Monday, 21 December 2009

Remains of Crystal Palace

Originally erected in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace was intended only as a temporary structure but in an impressive example of Victorian can do, it was reincarnated as a permanent attraction in the public space now known as Crystal Palace Park, enjoying its second royal opening by Queen Victoria in 1854.

For more than eight decades the Crystal Palace enjoyed mixed fortunes as a visitor attraction, for the main part being beset by the same problems that would dog the Millennium Dome a century and a half later. It never had enough visitors to break even, despite staging events which included the world's first cat show in 1871.

By the early part of the 20th Century the building was in decline but in 1913 it was saved from developers by the Earl of Plymouth and saved for the nation by a public subscription. During the 1920s restoration work was carried out and the attraction began to make a modest attraction, but sadly in 1936 it caught fire and was totally destroyed.

Plans for redeveloping the site and even rebuilding the palace continue to the present day, but in seven and a half decades have come to nothing.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Out of Europe?

Three weeks ago, I criticised the “quality” papers (the “Daily Telegraph” was an exception) for running a story based on a two-year-old paper about Homo georgicus as fresh news and for hyperbolic headlines about “rewriting the history of man”. True to form, the media have now completely missed out on an article published in Nature which does – if its conclusions are correct – have a substantial bearing on how we view the path of human evolution. The paper appeared in the 3 September edition of the journal, but due to a postal service that would be considered a disgrace in Somalia, it has only just reached me.

The paper entitled “The oldest hand-axes” in Europe is by Gary R. Scott and Luis Gibert of the Berkeley Geochronology Center, Berkeley, CA. It reports the re-dating of Acheulean hand-axes from Solana del Zamborino and Estrecho del Quipar, both in south eastern Spain. Both sites were previously considered to be among the younger Acheulean sites on the Iberian Peninsula. An age of approx 200ky assumed for Solana was based on its well-developed Acheulean technology. However Scott & Gibert reported revised dates of 0.9mya and 0.76mya for Solana del Zamborino and Estrecho del Quipar respectively, based on magnetic polarity considerations (Scott & Gilbert, 2009).

The oldest Acheulean hand-axes are around 1.65my old, from West Turkana in Kenya and by 1.4mya their usage was fairly widespread in Africa so on the face of it the fact that hand-axes had reached Spain by 0.9mya is hardly earth-shattering, albeit interesting. However while Acheulean hand-axes were once described as displaying a “variable sameness” that strikes “even enthusiasts as monotonous”, later hand-axes do appear to be more refined than earlier ones, which tend to be much thicker, less extensively trimmed and less symmetrical. The “evolved Mode 2” technology is not seen in the archaeological record in Africa until after 600,000 years ago, 300,000 years after its appearance in Spain.

The significance of this is that while even the earlier hand-axes probably represented a cognitive advance over that required to produce the early Oldowan tools, the later hand-axes possess three-dimensional symmetry that may imply a further cognitive advance as the tool would have had to be viewed and rotated through the mind’s eye while it yet remained a block of un-worked stone (Klein, 2005). The date of 600,000 years ago coincides with the first appearance in the fossil record of Homo heidelbergensis, which while slightly smaller-brained than a modern human, was considerably better endowed in that department than its supposed ancestor, Homo erectus. Homo heidelbergensis (or archaic Homo sapiens as it was known until fairly recently) is believed to be the common ancestor of both modern humans and the Neanderthals. Its bigger brain may have helped it to master the harsh conditions in Europe, which was periodically affected by episodes of glaciation. It could also have been responsible for the refinement in hand-axe making technology.

One problem is that there is no obvious evolutionary cause for this expansion in brain size if we accept, as is generally assumed, that Homo heidelbergensis evolved in Africa. The earliest human species, Homo habilis, possessed a larger brain than the australopithecines it is supposed to have evolved from. Its appearance coincides with the start of the present series of ice ages, 2.6 million years ago. Similarly Homo erectus – which also represented a cognitive step-up from its predecessor – appeared around 1.8-1.7mya during a further deterioration in the climate. But no such event seems to signal the appearance of Homo heidelbergensis.

While it would be a mistake to think there is agreement on the matter, a widely-held view is that Homo heidelbergensis evolved in Africa and migrated into Europe. The European deme eventually became the Neanderthals while the stay-at-home African deme eventually became Homo sapiens. Homo heidelbergensis was not the first human species to colonise Europe, but it was the first to stay there and reach more northerly places such as England and Germany. Previous migrants seem to have eventually been extinguished such as Homo antecessor, known from Level TD6 of the Gran Dolina cave, Atapuerca, Spain or back-migrants from Asia, en route back into Africa such as Homo cepranensis, known from a single skull found near Ceprano, Italy. The technology of the TD6 people was pre-Acheulean, that of the Ceprano people unknown. Both “species” were probably Homo erectus (broadly defined) and they were in Europe at about the same time as the makers of the Solana tools.

If it is the case that a) the re-dating is correct and, b) the “2g Acheulian” Solana tools were beyond the capabilities of Homo erectus then another human species must have made them. One possibility is Homo antecessor, but the problem is that while this species is said to have been larger-brained than “standard” Homo erectus (Bermudez de Castro, Arsuaga, Carbonell, Rosas, Martınez, & Mosquera, 1997) it lacked even the older-style Acheulean tools (Carbonell, et al., 2008), though we cannot rule out the possibility that these might at some stage come to light.

