scenes & dogs. I wanted to know if dogs could tell the difference between, say, cats & dogs for getting treats.

Shakespeare in Italy

This is a two part series about Shakespeare’s connections with Italy that we’ve had on the PVR for ages. It’s languished there in part because I find the presenter, Francesco da Mosto, irritating (irrational on my part, I’m sure, his style just sets my teeth on edge). But despite that it was still interesting enough to watch the second part.

This episode was about Shakespeare using Italian places (and stories) to tell stories about love. The plays he talked about were Taming of the Shrew (marriage for money not love), Romeo & Juliet (obviously, tragic love), Much Ado About Nothing (rom com) and Othello (love turned to jealousy). Along the way he visited various places mentioned in the plays, and talked about the Italian stories they were based on. He also discussed how Shakespeare might’ve visited Italy – there’s no record of him doing so but there’s also 7 years where he’s missing from any records. So perhaps. Of note, tho, is that the British Museum Shakespeare exhibition that we went to last year (post) was sure that Shakespeare didn’t visit Italy but instead talked to people who had. And there was also a somewhat nutty theory put forward by a town in Sicily that Shakespeare was actually Sicilian – some playwright or poet whose name translates to Shake Spear who goes to London. I’m not sure if or how they tried to reconcile this with the Shakespeare who exists in records prior to this Italian’s arrival …

The second part was looking at how Shakespeare set plays in Italy to give himself a layer of plausible deniability when writing about politically sensitive subjects. So he talked about The Merchant of Venice as being (among other things) about law & the rule of law. And Julius Caesar, set not just in Rome but in long ago Rome, is a commentary on tyrants and if it’s ever justified to assassinate them – a particularly touchy subject at the time, as there were many assassination attempts on Queen Elizabeth and the England of the time was very repressive. Italy was also the country of the future – da Mosto made much of how the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy but England was lagging behind. Anthony & Cleopatra was an example of a play where Shakespeare was exploring new ideas to come out of Italy – in this case how a ruler should act and da Mosto said it owed much to Machiavelli. The final play he talked about was The Tempest – based in part on a well known alchemist or sorcerer in Naples at around that time. Again a touchy subject – James I was paranoid about witchcraft – but it was also the way of the future (in that alchemy leads to science in a while).

I’m a bit conflicted about this series – it was an interesting subject, but I still found the presenter irritating.

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

This is a new two part David Attenborough series, all about the evolution of vertebrates. The first part, From the Seas to the Skies, covered the first vertebrates and the major developments leading to the evolution of fish, amphibians, reptiles (including dinosaurs) & birds. It was a rather good mix of fossils, modern animals and cgi reconstructions of ancient animals. I was particularly fond of the tiktaalik taking it’s first waddly steps across the land. The gliding feathered dinosaurs were also neat. I don’t think I learnt anything new in terms of concepts or the overall story, but there were several new details – like the tiktaalik as the first animal to get onto land (I’m sure I learnt about lungfish escaping predators in the past), or the Chinese fossil beds that pre-date the Burgess Shale ones that I knew about (and contain the first known chordate, ancestor of modern vertebrates).

If I’ve got one quibble is that the language used emphasises progress too much. I’m probably over-sensitive to this, tho. But I do think it’s important that there’s no inevitability about the evolution of any species or group, and that there’s no progress – modern lampreys aren’t “primitive” for instance, they’re well suited to the places they live. Lacking most of the features we think of as common to the vertebrates (like jaws, fins or limbs) doesn’t make them worse it just makes them different. But it’s very hard to avoid because when talking about these things it’s easiest and clearest to tell a story, which leads to language that implies progression and purpose. So in this programme Attenborough talks about problems needing to be solved before vertebrates could move onto the land. Which makes me wince because there wasn’t any working towards a goal involved.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

This is a recent series from Michael Scott, about the development of drama & theatre in Ancient Greece. The first episode looked at how the development of drama as an artform is intertwined with the development of democracy. Both have their roots in Athens, in the 5th & 6th Centuries BC and at the smaller local level debates & plays would even happen in the same assembly spaces. Greeks had three sorts of plays, two of which we still have. These were tragedy, comedy & satyr plays – the last were bawdy, farcical plays which were used as a sort of palate cleanser after a cycle of tragedies. Tragedies in a modern sense are stories with a sad ending, but Scott said Greek ones were more about posing questions about situations. One of the experts he spoke to characterised tragedies as setting up problems caused by bad luck or bad decisions, and suggesting how they might be dealt with while getting the audience to think about what would they do in this or similar situations. Plays were often based on myths, but the stories told were topical and relevant to recent politics domestically & abroad. And the audience for the plays would be the same men who would then vote on how Athens was run & how it reacted to events. Scott was saying that this close link between the subjects of plays and the real life decisions that were being made meant that plays can be seen as educating the Athenians about democracy and as a part of how democracy evolved. Comedies were also important in this process – they weren’t just funny stories, they were generally pointedly aimed at particular political figures. Who would be right there watching thinly veiled versions of themselves be publicly mocked. Scott said this was part of how the boundaries on what was & wasn’t appropriate behaviour were enforced.

