Tag Archives: history

The Victorian-Era Supercomputer And The Genius Who Created It

The London Science Museum finally completed work on the Victorian era’s greatest supercomputer, the Difference Engine No. 2, 120 years after the death of inventor Charles Babbage. This five-ton machine is currently traveling across the pond to San Francisco, and will go on display in America for the first time starting May 10th at the Computer History Museum. Find out everything you wanted to know about Charles Babbage and his wonderful engines in today’s triviagasm.

  • Babbage had a life-threatening fever when he was 8 years old, and the parents ordered that his “brain was not to be taxed too much.” Babbage later thought that this left him free to daydream, which led to his computers.
  • Babbage was later schooled at the Holmwood Academy, which only had 30 students. They also had a massive library, with many books focused on mathematics, which he fell in love with.
  • He worked on calculating machine designs from other inventor/mathematicians like Blaise Pascal, Wilhelm Schickard, and Gottfried Leibniz. All of these men had designed working calculators from the 1500s on. In Shickard’s case, he had invented a calculating machine called “The Speeding Clock” that could work with six-digit numbers and would ring a bell to indicate memory overflow. It was later destroyed in a fire, but a working replica was constructed in 1960.
  • Babbage himself first proposed building a “calculating engine” with much more capacity in 1822, and he went on to design several machines which he called “Difference Engines.” Sadly, they were never built because of their enormous size, cost, and also because Babbage’s personality frequently clashed with investors. Also, in 1827, Babbage’s father, wife, and two of his sons died… all in the same year. He had a resulting mental breakdown which further delayed any construction or design.
  • The first Difference Engine design had over 25,000 parts, would have been eight feet high, and would have weighed 15 tons. It was never fully completed during his lifetime, although different sections were later assembled and shown to work by his son, Henry Provost Babbage, after he inherited them.
  • Babbage revised his designs for the Difference Engine No. 2, although this was never built during his lifetime either. In 1989, the London Science Museum began constructing one from his designs, and it was completed in 1991. It has 8,000 parts of bronze, cast iron and steel, weighs five tons and measures eleven feet long and seven feet high.
  • Only two versions of this Engine exist: the one built for the London Science Museum, and a second one that was built by the museum on special commission for millionaire Nathan Myhrvold.
  • The first completed Difference Engine No. 2 performed its first calculation in 1991, and returned results to more than 31 digits. That’s more than your souped-up pocket calculator.
  • A separate printing unit that Babbage designed was constructed for the Engine in 2000 and didn’t need USB a to b cables or a serial interface. Pretty fancy stuff for the 19th Century.
  • Babbage improved on his Difference Engine ideas again by working on plans for an Analytical Engine that could be reprogrammed by inserting programs on punch cards into the machine. This was the first programmable computer, which later led to other scientists improving on these ideas and eventually to the modern computer.
  • Besides working on engines and calculating machines, Babbage also served as a mathematics professor at Cambridge for many years, won a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, working on railroad rail gauges, invented uniform postal rates, ran for Parliament, worked in cryptography, and also invented the “pilot” (better known as a cow-catcher) that was mounted on the front of locomotives to “push” cows off the tracks to help prevent derailings.
  • Babbage also didn’t suffer from what he called public nuisance very well, either. He published “Observations of Street Nuisances” in 1864, which was a summary of 165 nuisances that he observed over 80 days. He also wrote “Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breakage of Plate Glass Windows” after counting the broken windows on a nearby factory.
  • On a side note, growing up in Dallas, Texas, I used to beg my parents to take me to a little software shop to buy computer games. It was called Babbage’s. Today it’s better known as GameStop, but I still have a soft spot for that geeky little store.
  • To this date, Charles Babbage’s brain is preserved in a glass jar at the London Science Museum, just awaiting the perfect moment for reanimation.
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Walking dead? Medieval villagers zombie-proofed their corpses

Here, knife-marks can been seen on the surfaces of two rib fragments. Cut-marks and chop-marks are the bones suggest the bodies had been mutilated after death.

