Buddha’s Skull Found

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This instantly brings up the profound question which has also been asked of Jesus: if a verified portion of remains was discovered, could it be cloned to reproduce the being? In this case it would mean the Buddha reincarnated via genetic engineering. It is possible, but should it be done?

Buddha’s skull found in 1,000-year-old miniature pagoda in China

Archaeologists have claimed that a 1,000-year-old miniature pagoda, unearthed in Nanjing, China, holds a piece of skull belonging to Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism.

According to a report in the Telegraph, the pagoda was wedged tightly inside an iron case that was discovered at the site of a former temple in the city in August this year.

The four-storey pagoda, which is almost four feet high and one-and-a-half feet wide, is thought by archaeologists to be one of the 84,000 pagodas commissioned by Ashoka the Great in the second century BC to house the remains of the Buddha.

The pagoda found in Nanjing is crafted from wood, gilded with silver and inlaid with gold, coloured glass and amber.

It matches a description of another of Ashoka’s pagodas, which used to be housed underneath the Changgan Buddhist temple in Nanjing.

A description of the contents of the pagoda indicate the presence of a gold coffin bearing part of Buddha’s skull inside a silver box.

Although scans have confirmed that there are two small metal boxes inside the pagoda, experts have not yet peered inside.

According to Qi Haining, the head of archaeology at Nanjing Museum, “This pagoda may be unique, the only one known to contain parts of Buddha’s skull”.

But he said there would be a lengthy process before the cases could be opened.

“The discovery of the relic will have a huge influence on the cultural history of Buddhism in China and will establish Nanjing as a premier site. It will be a great encouragement for Buddhists as well as for future studies,” said De Qing, an expert in Buddhism in Nanjing.

“It is important for Buddhism as a religion to have these sarira, or relics, to show its followers. The more a Buddhist practises, the more relics will remain of him after his death. I am hugely excited. I think they should take the skull outside of the container, it is a sacred item, but it is not an untouchable item,” he added.

Siddhartha Gautama, who is believed to have been born in the fifth century BC, was a spiritual teacher and recognized by Buddhists as the Supreme Buddha of our age.

Also known as Shakyamuni, or the Sage of the Sakyas, his teachings are contained in the Tripitaka, the canon of Buddhist thought.

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How Did the Turtle Get Its Shell?

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Oldest Turtle Found; May Crack Shell-Evolution Mystery

by Brian Handwerk

Fossils of the oldest-known turtles, unearthed in southwestern China, may help answer an evolutionary enigma—how did the turtle get its shell?

The 220-million-year-old animals did not have full shells, or carapaces, on their backs, researchers found.

But the newfound creatures did sport fully developed plastrons—the flat part of a turtle shell that covers and protects the belly.

The discovery supports the theory that turtle shells formed from the underside—plastron first—and grew bony extensions of ribs and backbones that eventually joined to form the classic shell that exists today.

(Related: “Earliest Swimming Turtle Fossils Found—New Species” [November 19, 2008].)

Alternate Theory

An alternate theory of shell evolution suggests that turtle shells developed from the fusion of bony armor plates in the skin, known as osteoderms, seen in some dinosaurs and some modern-day reptiles, including crocodiles.

But the prehistoric turtle, dubbed Odontochelys semitestacea and described in a recent edition of the journal Nature, has no osteoderms.

“So far there is no direct evidence for the osteoderm theory,” said study co-author Chun Li of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

“On the contrary, here, in our hands, there is an ideal missing link for turtle evolution. It has no osteoderms on its back, but only ossified neural [central] plates and expanded ribs.”

(Explore a prehistoric time line.)

The study also notes that embryonic evidence from modern turtles suggests that their shells begin to form in a similar manner.

“If plastrons developed first, they may point to a marine lifestyle in which turtle bellies needed protection from predators,” Li noted.

“We are not sure if the water [was] marine or [from other water bodies], so we presumed … that the animal inhabited marginal areas of the sea or deltas,” he said.

Exciting Discovery

Scientists have waited a long time for a find like Odontochelys, Li said: The previously oldest known turtles featured fully formed shells.

“The new specimens are a very exciting discovery,” agreed Robert Reisz of the University of Toronto, who was not involved in the research.

But Reisz suggests an alternate evolutionary interpretation for the intriguing fossils.

“Their argument is valid,” he said of Li and colleagues.