The Story of the Jews

The last episode of Simon Schama’s series about Jewish history looked at the formation & history of the modern state of Israel. He started with the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish refugees during & after that horror. He talked about how even those fighting against Germany in the war were not willing to do much for the Jews – lots of sympathetic noises not much if any actual support. And how this led to more Zionism in the Jewish population – if no-one else will aid you or want you, then you are even more in need of a homeland of your own. And then Schama moved back to trace the steps towards the formation of the modern Israel – starting with the Zionist movement in the early 20th Century getting the British Empire on board with granting the Jews a homeland within Palestine. Apparently in the early days post WWI there were even some glimmers of hope that a future Israel and the existing Arab nations might co-exist in some form of peace. Sadly, as we now know, this was not to be – the influx of Jews post-WWII being a contributing factor, with the British Empire’s poor handling of the situation pre & post war also being important. (Promising the same real estate to two groups of people as “their own nation” isn’t ever going to end well …). Schama then discussed the history of Israel since independence, and how over time (and after two wars, more persecution of Jews in Arab nations & violence and terrorist attacks on Israelis in Israel) the politics & sentiment inside Israel has calcified into hatred & mistrust of Arabs. Schama talked to someone involved in the Settler movement, who was disturbing in his starry-eyed rhetoric about how the Jews were entitled to the land up to the biblical borders by God given right. And Schama visited the wall built to keep the Palestinians out of Israel, or at least only allow them through under strict observation.

I found this series thought provoking & well worth watching, although frequently grimly depressing. As well as the subject matter itself it was an interesting reminder that so much of the stuff we watch is from our own perspective – this very much wasn’t, it was Simon Schama’s take on Jewish history from the perspective of a member of the culture whose history it was.

Ice Age Giants; Australia with Simon Reeve; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The last episode of Ice Age Giants looked at why there are none of these large animals left. The first half of the programme concentrated on North America where there were the greatest proportion of extinctions. Roberts started by talking about the idea that it was people – we were treated to a proper true crime documentary moment where the voiceover was all “but beneath the peaceful streets of this Tennessee town lies a dark secret” etc etc. And saw how there is an excavation pretty much in someone’s back garden – of mastodon bones that look to have been hunted & butchered by humans. So was it people? Roberts pointed out the problems with that theory – not many people in North America at the time, lots of megafauna, and a few thousand years of overlap of people & megafauna.

So what else? How about the floods that created the coulees (also known as the Channeled Scablands) in Washington (the state). These features of the landscape are vast vast canyons that have been scoured out of the rock, but there’s no sign of a river. The theory to explain what caused them is that as the glaciers melted a great lake of meltwater was formed in Montana which is known as Glacial Lake Missoula, this was penned in by a dam formed by the melting glaciers. When it broke through it did so catastrophically and the water rushed to the west of the continent carving its way through the rock as it went. This happened several times as the glaciers advanced & retreated, I think she was saying a couple of hundred times over just a few thousand years. This would’ve killed anything in it’s path (and created what still looks like a blasted landscape today). But that can’t’ve killed all the animals, it would just’ve got the ones in its path.

How about climate change? This isn’t a case of it just getting a bit warmer all over – the melting of the ice sheets released more water into the rainfall systems, so the world got wetter as well as warmer. Still not quite that simple, the swamps that the glyptodonts lived in dried up & became desert because the rainfall moved north as the ice sheets retreated and the more southern regions warmed up. Roberts now skipped across to Europe and the woolly mammoths & woolly rhinoceroses of the Mammoth Steppe. These enormous herbivores relied on the dry grasslands to provide them with sufficient food all year round. As the world warmed up, and got wetter, forests grew where there had just been grassy plains. And it started to snow in the winters on the Mammoth Steppe. Woolly rhinos couldn’t cope with that – snow covers the grass and makes it harder to find, it’s also hard to walk through so you need more energy to move around and so more food. So that’s what killed off the woolly rhinos – an Ice Age Giant killed by it snowing too much, not at all what you’d expect.

And now we circled back to the mastodons of North America. There is research being done on fungal spores in soil that can indicate how many herbivores have left their dung on the land – if you look at soil from the past you can estimate herd sizes (or at least changes in herd sizes) over time. And these show that the large herds of mastodons & other herbivores died out before the climate change changed the vegetation (which you can tell by looking at seeds & pollen in the same soil samples). So probably not climate change as the whole story here. Roberts then talked to a palaeontologist who thinks he has an answer for the mastodon extinction. He has looked at the types of injuries on female mastodon specimens, and also looked at the types of mastodon that show signs of butchering. In modern elephants (which are close cousins of the mastodons) preferential hunting of mature adult males destabilises the herd structure. Normally a dominant male swoops in to a female plus offspring herd when the females go into heat and mates with the females. He also suppresses the behaviour of the adolescent males. When there is no dominant male, the younger males that still live in the female herd will go on a rampage when the females come into heat – and can injure females & calves (and each other) in the process. This palaeontologist thinks he sees evidence of this happening to the mastodons, so it was people that caused their extinction but in a very slow process caused by preferentially hunting solitary adult males which they wouldn’t’ve been able to see happening.