Here, knife-marks can been seen on the surfaces of two rib fragments. Cut-marks and chop-marks are the bones suggest the bodies had been mutilated after death.  (Historic England)

Zombies are hardly a modern preoccupation. For centuries, people have been worried about corpses rising from their graves to torment the living. Now, archaeologists in England think they’ve found evidence of medieval methods to prevent the dead from walking.

The researchers revisited a pit of human remains that had been dug up at Wharram Percy, an abandoned village in North Yorkshire that dates back to nearly 1,000 years ago. The corpses had been burned and mutilated after death, and the archaeologists offered two possible explanations: either the condition of the corpses was due to cannibalism, or the bodies were dismembered to ensure they wouldn’t walk from their graves, according to the study published April 2 in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Study leader Simon Mays, a human-skeletal biologist at Historic England, said the idea that the bones “are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best.” [See Photos of the ‘Zombie’ Burial at Wharram Percy]

People at the time believed that reanimation could occur when individuals who had a strong life force committed evil deeds before death, or when individuals experienced a sudden or violent death, Mays and his colleagues wrote. To stop these corpses from haunting the living, English medieval texts suggest that bodies would be dug up and subjected to mutilation and burning.

When the jumbled bones were first excavated in the 1960s, they were originally interpreted as dating from earlier, perhaps Roman-era, burials that were inadvertently disturbed and reburied by villagers in the late Middle Ages. The bones were buried in unconsecrated ground, after all —near a house and not in the official cemetery.

However, radiocarbon dating showed that the bones were contemporary with the medieval town, and chemical analyses revealed that the bones came from people who were local to the region.

What happened to the corpses after death could rival scenes from a gory zombie movie.

The bones from Wharram Percy came from at least 10 people between the ages of 2 and 50, according to the new study. Burning patterns from experiments with cadavers suggest that the bodies were set ablaze when the bones still had flesh on them. (A fleshed corpse was thought to be more threatening than a bare skeleton.) The scientists also found cut marks consistent with dismemberment, and chop marks that suggest the skeletons were decapitated after death.

“If we are right, then this is the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice,” Mays said in a statement , referring to the zombie-safety precautions. “It shows us a dark side of medieval beliefs and provides a graphic reminder of how different the medieval view of the world was from our own.”

Stephen Gordon , a scholar of medieval and early-modern supernatural belief, who was not involved in the study, said he found the interpretation plausible. [7 Strange Ways Humans Act Like Vampires]

“Although, of course, one cannot discount the possibility that cannibalism was indeed a cause, I do think the evidence veers toward a local belief in the dangerous dead,” Gordon told Live Science in an email.

Gordon noted that several examples of revenants, or reanimated corpses , come from 12th-century northern English sources, so archaeological evidence from Yorkshire from around 1100 to 1300 is certainly to be expected.

There are still some mysteries concerning the bones, the authors of the study noted, such as how the human remains ended up together in this particular pit, especially since they span the 11th to 13th centuries. It’s also unclear why, if the corpses were feared, they would be reburied in a domestic context.

What’s more, revenants, at least according to written English sources, were commonly associated with males, but skeletons from both sexes and children were found in the pit. Gordon, however, doesn’t think this should invalidate the walking-dead argument.

“The written evidence in English chronicles and saints’ lives, which focus on male revenants, represents just a small (and highly constructed) snapshot of the realities of everyday belief,” Gordon said in the email.

A bishop of the Holy Roman Empire, Burchard of Worms, writing around A.D. 1000, “alludes to the fact that children who died before baptism, or women who died in childbirth, were believed to walk after death and needed to be ‘transfixed,'” Gordon said. He pointed to another case, from the 14th-century Bohemian chronicler Neplach of Opatovice, in which a female walking corpse had to be cremated. “As such, it is possible that female corpses were indeed believed to walk after death in England.”