A more radical possibility is that a Homo erectus group equipped with Acheulean technology migrated into Europe and – unlike other migrants – managed to adapt to the harsher conditions. These provided the selective pressure for brain expansion and the migrant population eventually evolved into Homo heidelbergensis which then ranged far and wide throughout Eurasia, eventually evolving into the Neanderthals. But one group moved back into Africa and eventually became Homo sapiens. Thus the immediate ancestors of modern humans were actually a species of European origin rather than African.

© Christopher Seddon 2009
Bermudez de Castro, J., Arsuaga, J., Carbonell, E., Rosas, A., Martınez, I., & Mosquera, M. (1997). A Hominid from the Lower Pleistocene of Atapuerca, Spain: Possible Ancestor to Neandertals and Modern Humans. Science , 276, 1392-1395.
Carbonell, E., Bermudez de Castro, J., Pares, J., Perez-Gonzalez, A., Cuenca-Bescos, G., Olle, A., et al. (2008). The first hominin of Europe. Nature , 452, 465-470.
Klein, R. (2005). Hominin Dispersals in the Old World. In C. Scarre, The Human Past (pp. 84-123).
Scott, G., & Gibert, L. (2009). The oldest hand-axes in Europe. Nature , 461, 82-85.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Bad Science!

While browsing the Independent website yesterday evening I saw this article at the top of the Most Viewed list. An article entitled A skull that that rewrites the history of man is an attention-getter. But when I read the article by Science Editor Steve Connor and this accompanying piece also by Mr Connor I was frankly astounded. The first of the fossil remains in question were discovered near the medieval Georgian town of Dmanisi in 1991 (when Georgia was still a part of the Soviet Union). They were attributed to a new species, Homo georgicus, in a 2002 article in the journal Science (Vekua et al, 2002). Moreover the article is free to download to anybody and does not require a subscription to the journal.

Yet nowhere in either of Mr Connor’s articles does he mention that Homo georgicus has been in the public domain for so long. I’ve read both pretty carefully and they imply that this is a brand new discovery. Furthermore, both the Independent articles are dated 9 September 2009. It does sometimes happen that an old article will feature in a website’s “most viewed” list; this is not the case here.

Turning to the articles themselves, the content leaves a lot to be desired. They are full of phrases such as “conventional view of evolution” and “simple view” which (it is implied) has been overturned by the discovery of the Dmanisi remains. This is utter nonsense. Just about the only thing physical anthropologists ever agree on is to disagree! There is no “simple view” of human evolution that has begun to “unravel”. Rather the view is based on a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that have gradually been added, beginning in the 19th Century with the discovery of the Neanderthals and Java Man.

The “simple view” that Mr Connor alludes to is that Homo habilis evolved from a gracile australopithecine species, possibly A. afrarensis (“Lucy”); Homo erectus evolved from H. habilis and migrated into Eurasia, and that Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals both evolved from Homo erectus via an intermediate form sometimes known as Archaic Homo sapiens. This is a first order approximation that nobody has ever seriously believed represented the true picture.

Homo georgicus is probably an early form of Homo ergaster (“African Homo erectus”). We know that very soon after the appearance of H. ergaster in Africa, Homo erectus shows up in Java. There are two possible interpretations; firstly H. georgicus left Africa and died out, with Asian H. erectus arising from a subsequent migration of H. ergaster from Africa. The second – more likely – possibility is that Homo georgicus carried on into Asia and evolved into Homo erectus. It is more likely because it explains the puzzling absence of the characteristic H. erectus (sensu lato) teardrop-shaped Acheulian handaxes from East Asia. This problem was first noted by the US archaeologist Hallam Movius in 1948. One possible explanation is that the ancestors of the East Asian Homo erectus left Africa before the Acheulian handaxes were invented. This view is supported by the Dmanisi remains, which were found in association with stone tools of the earlier Oldowan type.

Homo georgicus is another piece in the fascinating jigsaw of human evolution, but it doesn’t “rewrite” anything. To suggest otherwise is quite simply bad science and to present a 7 year old article in Science as if it were a new discovery is even worse journalism.

It appears that I have singled out the Independent unfairly, becuse both the Times and the Guardian also ran the same story. The Times does at least make it clear the discovery happened a while ago, though why three of the UK's four quality newspapers should choose to report on the Dmanasi hominins now is a complete mystery. It also turns out that the Daily Telegraph ran the same story just under two years ago.

Incredibly even Richard Dawkins website is carrying a link - via Twitter and Fox News - to the Times article. While I am fairly certain Prof. Dawkins is not personally responsible for everything on his site, this is a little surprising! I have to say that I wish Prof. Dawkins - as the country's leading populariser of science - would devote as much time and energy to combating this kind of "bad science" as he does to opposing creationism, which anybody with a brain larger than Homo georgicus knows is utter nonsense anyway.