Last up for extinction were the woolly mammoths – which survived on a remote island north of Sibera until around 2000BC (when people arrived on the island). Apparently from the evidence on this island the mammoths were becoming dwarf mammoths … by mammoth standards anyway. Roberts talked a little bit here about the potential cloning of mammoths that is now becoming possible due to the extraction of DNA from very well preserved frozen specimens.

And Roberts ended the programme with a romantic notion of how we’ve also saved some of these Ice Age Giants – like horses. They became extinct in America, their ancestral home, but survived across Europe & Asia and were then domesticated. She was talking about it as a beautiful partnership, but I’m afraid I was amused by it rather than moved by it πŸ˜‰

Anyway, I greatly enjoyed the series. The CGI wasn’t perfect (something always looked a little off about the way the animals moved, and there was a lot of repetition of sequences that made it a bit too obvious it was generated) but it was good. And the science was presented in an un-sensationalised way – lots of “we think” or “this is a possible explanation” rather than grand solutions to mysteries.

Having finished watching Brazil with Michael Palin (post) we started to watch another travelogue we had been recording – Australia with Simon Reeve. We’re both pretty sure we’ve seen Simon Reeve present another programme in the past, but neither of us can quite remember what it was.

In the first episode of this series he started in central Australia then headed south to the coast followed by west to Perth. In central Australia he focused on an animal you don’t expect to be the subject of a programme on Australia – the camel. Camels were brought to the country as a means of transport, being well suited to the desert conditions in the centre. With the advent of cars they weren’t needed any more & were released to the wild where they now roam freely. Unsurprisingly they cause a lot of damage to the ecosystem and to the farms in the region & so they are regarded as pests. Some farmers just shoot them when seen, but Reeve talked to one farmer who was rounding them up and selling them back to the Middle East for food & for racing.

Next Reeve went to visit a winery – a vast commercial winery with gallons & gallons & gallons of wine in big tanks, supplying relatively cheap wine to supermarkets across the world (this was owned by Hardys). This segued neatly in to a segment about how water is a limited resource & it’s being over used in Australia as a whole. Reeve then visited another limited resource – tuna, which is being overfished in the seas near the Australian south coast. He visited a facility where they’re trying to breed tuna in captivity, which involves conning the tuna into thinking they’ve migrated by changing the lighting and so on as it would change if they really were migrating.

From there to resources that are booming – he visited an area which has a modern day gold rush & talked to some weekend hobbiest prospectors, and also visited a huge commercial mine. Next, Reeve visited a village where an aboriginal community lives having been moved off their land when the mining companies discovered resources underneath it. They haven’t been compensated for the loss of the land, nor have they earnt anything from the metals being dug up from under what they still regard as their land. Reeve said that the situation is complicated & the government is trying to help, but the aborigines are still living in third world conditions.

From there he went to the other end of the spectrum – he took a train to Perth where he visited some British ex-pats who are living the dream. The man he spoke to had been a bin man in Sheffield, he’s now teaching people to drive trucks so they can work for the mining companies. His pupils earn more than he does, but he earns about Β£60k and has a big house with a pool etc, just what he came out to Australia for. And the episode finished up with Reeve visiting an airport where “fifo” commuters fly from – that’s “fly in fly out”, the commuters work in the mines (doing things like driving trucks for lots of money) and live in Perth getting back & forth by plane.

The second episode covered the north of Australia, which is particularly sparsely occupied. He started out in a national park (Kakadu) helping to trap & cull cane toads. These are a non-native species that was introduced to eat beetles that were pests … they didn’t eat the beetles, and being poisonous & non-native they have no predators amongst the native animals. So they’ve spread & are killing off the wildlife in the park which dies trying to eat the toads. The cull seemed a bit like it would just make the people doing it feel like they were trying – if there’s millions of toads then catching & killing a couple of bin bags full won’t do much good.

Moving towards the east Reeve visited the Australian army, first one of their tank regiments then he spent a bit of time on patrol with a unit doing observation in the outback. This segment reminded us that Australia is actually right next to Asia, rather than being a stray bit of Europe stuck in a southern ocean. In the bit with the patrol they talked about how the unit was mixed race & that this didn’t cause problems in a way that made it sound like that was an unusual situation. They also talked about how the aboriginal members of the team were vital in teaching everyone how to live off the land – they made green ant tea for Reeve, which apparently was quite nice … not sure I’d’ve been keen to drink it. The follow up to this section was a visit to an asylum centre, Australian law is that asylum seekers must live in these detention centres while their application is processed which can take months or years. Reeve spoke to activists on the behalf of these immigrants who say that conditions in the centres aren’t good – lots of the inhabitants self-harm or commit suicide. Reeve spoke through the fence to some of the inhabitants, who’d come from the sorts of places you’d expect – Iraq, Afghanistan etc.

From there we moved on to the slightly more cheerful subject of another aboriginal village which owns resource rich land. Whilst it looked as depressing as the place in the first episode the ray of hope here is a young woman who has set up her own company with the long term plan of the village itself doing the mining on the land closest to them. At the moment she rents 4 bulldozers out to the company who’re doing the mining, which I got the impression was proof of concept.