“But we argue that it’s equally possible that this could already be a [shell] reduction in an earlier turtle that we haven’t found. Lots of marine turtles actually reduce their shell once they get into the water.”

“Hopefully we’ll find more,” Reisz added. “We’re closing the gap, but there is still a big morphological gap between this turtle and its non-turtle ancestors.”

Odontochelys also boasts another feature seen in no other turtles so far—teeth, Reisz added.

“Basically if you look at all the turtles we know, other than this one, they all have a beak rather than teeth,” he said.

“Turtles come from reptile ancestors with teeth so we expected this, but it’s still a great thing to find.”

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Dealzmodowatch

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Dealzmodo is worth checking out. They have been monitoring stores online and real to get the best real deals possible this holiday. Heckuva job, Gizzies.

The Financiapocalypse can’t stop Christmas, but it can sure as hell suck some of the joy out of it. At the very least, it’s probably making you reconsider just how much you wanna spend on toys for yourself and others this holiday season. You’re probably looking to cut corners here and there, on dollar-store Christmas lights, iPod knockoffs and the like. That’s all fine and dandy, but we’ve made a list of things you can’t afford to cheap out on, because doing so will bite you in the ass later.

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Mystery of Dolphins’ Speed Solved

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Mystery of dolphins’ speed solved

New research has shown how dolphins achieve their blinding speeds.

Gray’s Paradox – named after British zoologist Sir James Gray – proposed that dolphins simply do not have the strength to swim so fast.

But researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US have now studied the movement of water around dolphins as they swim.

The results show that dolphins can exert as much as 400lb of force with their tails.

Gray had supposed they could produce less than a tenth of this amount, and imagined that something about the dolphins’ skin allowed them to overcome the force of drag in the water and reach high speeds.

“For the first time, I think we can safely say the puzzle is solved,” said Tim Wei, the Rensselaer scientist who led the study.

“The short answer is that dolphins are simply much stronger than Gray or many other people ever imagined.”

To determine this, Professor Wei used a new method of measuring the movement of water that he originally developed to track Olympic swimmers.

The technique employs digital particle image velocimetry, which measures the speed of water movements around a swimming dolphin or human.

Retired US Navy dolphins Primo and Puka were filmed swimming through a tank filled with millions of tiny bubbles.

Software tracked the movement of individual bubbles, determining their speed and direction, and assigning them a colour.

Professor Wei then used force measurement concepts from aerospace research to translate those velocities into a force that the dolphins’ tails were producing – nearly 200lb on average.

When “walking” – keeping upright mostly above water with powerful flips of their tails – the dolphins produced as much as 400lb of force.

Professor Wei will go on to study the motion and force generation of other sea animals.

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Like a Broken Spider-Crab

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PROUST IS DAMN FUNNY

by Adelle Waldman

Recently a friend and I were lolling about at a neighbourhood park when she asked why I was reading Proust–”other than for bragging rights.” Had she asked me the question just a few hours earlier, I might have stumbled over something pompous or false. But it just so happened that I’d had an epiphany about “Remembrance of Things Past,” and an answer at the ready: “It’s funny,” I said. “I expected Proust to be a lot of things, but no one ever told me how funny he would be.”

I read her a passage I’d just encountered:

I was genuinely in love with Mme de Guermantes. The greatest happiness that I could have asked of God would have been that he should send down on her every imaginable calamity, and that ruined, despised, stripped of all the privileges that separated her from me, having no longer any home of her own or people who would condescend to speak to her, she would then come to me for asylum.

This captures Proust’s sensitivity to the absurdities of human nature–and the amusement it affords him. It also highlights the exquisite quality of Proust’s writing. The energy, the accelerating grandeur (not just “ruined” but also “despised” and “stripped of all privileges”), which conveys and yet mocks his growing excitement at the thought of his beloved’s multiplying distresses, and builds expertly to the clincher. And what better word than “asylum”: perfect in its sexlessness and implied power imbalance. (Ah, the egotism of love.)

Proust’s humour has been, for me, one of the most striking elements of “Remembrance of Things Past” (or if you prefer, “In Search of Lost Time”), largely because I wasn’t prepared for it. As I began the seven-volume opus, I knew to expect richly evocative descriptions, great intelligence and scope, analytical precision. I was also prepared for the occasional tedious bits, particularly his famously exhaustive meditations on inanimate objects. But now that I’m more than halfway through volume three, I can declare with confidence that Marcel Proust was a funny guy.