UPDATE 16 Sept 2009
It now turns out that David Lordkipanidze, who has headed up the Dmanisi investigation for some years, was speaking to an audience at the British Science Festival in Guildford. No new information was being presented and indeed Prof. Lordkipanidze's most recent paper on the subject appeared 2 years ago (this was the story carried by the Telegraph in September 2007). The newspapers should really have made these facts clear rather than presenting them as fresh news. Nowhere did I see the words "speaking yesterday at the British Science Festival in Guildford" which would have explained everything.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Gabunia, L., de Lumley, M.-A., Vekua, A., Lordkipanidze, D., & de Lumley, H. (2002). Découverte d'un nouvel hominidé à Dmanissi (Transcaucasie, Géorgie). C.R. Palévol. , 1, 243–253 .
Gabunia, L., Vekua, A., Lordkipanidze, D., Swisher, C., Ferring, R., Justus, A., et al. (2000). Earliest Pleistocene Hominid Cranial Remains from Dmanisi,Republic of Georgia: Taxonomy, Geological Setting, and Age. Science , 228, 1019-1025.
Klein, R. (2005). Hominin Dispersals in the Old World. In C. Scarre, The Human Past (pp. 84-123).
Lordkipanidze, D., Jashashvili, T., Vekua, A., Ponce de Leon, M., Zollikofer, C., Rightmire, C., et al. (2007). Postcranial evidence from early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia. Nature , 449, 305-310.
Lordkipanidze, D., Vekua, A., Ferring, R., Rightmire, G., Zollikofer, C., Ponce de León, M., et al. (2006). A Fourth Hominin Skull From Dmanisi, Georgia. The Anatomical Record Part A: Discoveries in Molecular, Cellular, and Evolutionary Biology , 288A, 1146–1157.
Vekua, A., Lordkipanidze, D., Rightmire, P., Agusti, J., Ferring, R., Maisuradze, G., et al. (2002). A New Skull of Early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia. Science , 297, 85-89.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Nestle Factory, Hayes

This little-known Art Deco classic is the Nestle Factory at Hayes, west London.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A step in the right direction but more needs to be done

A cyclist was jailed for seven months yesterday at Dorchester Crown Court for the offence of “wanton furious riding causing bodily harm”, an obscure piece of legislation dating back to the 19th Century. They were also banned from driving for twelve months.

Rather than stop at a red light, the cyclist had mounted the pavement, hurtled round a blind corner “like a bat out of hell” and struck and elderly man who fell into the road and sustained head injuries from which he subsequently died.

The sentence is a step in the right direction but it is incredible that there is no legislation available to the judiciary for the specific offence of causing death by dangerous cycling. The CPS was forced to fall back on the obscure 19th Century Offences against the Person act of 1861.

Needless to say cyclist organisation CTC wasted no time in saying that this proved that the law did not need to be changed before bleating on about how many more cyclists are killed by motorists than pedestrians by cyclists. Unless the CTC spokesperson believes that two wrongs somehow make a right, I fail to see the relevance of their last remark. I also suspect that fatalities among cyclists would be significantly reduced if they realised that red lights do actually apply to them as well as motorists.

It is patently obvious that the law does need to be changed as the problem with cyclists on the pavement, certainly in London, is endemic. Walk down Holloway Road in North London and within a few minutes I guarantee you will see a cyclist on the pavement. A couple of weeks ago a cyclist travelling on the pavement at least 20mph missed me by about two inches, nearly hit a woman pushing a pram and then, without making the slightest attempt to check his speed, veered around several pedestrians before disappearing down a side street. This is hardly an unusual occurrence. Barely a month goes by without my being involved in a near-miss with one of these lunatics. I have lost track of the number of verbal altercations I have had with them - even mild remonstrations are invariably met with a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse.

Certainly in London cyclists seem to regard themselves as above the law. Unfortunately there is so much buy-in to the "two wheels good four wheels bad" nonsense that there is no will to make the streets safe from cyclists.

There is a clear need for tough legislation to deal with the problem with specific offences of dangerous cycling and causing death by dangerous cycling, with cycling on the pavement being classed as dangerous cycling. Dangerous cycling should carry an automatic minimum driving ban of twelve months and causing death by dangerous cycling an automatic jail sentence.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Monday, 20 July 2009

One giant leap for mankind: now for Mars

Forty years ago today, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the Moon.

In Houston, the time was 15:17:40 CDT; in the UK 21:17:40 BST. Even aged 14, watching with my family, I was aware of how historic the moment was. I was an avid space enthusiast, my interest (like I suspect many boys of my age) having been sparked by Gerry Anderson’s TV shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds. With us that evening was my grandfather, Robert “Pop” Mitchell, who was born in October 1892. He had just turned 11 when the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, a few years younger than I was in 1969. He was 19 when the Titanic sank and in his early 20s when he fought in the trenches of World War I, where he was seriously wounded in action.

As we now know, the mission came close to failure as the Eagle’s primitive computer, already overloaded, began to take the LM down towards an area strewn with boulders. Neil Armstrong was forced to take control and brought the spacecraft down safely with just 25 seconds of fuel remaining. But to those watching on TV and listening to the dialogue between Armstrong, Aldrin and CAPCOM Charlie Duke (who later went to the Moon himself), there was little hint of trouble:

102:44:24 Aldrin: 200 feet, 4 1/2 down.

102:44:26 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down.

102:44:31 Aldrin: 160 feet, 6 1/2 down.

102:44:33 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down, 9 forward. You're looking good.

102:44:40 Aldrin: 120 feet.

102:44:45 Aldrin: 100 feet, 3 1/2 down, 9 forward. Five percent. Quantity light.

102:44:54 Aldrin: Okay. 75 feet. And it's looking good. Down a half, 6 forward.

102:45:02 Duke: 60 seconds [at this point Eagle is down to her last 60 seconds of fuel].

102:45:04 Aldrin: Light's on.

102:45:08 Aldrin: 60 feet, down 2 1/2. 2 forward. 2 forward.

102:45:17 Aldrin: 40 feet, down 2 1/2. Picking up some dust.

102:45:21 Aldrin: 30 feet, 2 1/2 down.

102:45:25 Aldrin: 4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. 20 feet, down a half.

102:45:31 Duke: 30 seconds [of fuel remaining].

102:45:32 Aldrin: Drifting forward just a little bit; that's good.