And the programme finished with another couple of segments looking at the natural world – first Reeve joined some scientists who were taking samples of the stinging tentacles from box jellyfish. These jellyfish are extremely poisonous, and live in shark & crocodile infested waters. From the way the scientists were acting (and not letting Reeve do much but observe) they weren’t exaggerating the dangers. The venom from the stings is useful for drug research – there’s a lot of complex biochemistry involved that does things like target the actual poison to particular areas of the body and other stuff like that. So understanding it might help make better more effective drugs.

Last up was the Great Barrier Reef. Changes in the water (due to increased use of fertilisers etc on land) have lead to destabilisation of the ecosystem there, and Reeve was shown how people are culling the starfish that are killing off the coral. He also joined a ship pilot who guides coal ships through the reef – there’s not much room to spare & it’s a dangerous task, but the wealth generated by the coal industry means that they are still permitted to run their ships through the area.

In our quest to free up some space on the PVR we’re watching all the programmes we have recorded in HD first – and only recording new stuff in SD. Just before that decision we started to record TOWN with Nicholas Crane in HD so it’s come up to be watched a little quicker after airing than I think we might’ve got round to it otherwise. It wasn’t quite what we expected, guess I didn’t read the description that closely when I set it recording. Instead of being about towns as a general thing each episode is about a particular town.

The first episode is about Oban, a town on the west coast of Scotland that’s where you go if you want to get a ferry to the Western Isles. And the main theme of the programme was that that isn’t all there is to Oban, that the town is itself a worthwhile place to visit.

Oban wasn’t a town until comparatively recently so his talk about the history of the place started off with nearby Castle Dunollie which was the seat of the Chief of Clan MacDougall until 1746 when the Clan Chief moved to a new house nearby. Surprisingly “Battle of Culloden” and “Jacobite Uprising” weren’t mentioned during Crane’s discussion of this. I had a little poke around on wikipedia and it seems like the 1746 move was a coincidence as the MacDougall Clan Chief wasn’t involved in that Jacobite Uprising, but I’d’ve thought that was worth mentioning on the programme just to say it wasn’t involved. Oban became a town after this – the first industry in the town was tobacco but this collapsed once the ship that brought the tobacco over from Virginia sank. After that the primary industry in the town was whisky, Crane visited the distillery which is still making whisky today. In the 19th Century Oban was finally linked by road & rail to the rest of the country. It was a tourist destination, partly due to the links with the Western Isles but people did visit the town itself. Queen Victoria was one of those tourists. After that it fell into decline & most people who visit aren’t stopping, just moving on to the ferry. One more recent bit of history is that Oban was where the first transatlantic telephone line ran to, and this was an important link between Washington D.C. & Moscow during the Cold War.

In terms of the modern town Crane spent a bit of time looking at the major employers in the area. Oban is the hub of the postal service for the Western Isles, and everything there has to be run like clockwork to match up with the ferry services. Another major employer is the granite quarrying operation a bit north of Oban – all the people who work there commute by ferry because there are no road links to the quarry. Crane also visited a few of the cultural offerings of Oban. He met a local painter who paints a lot of the landscapes around the area. He also visited a cΓ¨ilidh bar where there is a traditional band & traditional dancing. And he also ate at a gourmet restaurant which is on the harbour so that the fish & shellfish are very very fresh.

Ice Age Giants; Brazil with Michael Palin; Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach

The second episode of Ice Age Giants was about the large mammals in Europe during the Ice Age. Roberts started by visiting Transylvania where there is a cave that contains fossil cave bears. The caves also have patches of the walls that have been worn smooth by the bears passing through the caves. These bears were larger than grizzly bears, and were vegetarians. As with modern bears they hibernated, and the animals found in the caves are mostly those that didn’t make it through the winter. But the cave bear specialist showing Roberts these also showed her two that seem to’ve slipped down a steep slope in the cave & failed to make their way out – there are scratch marks in the mud on the cave walls that look like the two bears, an adult & a cub, failing to scramble back up.

Also found in this cave is a cave lion skull. These were one of the top predators of the European continent and mostly ate medium size herbivores like deer. But it seems this one, through desperation or foolishness, had tried to sneak up on a hibernating bear and found it still awake. They had done a CGI fight between the bear & the lion which looked very impressive but not quite real enough. The lion’s skull showed signs of damage from teeth which is why it was thought to have died in a fight.

Cave bears were common early in the ice age, but became rarer as the temperature got colder and eventually became extinct at the beginning of the last glacial maximum. But some animals thrived in the colder weather and the first of these that Roberts talked about was the Woolly Rhinoceros. These animals looked exactly as you’d expect – a rhino with wool, with a bigger horn than a modern rhino. A well preserved one has been found near a remote town in Siberia so they know what the wool looked like as well as the skeleton. Preserved woolly mammoths have also been found in this area, including a baby one that I’m pretty sure we’ve seen before in another Alice Roberts programme.

Both the rhinos and the mammoths were herbivores, and ranged over a wide area from England to Canada – due to how much water was locked up in ice at the time Britain was linked to the continent via a land bridge, and Alaska & Russia were also linked. You’d think that during the ice age herbivores would have problems in the winter due to snow, but actually there was little snow across this area again due to the amount of water locked up in ice sheets. The Mammoth Steppe, as it is called, was an open grassland with lots of flowering plants. This is known from work done in Canada examining the contents of fossilised ground squirrel nests. The squirrels hibernated and stocked their nests with food for the spring before they slept. The nests of ones that failed to make it through the winter obviously still have their spring food store in them when they are excavated and this lets scientists see what seeds and fruits were around at this time.