Why didn’t anyone tell me?

Perhaps because Proust’s humour isn’t easily shared. The man shies away from the quick gag; the snicker-friendly quote (the passage above is a rare self-contained morsel). During another park outing, I found myself envious of the blithe pleasure my boyfriend was getting from his book. He was reading “Lucky Jim” and frequently erupting into peals of laughter. He could readily account for his chuckles with a quotation. To wit, here is Kingsley Amis’s description of a hangover:

He lay…spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum….He felt bad.

Funny, sure. In vain, I tried to reciprocate, snipping a wry bit from a scene I was reading involving two long-winded diplomats who are trading personal favours, neither of them acknowledging the pettiness of what was transpiring. It took five minutes to recount the back-story–there were so many essential details about the characters and their convoluted machinations–how else would my boyfriend be able to pick up on the obvious humour in the contrast between the tremendous intelligence of the diplomats’ speeches and the narrow selfishness of their desires? When I’d finally finished talking, he looked relieved. “That sounds…funny,” he said and quickly turned back to “Lucky Jim”.

That’s the nature of Proust’s humour–subtle and difficult, consisting of many moving parts. It tends to arise from a gradual accumulation of insights that are as shrewd as they are absurd. The results are priceless, but hard to package.

Consider this from Swann’s Way. Young Proust meticulously observes and analyses the behaviour of his family members over dinner with their amiable neighbour M. Swann, who sent a bottle of Asti to Proust’s elderly great aunts–a kind but modest gesture of goodwill. The aunts want to thank Swann for the gift, but their notions of delicacy are so strict that they believe mentioning it in front of the group will embarrass him:

My grandmother’s sisters…in their horror of vulgarity had brought to such a fine art the concealment of a personal allusion in a wealth of ingenious circumlocution that it would often pass unnoticed even by the person to whom it was addressed.

When another diner casually mentions a person who has nice neighbours, one of the aunts says loudly, “‘M. Vinteul is not the only who has nice neighbours,’” while “darting …what she called a ‘significant glance’ at Swann,” who, unfortunately, fails to pick up on this subtle tribute. (In fact, Swann is puzzled by the pair of silver-haired women, who keep giggling in his direction.)

After a few more minutes Swann begins to tell a story, at one point quoting Saint Simon, “Never did I find in that coarse bottle anything but ill-humour, boorishness and folly.” Before he can continue, the other great aunt interrupts: “Coarse or not, I know bottles in which there is something very different.” The Asti she means, of course, but alas, only her sister appreciates the reference; Swann is merely startled at the bizarre interjection. The aunts, in their ridiculous discretion, seem a touch senile.

Proust’s gift is in detecting such barely visible minutia, portraying with both empathy and comic precision the self-deluded (and often self-aggrandizing) misconceptions that lurk beneath ordinary life. So the banana peels are few; the chuckles are cerebral in origin. Still, this is potent stuff–and really very funny.

(Adelle Waldman has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Village Voice and the New York Observer, among other outlets. Her last piece for More Intelligent Life was called “Just Marry Him”. Based in New York, she is working on a novel about unmarried women.)

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Scholarly Pajamas and Other Adventures Down the I-Hole

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Group think

The turn to online research is narrowing the range of modern scholarship, a new study suggests

FOR SCHOLARS – ESPECIALLY scholars who like to wear pajamas – the Internet has been a godsend. It allows instant communication with colleagues around the globe, and makes tracking down published research a matter of seconds.

But perhaps the greatest boon is the sheer quantity of readily accessible knowledge. Millions of journal articles are available online, enabling scholars to find material they never would have encountered at their university libraries. From classic psychology studies to the most esoteric literary theory, it’s all just a few clicks away.

A recent study, however, suggests that despite this cornucopia, the boom in online research may actually have a “narrowing” effect on scholarship. James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, analyzed a database of 34 million articles in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and determined that as more journal issues came online, new papers referenced a relatively smaller pool of articles, which tended to be more recent, at the expense of older and more obscure work. Overall, Evans says, published research has expanded, due to a proliferation of journals, authors, and conferences. But the paper, which appeared in July in the journal Science, concludes that the Internet’s influence is to tighten consensus, posing the risk that good ideas may be ignored and lost – the opposite of the Internet’s promise.