102:45:40 Aldrin: Contact Light [these were actually the first words spoken from the Moon, not as is commonly thought, Armstrong’s famous change of call sign to “Tranquillity Base”].

102:45:43 Armstrong: Shutdown.

102:45:44 Aldrin: Okay. Engine Stop.

102:45:45 Aldrin: ACA out of Detent.

102:45:46 Armstrong: Out of Detent. Auto.

102:45:47 Aldrin: Mode Control, both Auto. Descent engine command override, off. Engine arm, off. 413 is in.

102:45:57 Duke: We copy you down, Eagle.

102:45:58 Armstrong: Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.

102:46:06 Duke: Roger, Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.

102:46:16 Aldrin: Thank you.

The Moon walk wasn’t actually scheduled until around 07:00 BST next day, with NASA having scheduled a sleep period first, but Armstrong and Aldrin were understandably anxious to get on with the job and having just landed on the Moon I’d imagine sleep was the last thing on their minds. So shortly before four o’clock I dragged my brother (a few days short of his ninth birthday) out of bed and together we watched as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the Moon and fluff his lines at the same time:

109:23:38 Armstrong: I'm at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It's almost like a powder. Ground mass is very fine.

109:24:13 Armstrong: I'm going to step off the LM now.

109:24:48 Armstrong: That's one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.

About 20 minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the lunar surface:
109:43:08 Aldrin: That's a good step.
109:43:10 Armstrong: Yeah. About a 3-footer.
109:43:16 Aldrin: Beautiful view!
109:43:18 Armstrong: Isn't that something! Magnificent sight out here.
109:43:24 Aldrin: Magnificent desolation.

That first lunar EVA lasted just over 2½ hours. In addition to collecting contingency, bulk and documented lunar samples, Armstrong and Aldrin deployed a seismometer to detect moon quakes and a retro-reflector array to reflect laser beams back to Earth and so determine the Earth-Moon distance very accurately. Also left behind was a US flag; an Apollo 1 mission patch commemorating Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee; Soviet medals commemorating Yuri Gagarin and Soyuz 1 cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov; a gold olive branch; and a plaque mounted on the LM Descent Stage ladder bearing drawings of Earth’s Western and Eastern Hemispheres with an inscription reading “Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind” together with signatures of the Apollo XI crew and President Nixon.

Finally there was a silicon disk containing goodwill statements by US Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and 73 other world leaders and heads of state. The latter detail makes interesting reading. The signatories include such notorious dictators as Nicolae Ceausescu, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Chiang Kai-Shek, Park Chung-hee and Anastasio Somoza. Others perhaps more positively remembered include Queen Juliana, Archbishop Makarios, Indira Gandhi and Eamon de Valera. The only signatory still remaining in office is HM Queen Elizabeth II. France is conspicuous by its absence; so is the USSR and indeed all but a handful of communist countries; China was represented by the Republic of China in Taiwan.

For months afterwards the story was doing the rounds that the Chinese people had still not been told about the landing and in those pre-internet times it might have been true. By contrast, Soviet television gave extensive coverage to the event.

Before beginning preparations for blasting off from the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin took their sleep period and, following their example, my brother and I went back to bed. By the time I woke my father was waking my grandfather and telling him about the moonwalk. Six months after the landing, my grandfather passed away, aged 77. His life thus spanned the entire history of human powered flight, from Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquillity.

On 24 July 1969, Apollo XI returned to Earth safely and, after three weeks in quarantine, its crew emerged to a heroes’ reception. But astonishingly, the public almost immediately lost interest. Six more manned missions were sent to the Moon, but only the incredible drama of Apollo XIII made the headlines (and, a quarter of a century later, an excellent if not entirely accurate Hollywood movie). Since December 1972, not a single manned spacecraft has left Earth’s orbit.

In 2002, a moon landing hoax conspiracy theorist confronted Buzz Aldrin outside a Beverly Hills hotel and called him "a coward, a liar, and a thief." Aldrin – then aged 72 - punched him in the face. Beverly Hills police and the city's prosecutor refused to file charges.

It is a fact that thanks to unmanned space probes, we now have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the Moon; though NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will redress the balance. Already it has returned images of abandoned Apollo hardware, unseen through all these years. The photographs from the Apollo XIV site are particularly good and show footprints left by Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on the Moon’s surface; finally burying for good the ridiculous conspiracy theory that the Moon landings were faked.

As a boy, my grandfather could hardly have expected to see men land on the Moon in his lifetime, but I never doubted I’d live to see a Mars landing, assuming then that it would happen in the 1980s. If the will had been there, it would have done, but NASA was sidetracked by the space shuttle for decades before returning to the original Apollo concept in an updated form, Project Orion. Very tentatively NASA is now talking about an expedition to Mars in 2037. I’ll be 82 that year – I might just make it.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Beneath the Tate Modern

An unassuming door in the Power Hall of the Tate Modern leads to a subterranean world that few have ever seen or, indeed, will ever see. The oil tanks feeding the former power station are due to be converted to gallery space as part of the Tate's 11-storey extension project. On 5 July 2009, as part of an open day, small groups of local residents and their friends were allowed down into the massive underground complex which had never previously been open to the public.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Monday, 29 June 2009


It is quite unusual to be able to see a movie, leave the cinema and walk down the road to where the action took place. Anybody intending to see Nick Moran's newly-released "Telstar" might therefore want to see it at the otherwise-unprepossessing Holloway Odeon.