The bones from Wharram Percy might not represent the very first revenant burial found in Europe. In several so-called ” vampire burials ” in a 17th-century Polish cemetery, the corpses have sickles around their necks. One interpretation is that the blades were meant to keep the dead from rising.

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Medieval sin-washing well is uncovered

(Historic England)

(Historic England)

In medieval times, pilgrims flocked to England in quest of St. Anne’s Well, which was said to cure ailments and wash away sins. Archaeologists now say they’ve rediscovered that large sandstone well on a private farm near Liverpool using only a 1983 photo and a description, reports the Liverpool Echo.

When archaeologists arrived at the site, there was little evidence of the well at all as “it had become completely filled with earth,” says a rep for Historic England.

Once excavated, however, it was “found to be in reasonable condition,” per an archaeologist. Legend has it that the supposed mother of the Virgin Mary herself descended the medieval well’s three steps and bathed in its 4-foot-deep pool, located near a priory of monks, reportedly giving the water the ability to cure eye and skin diseases, per Seeker and ScienceAlert.

 

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But the well—believed to have healing properties into the 19th century—also features in a more ominous legend suggesting it’s cursed. During a dispute over the well in the 16th century, the prior reportedly cursed the estate manager of a neighboring landowner, whom he believed had a hand in the monastery being seized by the king.

The prior said a “year and a day shall not pass ere St. Anne thy head shall bruise”—then the prior himself collapsed and died, according to an 1877 newspaper recounting of the legend.

The estate manager is said to have disappeared after a night of drinking, only to be found dead in the well with “his head crushed in.” ScienceAlert points out the discovery has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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Thanks! Over 1.5 million hits so far this year…

I want to thank everyone.  Earlier in October my humble blog site reached over 1.5 million hits and is close to 1.6 million now.  Thank you all for looking at my blog this year and for enjoying my quirky blend of dogs, cosplay, quantum physics, history, and writing.  It reflects my own warped personality and interests, so it is reassuring to know that over 1.5 million times this year others were interested in the same things.  🙂

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How Tea Parties Got Their Start—and How to Hold One Like a Victorian

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This summer marks 150 years since Alice in Wonderland was first published. As most English speakers over the age of 10 are aware, the book contains the most beloved tea party scene in literary history—so why not use its anniversary as an excuse to hold a Victorian-style tea party of your own?

First, impress your guests with some history. The modern European tea party began about 20 years before the publication of Alice in Wonderland, at which point it was still extremely fashionable. Although there are scattered references to fashionable ladies drinking a cup of tea mid-afternoon in the 17th century, most sources trace the tradition back to the 1840s and Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria’s. In the Duchess’s day, most British people ate two main meals: a huge breakfast served early, and an 8 p.m. dinner (there was a light, informal luncheon in between). The Duchess complained of getting a “sinkful feeling” during the long, snackless gap in between, and started taking a pot of tea and some light treats in her boudoir around 4 p.m.

Tea consumption in Europe had increased dramatically in the early 19th century, especially after Europeans learned the secrets of tea cultivation and began establishing their own plantations, instead of relying on China. The idea of an afternoon tea-based snackfest caught on after Anna began inviting friends to meet her for a cuppa (as Brits now call it) and “a walk in the fields.” Other high society hostesses imitated her party idea, creating intimate afternoon events that usually involved elegant rooms, fine china, hot tea, small sandwiches, and plenty of gossip. The custom really caught on when Queen Victoria attended some of these gatherings, adding her royal imprimatur.

The middle classes followed suit, discovering that tea parties were a relatively economical way to host a gathering. There were garden teas, tennis teas, croquet teas, and more. Eventually, the custom of taking a mid-afternoon tea break became standard across British society, although it diverged into two traditions: “afternoon tea,” for the leisured classes (tea and light snacks) and “high tea” or “meat tea,” a heartier workingman’s dinner that would be served when laborers arrived home after work.