The last animal discussed were human species. Starting with Neanderthals who are known to’ve killed & butchered mammoths. The expert Roberts talked to thought that they probably did this by herding one down a dead-end gorge and then flinging rocks down from above to kill it. The CGI for this bit was a little less than convincing, which was a shame. The other human species at this time was our own one, and Roberts looked at evidence that they used the mammoths for more than just food. It’s though that they built houses from mammoth tusks (as the tent poles) with hides stretched over them for a roof. Roberts also looked at a piece of carved ivory, in the shape of a bison, from this time.

In the third episode of Brazil with Michael Palin he travelled through the south east of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro. First up was an old gold mine and a current iron mine – this region is a source of a lot of Brazil’s mineral wealth. The gold was mostly mined on behalf of the British (I almost said “by the British” but that’s very much not true). There was a brief stop off at a couple of places, one of which was a farm where a man had a cow with 5 legs and two digestive systems, which was actually mostly to show us how the rural poor lived I think.

Then on to Rio de Janeiro where the rest of the programme was set. Palin didn’t just visit the rich bits of the city but also the poorer areas. The Brazilian government is making a huge effort to clear up these areas and drive the drug lords out and drag the communities into the 21st Century before the World Cup and the Olympics. First armed troops go in for the “Pacification” and then there is investment in the infrastructure and projects like schools and boxing clubs for the youth.

And in last episode he visited places in the far south and the south-west of Brazil. He started by visiting a current heir to the no longer existent Brazilian throne … I hadn’t even been aware that Brazil had been an independent monarchy, apparently they’re descended from the Portuguese royal family. And from that leftover from the past he went on to visit an aeroplane making company, very much an example of Brazil’s future.

Palin then spent some time in Sao Paolo, concentrating mostly on the poorer side of the city, and also pointing out how many Japanese immigrants there are in this part of Brazil. He then went to a town that was like a theme park Germany transplanted to Brazil – Blumenau. Obviously they’d dressed up to do their traditional dances for the benefit of the cameras, but when he then talked to some of the residents of the area they were saying they felt German first & Brazilian second, even though they weren’t necessarily first generation immigrants.

And the series finished up with a trip through some of the more unspoiled areas of wilderness in the south. J commented while we were watching that one of the places was the sort of place an Ancient Egyptian might want to end up. Pantanal is an area of wetlands, that floods annually. The residents farm cattle and the wildlife includes species of ibis.

Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach was a programme we’d recorded a while ago, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be too squeamish to watch. In the end it turned out to be mostly OK – just one sequence where I kept my eyes shut most of the time, and only a couple of contenders for “worst job ever” πŸ˜‰

The thread tying the whole programme together was a demonstration Michael Mosley had done at the Science Museum. He swallowed a small camera which transmitted pictures from his digestive system over the course of the day. First it travelled down his oesophagus into his stomach, and spent a while there. They supplemented this batch of pictures with a set from a more high resolution camera on a tube that went down his nose, and he ate a selection of brightly coloured veg so that we could see them arrive in the stomach and start to mix with the gastric juices. Then after that second camera was removed he ate a large meal, and there were pictures of that being digested – most of what you could see was the veg, the steak had pretty much disintegrated by the time it got to the stomach. After that the camera moved through the small intestine, where we could see the intestinal villi which are little frondy projections from the surface of the small intestine to increase the surface area available for absorbing food. The stat they quoted was that the surface area of the inside of the human small intestine is about the size of a tennis court. Then the camera proceeded into the large intestine where it mingled with the faeces.

In between the various pictures of Mosley’s insides there were a series of short segments about related things. In the first of these he visited a historian who told him about the discovery of the composition of gastric juices. This was fairly astonishing – a doctor (William Beaumont) in Canada had a patient who had been shot in the stomach, and when the wound healed it left behind a small (inch or two diameter) hole in his flesh straight into the stomach. So afterwards the doctor did various experiments both putting things through the hole into the gastric juices to see what happened, and also drawing out some of the gastric juices to do other tests. Before that digestion was thought to be purely a mechanical process, but this doctor showed that the chemical action of the acidic gastric juices was a critical part of it. There was also a very brief segment just after this where Mosley dipped a coin in a beaker of artificially made up gastric juices and saw that it cleaned the coin.

Still on the subject of the stomach there was a segment about gastric bypass surgery. Which is the one I shut my eyes for most of – I can cope with pictures of someone’s insides, but not so much with surgical stuff stuck into someone. The operation we watched (or in my case listened to) was on a severely overweight man who’d had a heart attack in his late 20s, after a couple of years of unsuccessfully trying to shift the weight his doctors decided that gastric bypass surgery was the best option. I didn’t know before that what actually makes most of the difference after these operations is that there are behavioural changes. Partly because a hormone secreting part of the stomach is segregated from food so doesn’t do its normal job with increasing appetite, and partly because the bit of the small intestine that sends signals to say “full now” is closer to the stomach so the signal is sent sooner after eating starts. 6 weeks after the surgery the patient was saying he’d lost 3 stone, and had gone from never feeling full to being satisfied after eating quite small meals.