Starring Con O'Neill as maverick record producer and songwriter Joe Meek and Kevin Spacey as his business partner Major Banks, the movie tells the story of Meek's rise and fall, beginning with his 1962 hit single Telstar. Named for and inspired by an early communication satellite, this instrumental track was recorded by Meek's band The Tornadoes at his makeshift recording studio, located above a leather goods shop at 304 Holloway Road, a few minutes walk away from the Odeon.

Telstar reached No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, but Meek's success was short lived. Hampered by paranoia, drug use, depression and a ferocious temper, his career began to falter and he fell into debt. Many of his problems likely arose from being an openly gay man in an era when homosexuality was barely tolerated.

The downward spiral ended in tragedy on 3 February 1967 when Meek shot his landlady after an argument about unpaid rent and then turned the gun on himself.

Holloway Odeon.

Poster promoting "Telstar" at Holloway Odeon'

304 Holloway Road today - now a convenience store.

Privately-manufactured plaque marking the location of the studio. Above can be seen a satellite dish, an ironic commentary on how satellite communication soon became commonplace.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Circle, Shad Thames

Located just off Jamaica Road, Bermondsey, these attractive residential blocks were among the first redevelopment projects in the Shad Thames region.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Monday, 22 June 2009

Prehistory Google Map

View Prehistory in a larger map

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Brilliant Buildings Google Map

View Brilliant Buildings! in a larger map

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Sunday, 21 June 2009

City Hall, London

Designed by Lord Foster and opened in 2002, City Hall is the headquarters of the Greater London Authority. Located near Tower Bridge, the 45 metre high steel and glass structure is not to everybody's taste and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone once referred to it as a "glass testicle". More than one commentator has noted that the building is a statement on transparent government!

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Paradigm shift

The concept that there is such a thing as prehistory, an era undocumented by written records, is actually quite recent. In 1650 James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, famously calculated from Biblical texts that the Earth had been created in 4004 BC. In 18th Century Europe, when Carl Linnaeus coined the term Homo sapiens, this date was still widely accepted. Most believed that the earliest part of human history was fully recorded in the texts of ancient Greek and Roman historians and in the Old Testament itself. The Abrahamic religions held that Earth and time were created simultaneously and that it was therefore meaningless to speak of earlier times, because time itself did not exist. Even to ask what God had been doing before He created the world was considered poor form and the religious reformer John Calvin said that the answer should have been “making Hell for the curious” (the remark is often erroneously attributed to St. Augustine).

In astronomy, the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton eventually relegated the Earth from the centre of the Universe to the 3rd rock from the Sun; humanity’s demotion from somewhere “a little lower than the angels” to what the American biologist and author Jared Diamond has described as “just another species of big mammal” required a paradigm shift of equal proportions.

Like Galileo, many of the early workers in the field were flying in the face of religious orthodoxy, though this was not always the case and indeed Linnaeus, who was responsible for formally assigning humans a place in the animal kingdom alongside apes and monkeys, went out of his way to fit his work into God’s scheme of things. In fact the study and classification of the natural world was always considered a perfectly respectable pursuit, one that went back to Classical times. Such studies, with a view to achieving a better understanding of the works of God, were known as natural theology.

The first attempt at a systematic classification of the natural world was made by Aristotle, who believed that everything in the universe had its place in a Great Chain of Being or Scala Naturae (“Ladder of Nature”), being ranked from the lowest to the highest. The hierarchy began with God at the top, followed by angels, then kings, princes, and so on through to ordinary people, animals, plants, minerals etc.

Within this chain, Aristotle divided the various species of living organisms into two groups – animals and plants. Animals were further divided into three categories - those living on land, those living in the water and those living in the air, and were in addition categorised by whether or not they had blood (broadly speaking, those “without blood” would now be classed as invertebrates, or animals without a backbone). Plants were categorised by differences in their stems.

Aristotle’s system remained in use for hundreds of years but by the 16th Century, knowledge of the natural world had reached a point where it was becoming inadequate. Many attempts were made to devise a better system, but it was not until 1735 that the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus published the first edition of Systema Natura (“System of Nature”), in which he proposed a hierarchical classification of the natural world, dividing it into the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms. Each kingdom was further subdivided by class, order, genus and finally species. Species were arranged within the higher groupings on the basis of physical similarities, each grouping being named on the basis of a defining feature. In addition, Linnaeus adopted the system of binomial nomenclature first proposed over a century earlier by Gaspard Bauhin, under which a species is assigned a generic name and a specific name. The generic name refers to the genus and the specific name represents the species itself.

Within the Linnaean system, the Mammalia (mammals) are the class of animals that suckle their young. It is said that Linnaeus adopted this aspect as the defining feature of the group because of his strongly-held view that all mothers should breast feed their babies. He was strongly opposed to the then-common practice of “wet nursing” and in this respect he was considerably ahead of his time.

The mammals were divided into eight orders, including the Primates; these in turn were divided into two genera: the Simia (monkeys, apes, etc) and Homo (man), the latter containing a single species, sapiens – hence Homo sapiens, meaning (some would say ironically) “wise man”.

As originally conceived, the Linnaean system did not accord equal status to apparently equal divisions; thus the Mineral Kingdom was ranked below the Plant Kingdom; which in turn sat below the Animal Kingdom. Similarly the classes were assigned ranks with mammals ranking the highest and Insecta (insects) and Vermes (worms) the lowest. Within the mammals the Primates received top billing, with Homo sapiens assigned to pole position therein.

This hierarchy within a hierarchy reflected Linnaeus’ belief that his system reflected Aristotle’s Chain of Being, with Mankind at the top. Indeed the term “primate” survives to this day as a legacy of that view. Never the most modest of men, Linnaeus claimed that “God creates, Linnaeus arranges”.

