When dinosaurs roamed the earth, chewing the leafy treetops with the aid of their towering necks and soaring above the rivers teeming with life on their reptilian wings, was when the plankton and algae that now power my car swam in the oceans. Dying by the generations, the tiny bodies of these organisms floated down to the ocean floor and collected and compressed over time. Given enough time (millions of years) this biomass under pressure turned into what we now call crude oil.
I sometimes get grief from my friends for driving an old car. My propulsive method of choice is an automobile manufactured by the venerable Ford Motor Company, the make being Escort Sports Wagon, the vintage 1995. The sands of public opinion have shifted and my auto is not in 2011 the strapping beast that it used to be in its heyday, but I still find something odd about this criticism lodged by some at my noble steed. For in the grand scheme of things, the automobile itself is such a curious contraption that my particular specimen of it is not nearly as interesting as the species as a whole.
The Chicago Auto Show came to the vaunted convention halls of our city this weekend and displayed its lovely stock of new machines. Sparkling under electric lamps like a river does under the sun, the parade of autos flaunted the latest fashion in sculpted forms and boasted too of new feats of agility, power, navigation, and cabin architecture. Machinery so alive with centuries of cumulative human inventiveness that it would make even the most proud and accomplished cavalryman blush in shame and hide his mare behind the nearest tree.
Why is it that we find the newest cars so attractive? Perhaps it is a kind of survival instinct: we are used to our tribe striving to acquire the fastest and healthiest herd of horses in the valley. When horses were first domesticated thousands of years ago, the armies of humans that rode them must have become mighty in their lands, killing from their chariots and saddles the bands of other humans who couldn’t figure out the mount. The genes of those not inclined to the equine arts would have found their eternal end in the blood spilled upon the sands and the steppe. (more…)
Sometimes a theory about the past makes for such a good story that it is hard to let go of it, even when it proves to be false. When archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ancient Greek city of Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon from Homer’s Iliad, he found a beautiful gold funerary mask of a royal. Imagine, if the mask was of Agamemnon himself, to have a portrait – in gold! – of a hero from Homer’s epic story of the Trojan War, where previously only our imaginations colored those characters. Alas, when the mask was dated, it was pronounced a few generations off from Agamemnon, but how beautiful it would have been if it was his.
Another elegant theory of our past is the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. In 1996, geologists from Columbia University William Ryan and Walter Pitman postulated that a massive flood from the Mediterranean Ocean through the narrow Bosporus strait created the Black Sea as we know it today. Over seven thousand years ago, they said, water burst through the strait and rushed into the Black Sea with force 400 times that of Niagara Falls. Many communities living around the sea were wiped out and the stories told of this catastrophe later became the Great Flood myths in the Hebrew book of Genesis, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, and other ancient narratives. Finding an archaeological counterpart to the story of Noah’s ark is a tantalizing idea. The famous oceanographer Robert Ballard (who discovered the RMS Titanic on the ocean floor) even led an expedition to the Black Sea to test the Black Sea deluge hypothesis.
Unfortunately, the theory, in light of new evidence, seems to be false. In such a case, one would chuck it from memory, if the idea was not so artful. Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Review comments (according to an uncited quote on Wikipedia) that “if you want to see the Black Sea flood in Noah’s flood, who’s to say no?” I disagree with Mr. Shanks: one should not believe in faulty scientific theories. But the debunking of the Black Sea deluge hypothesis is nevertheless a buzzkill to the imagination.