If you’d like to hold a Victorian-style tea party, consider following some of the guidelines for various kinds of teas dispensed in 1893’s Etiquette of Good Society by Lady Gertrude Elizabeth Campbell or Etiquette: What to Do, and How to Do It, written by Lady Constance Eleanora C. Howard in 1885. Both are freely available on Google Books in case you need more information about which spoon to use with your clotted cream.

LADY GERTRUDE ELIZABETH CAMPBELL’S TEA TIPS

Campbell says: “a tea, of whatever kind, may be made one of the most agreeable of meals; for tea always seems to produce sociability, cheerfulness, and vivacity.”

She offers the following guidelines for a country-based high tea, perhaps after some archery or lawn tennis in summer, or music, card games, or charades in winter: 

  • Cover the table with a white tablecloth and line the center with flowers or, if it’s summer, with fruit. “Nothing looks more tempting than bowls of old china filled with ripe red strawberries, and jugs of rich cream by their side,” Campbell notes.
  • Adorn the table with glass dishes of preserved fruit and jams, and cakes of various kinds (Campbell suggests plum, rice and sponge cakes), as well as hot muffins, crumpets, toast, and little tea cakes. More substantial fare, such as cold salmon, pigeon, veal and ham pie, should go on the sideboards. If it’s a “hungry tea,” Campbell says, you may add roast beef and lamb “for the gentlemen.”
  • Place the tea tray at one end of the table, and a tray with coffee at the other.
  • Servants should be experienced, since they’ll have plenty of work to do passing around cups of tea, cream, and sugar, and keeping an eye out for empties. There should be one servant for carving up the meats, one to change the plates, another to hand out the bread and butter, plus several more to spare just in case.
  • However, after the fruit has been passed out, the servants should leave the room so that the guests can enjoy themselves without fear of being overheard. (Again, gossip is pretty much the point of a tea party.)
  • The meal may be followed by dancing on the lawn or in the drawing room, with music, charades, or some other kind of parlor entertainment. If there’s no entertainment, guests repair to reception rooms to chat.
  • Furniture arrangement in the reception rooms is key: groups of tables and chairs should be placed so that the guests can form little groups that make the room look full, but not too crowded. “A room stiffly arranged will destroy all the wish for conversation and mirth, and also the power of producing it as well,” Lady Campbell notes.
  • The absolute worst idea, she says, is to let the guests form themselves into one big circle. This leads to an “immediate depression,” since “few people have the sang froid to talk, much less freely and well, when everyone can hear their remarks.” The hostess must keep an eye out to prevent this catastrophe. If she does not, “a gloom pervades, hilarity ceases, only an occasional remark is ventured upon, and the party is converted into a Quaker’s meeting.”

Campbell shares these tips for a light afternoon tea, also known as a “small tea,” usually served around 5 p.m., where things are less formal:

  • Invitations are sent out indicating that the lady of the house will be “at home” on such and such an afternoon (no reply from the guest is needed).
  • Guests are ushered into the hostess’s drawing room. Tea equipment—usually a specially designed set—should be placed near the lady of the house, who pours the tea herself.
  • Cups and saucers should be small and dainty, as should spoons, sugar basin, tongs and cream jug. Plates of cakes and bread and butter should be brought into the room.
  • Gentlemen should offer their services handling the cake and pouring the tea, but should not be too anxious to do so, since “people do not assemble at these 5 o’clock teas to eat and drink.”
  • Larger afternoon teas, however, will require servants to pour and pass out the tea, but at “little teas,” servants should be excluded if possible.
  • Tea may be followed by whist, music, or a dance on the carpet, which “finds favor with young people.”
  • You should “on no account stay later than seven o’clock.”