Linnaeus’ classification system, as set out in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae, published in 1758, is still is considered the foundation of modern taxonomy and it has been modified only slightly in that we now regard all equivalent divisions as being equal.

The Linnean Taxonomy shows us where humans fit into the grand scheme of things, but it has nothing to tell us about how we got there. Linnaeus did not believe that species changed. His thinking was still firmly rooted in that of Plato, who believed that every type of object in the universe was represented by an immutable Form, from which all instances of that object were derived; thus for example all cats were derived from the Form of a Cat. Plato’s Theory of Forms explicitly rejected evolution: the Form of one species of animal could never evolve into that of another.

Others, though, were already beginning to question this view. The existence of extinct organisms in the fossil record represented a serious problem for creationism. Fossils had been known for centuries and it was becoming clear that they represented in many cases life forms that no longer existed. The English canal engineer William Smith and French naturalist Georges Cuvier were among those who recognised that rocks of different ages preserved different assemblages of fossils, implying a sequence of events more complex than could be accounted for by the Biblical account of a single great flood.

In 1796 Cuvier put forward a possible solution known as catastrophism, which was a modified form of creationism. He proposed that extinctions had been caused by periodic catastrophes, of which Noah’s flood was the most recent and the only one where humans had been present. New species replaced those that had been wiped out, created ex nihil by God. No species contemporary with humans had ever become extinct, as breeding populations of all of these had been taken aboard the Ark.

However the creationists were by now on increasingly shaky ground. In 1797 a man named John Frere presented evidence suggesting that humans had been contemporary with now-extinct animals. He had been contemplating the problem of what we now recognise as tools from the Stone Age. These artefacts had been known for centuries but – in the absence of any concept of prehistory – they were not thought to be of human origin and were thought to be thunderbolts or the work of elves.

Frere wrote to the Society of Antiquaries of London submitting some flint artefacts found at Hoxne, Suffolk. These had been found twelve feet below the ground and were associated with bones of extinct animals. Frere suggested that the artefacts were “weapons of war, fabricated and used by a people who had not the use of metals. The situation in which these weapons were found may tempt us to refer them to a very remote period indeed, even beyond that of the present world.”

Even before Curvier published his theory, the Scottish geologist James Hutton was formulating the principles of what later became known as uniformitarianism. Hutton’s Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge was published in 1794 and The Theory of the Earth the following year. Hutton argued that geological principles do not change with time and have remained the same throughout Earth’s history. Changes in the Earth’s geology occurred gradually and were driven by volcanic action rather than floods and other biblical catastrophes. It was clear that the Earth must be much older than 6,000 years for these changes to have occurred.

Unfortunately, Hutton’s writing style was so obscure that his books attracted little attention in his lifetime. Not until the 1830s did his theories did not gain widespread acceptance, when they were popularised by fellow Scot Sir Charles Lyell. Lyell, who also coined the word “Uniformitarianism”, published Principles of Geology between 1830 and 1833.

In the meantime, the evidence for the antiquity of mankind was growing. In 1813 the Danish historian Vedel Simonsen suggested that the weapons and implements of the earliest inhabitants of Scandinavia had first been made of stone, then of bronze and finally of iron. Then, in 1816 Christian Jürgensen Thomsen became the first curator of the Danish National Museum of Antiquities in 1816. His first task was to classify artefacts in the collection and to put them in some semblance of order.

Thomsen hit on the idea of classifying them on the basis of the material from which they were made and followed Simonsen’s suggestion that the iron artefacts must be more recent than those made from bronze, which in turn must be more recent than those of stone. Thus was born the Three Age System, whereby the pre-literate past was divided into the now familiar Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. A guidebook to the museum was translated into English in 1846, after which the Three Age system was widely adopted.

A year later, a French customs official named Jacques Boucher de Perthes published his conclusions regarding the stone implements that he had collected some years earlier from gravel pits in the Somme valley. The implements were clearly of human manufacture and associated with the remains of extinct animals, again suggesting that humans and now-extinct animals had once co-existed.

In 1859 the geologist Sir Joseph Prestwich and archaeologist John Evans visited Boucher de Perthes in France. They were convinced by his findings and on returning to Britain gave a series of presentations to the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Institution in London. What they termed the Antiquity of Man was widely accepted, finally confirming that the human past extended back way beyond the reach of the earliest written records. This was a landmark moment in the acceptance of prehistory as a valid concept, but it was largely overshadowed by another pivotal event in our understanding of humanity’s origins: 1859 also saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (usually simply referred to as The Origin of Species).

The son of a wealthy doctor, Darwin was born in 1809. An unwilling medical student, he studied at Edinburgh and Cambridge before being appointed Naturalist and gentleman companion to Captain Robert Fitzroy of the barque HMS Beagle, joining the ship on her second voyage. Darwin sailed round the world in the Beagle between 1831 and 1836. He studied finches and turtles on the Galapagos Islands – he found different turtles had originated from one type, but had adapted to life on different islands in different ways.

Darwin developed the theory of natural selection between 1844 and 1858. The theory was as the same time being independently developed by Alfred Russel Wallace and in 1858 Darwin presented The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection to the Linnaean Society of London, jointly with Wallace’s paper. Wallace’s independent endorsement of Darwin’s work leant much weight to it. Happily, there were none of the unseemly squabbles over priority that has bedevilled so many joint discoveries down the centuries. The Origin of Species was published the following year and promptly sold out.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is based on four assumptions. Firstly, all organisms reproduce; secondly there has to be a mode of inheritance whereby parents transmit characteristics to offspring; thirdly, there has to be variation in a population, i.e. the individuals in it will all differ slightly from each other; and fourthly there must be competition for limited resources.