When talking about the small intestine there was a segment on perception of gastric pain, and the correlation with differences in personality. For this Mosley filled in a personality test then went through some pain tests (tube down the nose, balloon inflated in oesophagus till it hurt) while hooked up to blood pressure & heart rate monitors. The doctor doing the research was classifying people into either neurotic or extrovert categories, and he had found that the two groups had different responses to pain. Neurotics (like Mosley) showed reduced blood pressure and reduced heart rate. That’s not at all the expectation Mosley went into the test with – the textbook reaction to pain is increased heart rate & blood pressure, which is what extroverts show. The doctor was saying this has implications for treatment of gastric pain – different treatments will work better with different types of patients.

Moving on to the large intestine we had the two candidates for “worst job ever”. First up was the woman who cultures samples of faeces in the lab to look at the types of bacteria they contain. The ecosystem of the large intestine is very complex, with a large number of different types of bacteria. These can aid us in our digestion by breaking down the things we can’t, or they can be the cause of problems. She also talked about flatulence (which is a by-product of a healthy digestive system) and how the differing smells of farts is down to differing compositions of bacteria in the large intestine. Smelly ones are down to having more hydrogen sulphide producing species. Flammable ones down to having more methane producing species. Second candidates were the two people who were doing faecal transplants – in these faeces from a healthy person are mixed with salt water and put into an unwell person’s stomach via a tube down the nose. This can introduce a better mix of bacteria to the gut.

So this turned out to be quite an interesting programme, although I was somewhat glad that we ate our pudding during the other programme we watched on Wednesday rather than during this one!

Ice Age Giants; Wonders of Life

Ice Age Giants is a new series presented by Alice Roberts about the large animals that lived during the last ice age. It’s a nice blend of Roberts talking to various experts & looking at fossils, and cgi of what they think the landscape & animals look like. Of course I always wonder what we’re wrong about looking at stuff like that, but it’s cool to see.

The first episode was all about animals in North America. She started with Smilodon fatalis, the sabre-tooth cat – this segment mostly concentrated on how it killed its prey. The sabre teeth are actually pretty fragile (relatively speaking) and one might think that they would be easily broken by getting stuck in struggling prey. They also can’t kill the way modern big cats do – like lions – because they actually suffocate their prey by crushing the windpipe between their jaws or pinching the nose shut. But if you look at the width that a sabre-tooth cat’s mouth can open (to an angle of 120°, twice as wide as lion’s) and the big boned & heavily muscled front legs then another hypothesis becomes apparent. The cats killed by pinning down their prey (to keep them still) then slicing through the throat & ripping out the windpipe or cutting the various arteries there.

Roberts then moved on to talking about the Shasta ground sloth – a large (grizzly bear sized) relative of modern sloths. She visited a cave that had been a ground sloth lair with a palaeontologist who studies these animals – the cave contained a very large amount of sloth excrement. Apparently it hadn’t rotted because the conditions in the Grand Canyon (where this was) are so dry. They looked at bits of this & could see that sloths clearly didn’t digest their food all that well (bits of twig & so on still recognisable). And there was even a large pile near the back of the cave that had distinct layers and so on running from ~40,000 years ago through to ~20,000 years ago – a bit like the geological record in rocks.

Next up were glyptodonts, an animal I’d never heard of before. In the cgi sequences they looked a bit like massive armadillos or turtles on steroids. According to the palaeontologist Roberts talked to these creatures are often found belly up – if they die in water then the weight of their shells makes their body flip over & they sink to the bottom upside own. They had a reconstruction of two of these fighting – they don’t just have massive armoured shells and armoured tails, they also have little armoured hats that look about right for protecting the brain as two of them clash together in a dominance fight (a bit like stags).

Roberts then went to look at large standing rocks with a scientist who is looking at the weathering/wear patterns on the rock. He thinks that the smooth patches must’ve been polished by animals rubbing up against the rocks to scratch their backs as the wear patterns don’t look like any of the other possible causes he’s investigated. The lower bits & bobs could’ve been many things (including modern domestic livestock), but the 14 foot high patches were almost certainly mammoths! The Columbian Mammoth was bigger than the Wooly Mammoth of Europe, and was even taller than modern elephants. And they weren’t hairy, I had no idea you got bald mammoths.

And the last segment of the programme was about the La Brea Tar Pits. Which as soon as she said the name I remembered I knew of them, but I’d forgotten till I was reminded. These are in California, and are a source of natural asphalt. It’s sticky (obviously) and sometimes creatures get trapped in it and die – and to date 3,000,000 specimens of 600 different species of fossils from the era of the ice age have been found in these pits. I don’t think they’ve actually dug through much of them – there was one batch found when an oil company was digging up the tar, and another batch was dug up when some where wanted to build a car park. They’re still processing this batch – it was moved in blocks so they can now excavate it properly. So they aren’t just finding the big animals (which include sabre-tooth cat kittens!) but also the little ones like snails & beetles and such. And this is generating a lot of useful information about the general environment and climate in the area during the ice age period.