LADY CONSTANCE ELEANORA C. HOWARD’S TEA TIPS

  • At a country tea, you might add a patterned tablecloth, perhaps one covered in poppies or cornflowers. Adding meat is a welcome touch for those who have come from far away, as is adding a tray with sherry, brandy, or seltzer for those who prefer it to tea. Always include salt, since some people sprinkle it on their bread and butter.
  • Knives should only be used for cutting the cake, and not by each person, unless toast, butter, jam, etc. is being served. Hot water can be sent up in an urn, kettle, or jug, but using a silver jug isn’t a good plan, since the water gets cold quickly. Teaspoons, however, should be silver, while china or colored Venetian glass dishes are best for butter and jam.
  • Hostesses pour the tea themselves, asking each guest if they take sugar, cream, or milk, and then handing the cups to the gentlemen, who in turn hand them to the ladies, who are clustered around the room in little groups. Gentlemen also pass out the cakes, muffins, etc.
  • Howard notes that plates must always be used at a 5 o’clock tea, and that to place cake or scone in a saucer or on the table would be “very vulgar.”
  • Serviettes (also known as napkins) should never be used.
  • The butler and footman can arrange the room and set the table, but then should leave the room, since servants don’t usually wait on guests at teas. Instead “they wait upon each other, who is far less formal and much more agreeable.”

Howard offers the following advice for a formal 5 o’clock tea in London, noting “ladies like it extremely; gentlemen, as a rule, detest it most cordially.”

  • Invitations are given verbally, or on an ordinary visiting card. A request for RSVPs may be added on the right corner, although they aren’t usually (if they are present, an immediate reply is required). If there will be entertainment, that should be noted. Note that “5 o’clock tea” is not the right term for an invitation—the hostess merely says she is “at home.” The host’s name is never added to the invitation, only the hostess’s.
  • Two weeks’ notice is usual for more formal teas, although invitations can be sent out only a week in advance for smaller ones.
  • Formal teas—or “ceremonious teas”—can include from 50 to 200 guests, at which point it’s customary to produce some light entertainment alongside the tea-sipping. “The music should be as good as possible,” notes Howard, “though not important enough to actually be a concert.”
  • The “semi-ceremonious tea” numbers 40 to 100 people, and requires less formal entertainment, perhaps recitations or “good amateur talent, vocal or instrumental.”
  • At even less formal teas, of 10 to 25 people, general chatting or tête-à-têtes can take the place of entertainment or instruction.
  • Never station a servant at the door to announce guests; they should walk right in, since they know the hostess is at home.
  • Never use red cloth at any party unless royalty is present.
  • Tea and coffee should be in silver urns, and the buffet prettily decorated with flowers that are in season, as well as fancy biscuits, brown and white bread and butter cut very thin, and cakes (plum, seed, pound, and sponge). Sherry, champagne, claret, lemonade, ices, fruit, potted game, sandwiches, and (in the summer) bowls heaped with strawberries and whipped cream should be placed on the center table.
  • More formal teas should be served in the dining room, smaller teas in a boudoir or anteroom.
  • It is polite to greet your hostess before taking any tea, coffee, or sweets. The hostess should stand just inside the doorway of the room at a more formal tea, and at a small tea, she receives guests inside the room, advancing a few steps to greet each arrival.
  • Unless a hostess is lame or very old, etiquette requires that she should move about the room among her guests to make sure they have someone to talk to and have enough tea at all times. Her daughter or daughters should help her. Guests, too, can move around the room—there is no need to stay in one spot unless the conversation is “very absorbing.”
  • Formal, general introductions are not needed, although the hostess may introduce two people if she thinks that one, or both, would value her doing so.
  • Punctuality is not necessary at 5 o’clock tea, and guests should feel free to come when they like and leave when it pleases them.
  • Ladies may ask for a second cup of tea if they are thirsty, but it would “look peculiar” if they ask for chocolate, milk, soda, cider, or some other beverage not usually served at a tea.
  • Ladies intending to eat ices, cake, bread, etc. should take off their gloves, but gloves can stay on if one is only drinking tea or coffee without eating.
  • Conversation should be in a low tone so as not to disturb those who are doing their best to amuse the guests, and guests should at least try to look as if they are listening to the performances.
  • Never tip the servants.