The differences between individuals in a population mean that some might be able to compete more effectively than others. These ones are more likely to go on to reproduce and transmit their advantageous traits to their offspring, which in turn would be more likely to reproduce themselves. Adaptive or advantageous traits are characteristics that help an individual survive, e.g. an elephant’s trunk, which enables it to forage in trees, eat grass, etc; colour vision helps animals to identify particular fruits, etc; bright distinctive colour schemes are plants’ adaptations to help them to be located. Eventually, a species might become so changed by the accumulation of adaptive traits within its ranks that it could be considered to have evolved into a new species.

The mechanism by which these traits are transmitted was unknown in Darwin’s time; not for another century would the role of DNA as the “molecule of inheritance” be confirmed.

Darwin hinted that his theory might throw light on human origins, but it was not until his second work The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871, that he proposed that humans had evolved from apes. This was a number of years after his friend and advocate Thomas Henry Huxley had put forward the idea in Evidence as to Man’s place in Nature, published in 1863. Darwin was characterised as “the monkey man” and caricatured as having a monkey’s body. But after his death in 1882, he was given a state funeral and is buried in Westminster Abbey near Sir Isaac Newton. An admittedly-dubious BBC poll ranked Charles Darwin as the 4th greatest Briton of all time, behind Sir Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and (inevitably) Princess Diana, but ahead of Shakespeare, Newton and David Beckham.

The transformation of mankind’s view of itself was complete: from chosen beings created in 4004 BC in God’s image, to a primate species which had evolved from apes at some unknown time in the distant past. The questions, of course, had barely begun.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Tower Bridge

Part suspension bridge and part bascule bridge, Tower Bridge opened in 1894, having taken eight years to beuild. So iconic has this bridge become that non-Londoners frequently refer to it as London Bridge, which is actually the next bridge upstream.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Monday, 15 June 2009

Trellick Tower

Designed by Ernő Goldfinger, Trellick Tower in North Kensington was commissioned by the Greater London Council in 1966 and completed in 1972. The 322ft late Modernist towerblock is now a Grade II* listed building, but Goldfinger's work has not always been to everybody's taste.

Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, was definitely not a fan and it is no coincidence that 007's most memorable opponent was named Auric Goldfinger. Auric's real-life counterpart failed to see the funny side when the original novel came out and threatened to sue. As part of a rather bizarre out-of-court settlement, Ernő Goldfinger eventually accepted six copies of the book!

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Toba Catastrophe Theory

74,000 years ago, the Earth experienced the largest volcanic event of the last two million years when a supervolcano beneath Lake Toba in northern Sumatra erupted with a Volcanic Explosivity Index intensity of 8 (“Ultra-Plinean”), ejecting 2,800 km3 of magma, with around 800 km3 of this falling as ash. In comparison, Krakatoa, Tambora and Mount Pinatubo would have seemed like firecrackers. Much of the ash was blown north-west by the wind and the Indian subcontinent and part of the Malay Peninsula were blanketed in ash. Now known as Youngest Toba Tuff (YTT), these deposits ranged in depth from 15cm to as much as 6m at one site in Central India.

The effects of the explosion would have been to cause a “volcanic winter”, during which temperatures worldwide may have fallen by 3-5 degrees Celsius for several years. In 1998, Stanley H Ambrose suggested that the eruption caused a bottleneck in human populations (Ambrose, 1998). Geneticists Lynn Jorde and Henry Harpending believe the world population of anatomically modern humans fell to as few as 5,000-10,000 individuals.

Could this really have happened; could Homo sapiens really have teetered on the brink of extinction?

In the aftermath of the eruption, conditions for life would have become very harsh and the Indian subcontinent would certainly not have been the healthiest of places to be! But were any anatomically modern humans there? The first evidence of Homo sapiens outside of Africa are the 110-90,000 year old fossil remains found in the Levant. This migration seems to have petered out; the migrants either died without issue or (less likely) returned to Africa. The migration(s) believed to have given rise to the world’s present-day non-African population occurred much later. Estimates vary as to the timing, with some authorities claiming it was as long ago as 80,000 years ago but most opting for between 50-60,000 years ago, long after the Toba eruption.

Stephen Oppenheimer is among those who do believe that modern humans were already in India and Malaysia when Toba erupted. He believes the migrants left the Horn of Africa 80,000 years ago.

Oppenheimer claims the Toba eruption resulted in the extinction of human life in India, leaving a “genetic furrow” that is visible in Asia’s genetic record to this day. This arose as the subcontinent was repopulated by settlers from both East and West Asia. Although descended from the same root lines of the single exodus, Indian maternal branch genetic (mtDNA) lines are completely different from those of the Far East and mostly different from those in the West.

Oppenheimer also draws on archaeological evidence from Kota Tampan in the Lenggong Valley, Malaysia where stone tools were found in the 1960s. These were covered by volcanic ash, now known to be from the Toba eruption. The large pebble-tools, fashioned on one side only were thought to be the work of an earlier human species but in the absence of fossil remains the matter could not be settled one way or the other.

Work by Prof. Zuraina Majid, of the University of Science in Penang suggests that the local pebble-tool culture may have persisted continuously right up until only 7,000 years ago. If so, the possible implication is that the earlier pebble-tools were actually made by modern humans. Support for this view came in 1990 with the discovery of Perak Man, a 10,000 year old anatomically-modern human found in the same context as the pebble tools (Oppenheimer, 2003).