Once upon a time I wanted to be a palaeontologist, but I’m not really an outdoorsy enough person to do the work. But you can picture me watching this programme filled with glee and bouncing up & down a bit going “oooh, look at that, isn’t that cool?”. And there’s another episode next week! πŸ™‚

We’ve now finished watching Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life, the final episode was mostly looking at the physical & chemical properties that make life possible on our planet. The ingredients that make it home, as he put it.

So he started out with water, and explained hydrogen bonds. These form because water molecules are polar – the electrons in the molecule are more around the oxygen atom than the two hydrogen atoms. So the oxygen atom has a slight negative charge & the hydrogen ones are slightly positive. These means that bonds called hydrogen bonds form between the oxygen of one molecule and the hydrogens of another. Which makes a body of water not just a bunch of separate molecules but instead it’s a more cohesive thing. This makes water a good solvent (I’m not sure I followed this, but I’ll take his word for it), and so it carries many of the other nutrients we and other life forms need. Its solvent properties also make it a good place for our own internal chemistry to happen – and all living things have a large percentage of water. The cohesiveness of water also gives it surface tension. Cox demonstrated this by looking at pond skaters, which live on the top of water supported by surface tension. Surface tension is also how water moves through plants, all the way from the roots to the leaves.

Next up was light, and he started by looking at all the ways that the light from the sun is harmful concentrating mostly on talking about UV. UV light damages DNA and can burn skin, so most animals and plants have some sort of adaptation to prevent this. Humans (and other animals) use melanin, which is a brown pigment that is particularly good at dissipating the energy of the UV radiation. Cynaobacteria evolved a different way of dealing with light – they absorbed & used the energy. The coupling up of two energy using systems to take the energy of light plus CO2 and turn it into sugars (ie food) and O2 appears to’ve evolved only once – plants do it too using organelles which are descendants of cyanobacteria that now live inside plant cells. And this provides the third of the ingredients we need for our sort of life – oxygen. He went into a cave with a sulphurous lake to look at the sorts of organisms that life in oxygen-free environments – slimy ones, it seemed.

And the last of his ingredients was time. Both the sort of time that gives us our circadian rhythms and gives the monarch butterflies their navigational systems, and also the sort of time that gave us a chance to evolve. If you look at the history of life on this planet there’s a loooong couple of billion years before you get beyond single celled organisms. Even a billion years to get from simple cells (prokaryotes) to complex cells (eukaryotes). Cox was asking “is it necessary to have all that time?”, and saying that we don’t know because we only have one sample so not enough data. I’m not sure I agree – there’s clearly random chance involved in whether or not the right mutations came up, so it could’ve happened immediately or it could never’ve happened. So I don’t think the length of time it did take is significant or necessary. It’s just indicative of how rare a chance it is – because each of the big jumps (non-life -> life, simple -> complex cells, single celled -> multicellular, development of photosynthesis etc etc) has only happened once despite the four billion years available (a third of the age of the universe, don’t forget).

Overall I’ve enjoyed watching this series. It really wasn’t what I was expecting (though I’d find it hard to tell you what I was expecting) but in retrospect it’s obvious that a physcist would tell us about the physics & chemistry behind the biology. And it was more interesting for me because it wasn’t what I was expecting. I did feel he was stronger on the physics & chemistry than the biology which sometimes felt a bit like he was saying things he didn’t quite understand. A bit like me talking about physics to be honest πŸ˜‰

Prehistoric Autopsy; Lost Kingdoms of South America

The last episode of Prehistoric Autopsy was about Lucy – one of the most famous fossils of our ancestors (and the only individual (as opposed to species) I’d actually heard about before this series). She was a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis and lived a little over 3 million years ago. She was discovered in the early 70s, and at 40% complete was one of the most complete specimens of a hominid from that era.

This programme felt like there was a bit more padding than the other two – not quite as much to tell us about, partly because there’re fewer fossils available to figure things out from. But there was still quite a lot πŸ™‚ From the bones that do exist (both Lucy’s and others) they can tell that this species was bipedal & walked upright – even tho they don’t have the foot bones they can see the shape of the knee joints and the pelvis. This is corroborated by data from some preserved footprints, that are presumed to be Australopithecus afarensis because that was the only primate species that’s been found in that area at that time. Experts have analysed the shape of these footprints and compared it to both human and chimpanzee footprints in similar material. The Australopithecus afarensis footprints are much more like the human ones – they have a non-opposable big toe, and the pressure patterns (like deep heel prints) are similar to human ones.

They also showed us the pelvis bones of chimps, humans & Australopithecus afarensis – you can see the difference between the chimp one & the other two really clearly. But the differences between the Homo sapiens one & Australopithecus afarensis one are much subtler. The scientist Roberts was talking to also pointed out that you can see changes in the birth canal – Australopithecus afarensis would’ve found it harder to give birth than a chimpanzee because the canal is not as wide, due to the demands bipedalism puts on the shape. But not as hard as a modern human – the brain size of Australopithecus afarensis is still pretty small, only a little bigger than that of a chimp, so the fit would not be as tight nor would it require quite as much changing of position from the baby on the way out.

Australopithecus afarensis may’ve used tools. This was a pretty controversial piece of evidence – and Roberts & McGavin didn’t agree on how plausible they thought it was. And it was nice to see how that was presented – there wasn’t a feel of some fake monolithic “the opinion of the scientists”, it was presented in a much more true to reality way. Some scientists think this, others aren’t convinced, everyone’s interested in seeing more evidence. Actually the whole series has done well on this front, they took great care to tell you about the caveats and where the evidence was slim. Lots of “we think because of reasons” and less “we know”.