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Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage designed a computer in the 1840s. A cartoonist finishes the project

Sydney Padua’s graphic novel tells the story of Babbage and Lovelace with a twist – they actually build their Analytical Engine.

To see a selection of extracts from the book, click here.

lovelace engine
200 years after Ada Lovelace’s birth, the Analytical Engine she designed with Charles Babbage is finally built, thanks to the imagination of Sydney Padua. Illustration: The Observer

‘Surely there must be a couple of new Ada Lovelaces lurking in this land?” exclaimed digital doyenne Martha Lane Fox last month, as she issued a call for women to turn their hands to tech – part of her new plan, dubbed Dot Everyone, for an internet-savvy nation.

It’s little wonder that the enigmatic daughter of Lord Byron has been put, posthumously, on a pedestal. Brought up to shun the lure of poetry and revel instead in numbers, Lovelace teamed up with mathematician Charles Babbage who had grand plans for an adding machine, named the Difference Engine, and a computer called the Analytical Engine, for which Lovelace wrote the programs. Then tragedy struck – Lovelace died, aged just 36. They never built a machine.

Ada Lovelace.

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Ada Lovelace. Photograph: Getty

But now the mother of computing might finally have the chance to realise her own potential. As the eponymous stars of a new graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, the pair have been resurrected to finish what they started. “I guess it just seemed like a really stupid ending, that they didn’t build the machine,” says author Sydney Padua, a London-based computer animator. “Plus I really wanted to draw comics … and you can’t draw very good comics about dead people and their machine they didn’t build!” Having first illustrated the duo some years ago to mark Ada Lovelace Day, the annual celebration of women in science and tech, the comic’s huge popularity spurred Padua to develop the cartoons on her blog and ultimately unleash the book.

Exploring, then rejecting, the sad fate of Lovelace and her plans, Padua turns the tables on history, setting the aristocrat to work building a mechanical behemoth. The upshot is a pipe-smoking, jodphur-wearing steampunk technologist who would startle even Lane Fox. It doesn’t end there. Having built a technological masterpiece, a series of madcap escapades ensue in which Lovelace and Babbage are joined by a host of Victorian celebrities, from the ultimate client from hell, Queen Victoria, who demands the machine be used for fighting crime, to novelist George Eliot, who finds herself lost in its maze-like interior. “It really is very much about my own experiences in the labyrinth of computing,” says Padua.

But if the reborn mathematicians find building a machine something of a handful, they aren’t alone. In trying to present an accurate depiction of the analytical engine for an explanatory appendix (shown here), Padua discovered there was little to go on, and found herself rifling through the work of Babbage scholar Allan Bromley for design clues. “I just sat down, basically, with the Bromley papers and whatever of Babbage’s plans I could get my hands on through fair means or foul,” she says. The result is a shining feat of engineering that her dynamic duo would be proud of. A rip-roaring caper engulfed in footnotes of quotes, quips and illuminating asides (Babbage, Padua reveals, gained notoriety as the scourge of street musicians), the book does more than simply celebrate the genius of the first computer programmer, it encourages us to turn our imagination to technology – just as Lovelace did. And that’s an inspiration to us all.

The thrilling adventures of Lovelace and Babbage – in pictures

Sydney Padua’s new graphic novel, set in Victorian London, tells the story of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage’s attempts to invent the first computer, with cameos from George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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Origins of human alcohol consumption revealed

alcohol1.jpg

File photo (GERMANY-BEER/ REUTERS/Michael Dalder)

Human ancestors may have begun evolving the knack for consuming alcohol about 10 million years ago, long before modern humans began brewing booze, researchers say.

The ability to break down alcohol likely helped human ancestors make the most out of rotting, fermented fruit that fell onto the forest floor, the researchers said. Therefore, knowing when this ability developed could help researchers figure out when these human ancestors began moving to life on the ground, as opposed to mostly in trees, as earlier human ancestors had lived.