But not everybody accepts the bottleneck theory. Gathorne-Hardy & Harcourt-Smith (2003) point out that if Toba has caused a bottleneck in the human population, it would have also affected other species, especially other, more environmentally sensitive taxa with more specialised ecological requirements. These would have been expected to suffer at least a similar population crash leading to many becoming extinct. But there is no evidence for mammal extinction associated with Toba.

In 2007 dramatic evidence was presented that suggested that not only were modern humans in India at the time of the Toba eruption, but that they survived the catastrophe. A team led by Michael Petraglia of the University of Cambridge recovered stone artefacts from both above and below the 2.55m thick ash deposit near Jwalapuram, in the Jurreru River valley of southern India.

There appears to be a strong element of technological continuity between the two sets of artefacts and together with the presence of faceted unidirectional and bidirectional bladelike core technology, they suggest closer affinities to African Middle Stone Age traditions such as Howieson’s Poort than to those of the contemporaneous Eurasian Middle Paleolithic. The latter are typically based on discoidal and Levallois techniques. This, together with the behavioural flexibility needed to survive the catastrophe, suggests that modern humans were already in India at the time of the eruption (Petraglia et al, 2007).

In addition, there are recent genetic studies that do support the presence of modern humans in India 74,000 years ago (Kivisild et al, 2003; Metspalu et al, 2004).

Petraglia’s interpretations are also a problem for the Kota Tampan pebble tools being made by modern humans. If the Indian settlers were using a technology derived from the African MSA, why were their counterparts in Malaysia using far more primitive tools?

Human remains found in the context of ash from Toba are the one thing missing; the matter cannot be considered to be settled until such time as these come to light; but on the balance of probabilities it does seem likely that the effects of the Toba eruption were not as deleterious as some have supposed.


Ambrose S H (1998): Late Pleistocene human population bottlenecks, volcanic winter, and differentiation of modern humans, Journal of Human Evolution 34 (6): 623–651

Gathorne-Hardy F.J. & Harcourt-Smith W.E.H. (2003): The super-eruption of Toba, did it cause a human bottleneck? Journal of Human Evolution 45 (2003) 227–230

Kivisild T, Rootsi S, Metspalu M, Mastani S, Kaldma K, Parik J, Metspalu E, Adojaan M, Tolk H-V, Stepanov V, Golge M, Usanga E, Papiha S S, Cinnioglu C, King R, Cavalli-Sforza L, Underhill P A & Villems R (2003): The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persists Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations, Am. J. Hum. Genet. 72:313-332.

Metspalu M, Kivisild T, Metspalu E, Parik J, Hudjashov G, Kaldma K, Serk P, Karmin M, Behar D M, Gilbert M T P, Endicott P, Mastana S, Papiha S S, Skorecki K, Torrioni A & Villems R (2004): Most of the extant mtDNA boundaries in South and Southwest Asia were likely shaped during the initial settlement of Eurasia by anatomically modern humans, BMC Genet. 2004; 5:26

Oppenheimer S (2003): Out of Eden, Constable.

Michael Petraglia, Ravi Korisettar, Nicole Boivin, Christopher Clarkson, Peter Ditchfield, Sacha Jones, Jinu Koshy, Marta Mirazón Lahr, Clive Oppenheimer, David Pyle, Richard Roberts, Jean-Luc Schwenninger, Lee Arnold, Kevin White (2007): Middle Paleolithic Assemblages from the Indian Subcontinent Before and After the Toba Super-Eruption, Science 317, 114.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Southgate Tube Station

One of the most notable of the many tube stations designed for the London Underground by Charles Holden, Southgate Tube Station opened in 1933. It is now a Grade II listed building and retains much of its original appearance.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Alexandra Palace transmission mast

The BBC began transmitting from Alexandra Palace in 1936. Transmissions were interrupted by the war with the closedown occurring in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon. During the war, the transmitter was used to jam the radio navigation system used by the Luftwaffe (a forerunner of GPS). TV transmissions resumed after the war and continued until 1956, when operations were relocated to Crystal Palace. The transmitter is still used for local analogue television transmission, local commercial radio and DAB broadcasts.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980

The period from 1960 to 1980 was underlain by Harold Wilson’s Utopian vision of a Britain “forged from the white heat of technology”. In an era before computers became just another domestic appliance and IT staff were banished to the basements of large companies, computing was seen as a glamour industry with a key role to play in the contemporary arts.

White Heat Cold Logic is aimed at recounting the history of digital and computer-based arts in the United Kingdom from their origins in the 1960s up to the advent of personal computing and graphical user interfaces around 1980.

The editors of this much-needed book argue forcefully against the woeful neglect by contemporary art galleries of British computer art from this heroic period, when artists needed to build their own machines, collaborate with computer scientists and learn complex computer languages rather than simply boot up their Mac or PC. Aside from their relevance to the then-contemporary art scene, the academic papers that make up this attractive illustrated volume will appeal to anybody with an interest in the social and political history of that time.

(A shorter version of this book review appeared in Art World Magazine Issue 11 June/July 2009.)

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Monday, 25 May 2009

High and Over, Amersham

High and Over is a Grade I listed building in Amersham, Bucks. Designed by Amyas Connell and built in the late 1920s, the Y-shaped country house and the smaller Sun Houses nearby were controversial at the time, but are now admired as fine examples of the Modernist style. Originally a single dwelling, High and Over was divided into two units in the 1960s. Local legend has it that the building had to be camouflaged during World War II because enemy bombers were using it as a landmark to help them find their targets.

© Christopher Seddon 2009