Anyway, back to the tools – there’s an animal bone, found in the same context as a juvenile Australopithecus afarensis, which has two parallel grooves on it. In the grooves are fragments of hard igneous rock (as opposed to the sandstone that was encasing all the bones). This may be evidence that Australopithecus afarensis used sharp rocks to butcher meat (in some crude sense). But it may also have been due to accidental trampling of a dead animal that drove a stone against the bone. Given chimps use tools like twigs, it wouldn’t be that surprising if Australopithecus afarensis did – but really there needs to be more evidence than a single bone.

They also had a segment on how Lucy might’ve communicated – which was probably via facial expressions as well as vocalisations, because pretty much all primates do that. To illustrate this they showed us a little bit about some new research starting on Japanese Macaques, which has the eventual goal of seeing how many different facial expressions they can tell apart (and I think they have hopes of figuring out what they mean, not sure how though).

The model they built looked really good, as all of them have. They said at the end of the programme that the models were going out touring museums round the country, but when I looked it up we’d missed all the dates (because we time-shifted the programme by 3 months). A shame πŸ™ Although apparently the exhibition was aimed at kids, so maybe it’d’ve been a bit shallow. There also doesn’t seem to be a tie-in book for the series, another shame – I’d’ve bought it πŸ™‚ I did find another Alice Roberts book on Human Evolution, so if I like the book of hers we have (when I get to it) then I’ll pick that up.

Having finished up Wartime Farm last week we started on a new series – this time something that we’re only time-shifting by a couple of weeks. The series is Lost Kingdoms of South America, which is clearly inspired by the previous BBC series called Lost Kingdoms of Africa. The primary difference between the two series (as well as which continent they’re on) is the presenter – the African one was presented by Gus Casely-Hayford, who is an art historian whose family come from Ghana. The presenter for this current series is Jago Cooper, who is an archaeologist who specialises in South American cultures but not (as far as wikipedia tells me) from South America. So that gives a slightly different tone to the programmes (not better or worse, just a different perspective).

This first episode was about the Chachapoya people of Peru. Who I must confess I’d never heard of before watching it (although it became clear I should’ve at least known the name). A good start – because I’d sort of assumed we were going to get first the Aztecs, then the Incas then perhaps the Mayans, you know all the peoples we’ve all heard of before. Instead we got an intriguing people whose society really wasn’t the same as our expectations for the place & time.

The Chachapoya lived in the north of Peru, in the Andes, from about 400AD until around the time the Europeans arrived on the scene. The name we use is the Incan name for them & it translates as the Cloud People because of their high altitude villages & towns. Cooper interviewed an archaeologist in Lima who said she thought only about 5% of their sites have been properly excavated, if that. So there’s a lot still to find out.

One of the themes of the programme was that when thinking about these people we really need to take our Western preconceptions and throw them away before we can understand them. For instance the first thing we think is “but why did they live so high?” – because that’s the altitude that was best for cultivation of maize & potatoes. They lived where they could grow their food, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do. And why did they live somewhere so remote? It wasn’t remote for them – both because the people were more willing to travel further between settlements, and because the rivers and the geography of the Andes at that point combined to funnel trade from the Amazon Basin to the Pacific Coast through the lands of the Chachapoya. So not remote, but on a busy trade route. Cooper showed us some artifacts found in Chachapoya sites that included things like feathers from birds only found in the rain forest in Brazil.

Early in their culture they buried their dead up in caves on mountain cliff-faces. These were astonishing – Cooper needed the help of modern equipment and experienced mountaineers to get to these caves where the bones lay. But the floors of the caves were worn through repeated visits, so this didn’t seem to be a case of burying your dead somewhere out of the way. Later they mummified their dead – and this is why I feel I should’ve heard of them, because I knew there were Peruvian mummies, I just didn’t know which culture made them. Which is poor, really – but now I do πŸ™‚ These mummies weren’t like the Egyptian ones which were buried & left to last out eternity in their tomb. These mummies were carried around from place to place in bags, and sometimes taken out & displayed in some fashion. A very different relationship with the dead.

Another difference in their society from what we might expect is that they don’t appear to have had a hierarchy – the Spanish had referred to this in writing from the time they arrived in South America, but there’s also evidence for it in the archaeology. The villages that’ve been investigated don’t seem to have elite housing – all the housing is the same sort of shape & size. I wasn’t entirely clear how they can tell that the one larger building most villages have is a ceremonial site & not an elite site, but they were clear that this was the case. There are also no signs of elite burials – all the dead that have been found are treated in the same. This is pretty unusual for a human society.

They also don’t seem to’ve been bloodthirsty in the way that the Aztecs & the Incas are – no human sacrifice was mentioned, nor ritual bloodletting. And in another difference from the “canonical” South American civilisation story they were conquered & dispersed by the Inca before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish actually allied with the Chachapoya to fight against the Inca. Although the Europeans did deal the final blows to the Chachapoya way of life – both through converting them to Christianity, and via the diseases they brought with them.