“A lot of aspects about the modern human condition everything from back pain to ingesting too much salt, sugar and fat goes back to our evolutionary history,” said lead study author Matthew Carrigan, a paleogeneticist at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. “We wanted to understand more about the modern human condition with regards to ethanol,” he said, referring to the kind of alcohol found in rotting fruit and that’s also used in liquor and fuel.

To learn more about how human ancestors evolved the ability to break down alcohol, scientists focused on the genes that code for a group of digestive enzymes called the ADH4 family. ADH4 enzymes are found in the stomach, throat and tongue of primates, and are the first alcohol-metabolizing enzymes to encounter ethanol after it is imbibed.

The researchers investigated the ADH4 genes from 28 different mammals, including 17 primates. They collected the sequences of these genes from either genetic databanks or well-preserved tissue samples. [Holiday Drinking: How 8 Common Medications Interact with Alcohol]

The scientists looked at the family trees of these 28 species, to investigate how closely related they were and find out when their ancestors diverged. In total, they explored nearly 70 million years of primate evolution. The scientists then used this knowledge to investigate how the ADH4 genes evolved over time and what the ADH4 genes of their ancestors might have been like.

Then, Carrigan and his colleagues took the genes for ADH4 from these 28 species, as well as the ancestral genes they modeled, and plugged them into bacteria, which read the genes and manufactured the ADH4 enzymes. Next, they tested how well those enzymes broke down ethanol and other alcohols.

This method of using bacteria to read ancestral genes is “a new way to observe changes that happened a long time ago that didn’t fossilize into bones,” Carrigan said.

The results suggested there was a single genetic mutation 10 million years ago that endowed human ancestors with an enhanced ability to break down ethanol. “I remember seeing this huge difference in effects with this mutation and being really surprised,” Carrigan said.

The scientists noted that the timing of this mutation coincided with a shift to a terrestrial lifestyle. The ability to consume ethanol may have helped human ancestors dine on rotting, fermenting fruit that fell on the forest floor when other food was scarce.

“I suspect ethanol was a second-choice item,” Carrigan said. “If the ancestors of humans, chimps and gorillas had a choice between rotten and normal fruit, they would go for the normal fruit. Just because they were adapted to be able to ingest it doesn’t mean ethanol was their first choice, nor that they were perfectly adapted to metabolize it. They might have benefited from small quantities, but not to excessive consumption.”

In people today, drinking in moderation can have benefits, but drinking in excess can definitely cause health problems, experts agree. Scientists have suggested that problems people have with drinking, such as heart disease, liver disease, and mental health problems, result because humans have not evolved genes to sufficiently process ethanol. Similarly, humans have not evolved genes to handle large amounts of sugar, fat and salt, which, in turn, have given way to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and many other health problems.

One model for the evolution of alcohol consumption suggests that ethanol only entered the human diet after people began to store extra food, potentially after the advent of agriculture, and that humans subsequently developed ways to intentionally direct the fermentation of food about 9,000 years ago. Therefore, the theory goes, alcoholism as a disease resulted because the human genome has not had enough time to fully adapt to alcohol.

Another model suggests that human ancestors began consuming alcohol as early as 80 million years ago, when early primates occasionally ate rotting fermented fruit rich in ethanol. This model suggests that the attraction to alcohol started becoming a problem once modern humans began intentionally fermenting food because it generated far more ethanol than was normally found in nature. The new findings support this model.

In the future, Carrigan and his colleagues want to investigate what the ethanol content of fallen fruit might be, and find out whether apes, such as chimpanzees or gorillas, are willing to consume fermented fruit with varying levels of ethanol.

“We also want to look at other enzymes involved in alcohol metabolism, to see if they’re co-evolving with ADH4 at the same time,” Carrigan said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Dec. 1 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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