“Winners are inadvertently picked,” says Evans. “It drives out diversity.”

This study adds weight to concerns, shared by other Internet analysts, that the rise of online research has costs as well as benefits. Internet search tools are not neutral: they tend to privilege the new and the popular. And for all the frustrations of older research methods, their very inefficiency may have yielded rewards. Leafing through print journals or browsing the stacks can expose researchers to a context that is missing in the highly targeted searches of PubMed or PsychInfo. The old-fashioned style of browsing, some say, can provide academics with more background knowledge, and lead to serendipitous insights when they stumble upon articles or books they weren’t necessarily looking for.

Yet there is vigorous debate over the Internet’s effects, and the Evans research has proved controversial. A University of Quebec researcher, Vincent Lariviere, has coauthored a forthcoming paper that challenges some of its conclusions. (Evans plans to publish a rebuttal.) Another researcher, Carol Tenopir at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, says that she has not studied citations, but that her surveys of reading patterns show the reverse of a narrowing effect.

“Electronic journals, I can say with confidence, have broadened reading,” says Tenopir.

This debate has important implications for the academic world, but it also has wider significance. More and more, the Internet dominates everyday life. Our daily experience – what we watch, listen to, and read; the people we date and the friendships we maintain – is increasingly shaped by the vast information landscape of the Internet, and how it is filtered for personal use.

Different interpretations notwithstanding, many experts agree that we have only begun to understand the repercussions of our Internet consumption. This dim awareness, despite the interactive ethos of Web 2.0, leaves us more passive than we may feel, in the grip of seismic change.

“We have an opportunity to maximize the good effects, and minimize the bad effects,” says Katrina Kuh, a law professor at Hofstra University. “We’re missing that opportunity.”

. . .

Inevitably, the discussion of these questions turns to the theory of the “long tail,” articulated by Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine. Anderson’s argument focuses on consumer choices, positing that the Internet reduces the “blockbuster effect” – whereby consumers settle on a few big hits – and disperses attention over a wider range. Web users gain access to obscure books, movies, and other products that might have escaped their notice without the Internet, and that conventional “brick-and-mortar” stores wouldn’t find it worthwhile to stock. As a result, the theory goes, consumers can satisfy their idiosyncratic preferences rather than following the herd. This is a key part of how we think of the democratic potential of the Internet: We each find our own niche, hierarchies are abolished, and diversity thrives.

Yet in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse challenged that premise. Examining recent music and DVD sales, she found greater concentration, not less. For example, from 2000 to 2005, the number of titles in the top 10 percent of weekly home video sales fell significantly, by more than 50 percent. Her paper concludes: “The importance of individual best sellers is not diminishing over time. It is growing.”

This view tallies with Evans’s observations about scholarship, and those of several other analysts about the Internet more generally. The explosion of online materials has two, somewhat contradictory effects. The scope of available information expands, remarkably so; but as a consequence, the information needs to be filtered somehow.

To make sense of this overwhelming sea of data, search tools must present results in some kind of order. Scholars, like other Internet users, rely on tools that rank results primarily in two ways: in reverse chronological order, and by popularity. (Google’s algorithms, for example, take into account the number of times a website is linked from other websites.)

Social Science Research Network (SSRN), the widely used Internet resource, offers lists of “top papers,” “top authors,” and “top institutions.” A paper titled, ” ‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide,’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy,” by George Washington University law professor Daniel J. Solove, has hovered at the top of the rankings for months, with a total of 65,846 (and counting ) downloads. If you click on a given paper, you can even see a graph depicting the paper’s “raw score” (total new downloads) over time. On many other academic websites, it is standard to present the newest articles first.

These search tools clearly have the potential to open up research. Sean Franzel, a professor of German studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia, studies the effect of different media on scholarship. In his own experience, online searches often bring up results from minor journals he never would have thought to consult. In this way, Internet use “takes you further afield than you otherwise might have gone.” And many Internet users protest that online serendipity is certainly possible, indeed common. Just as researchers may come across unexpected articles in a table of contents, they might see intriguing but not directly relevant articles in lists of top papers and sidebars of related papers.

Even the narrowing effect Evans diagnoses can have advantages. There are benefits to sharing common knowledge and reference points. In this sense, online winnowing could restore the “water cooler” culture of which the Internet and other technologies have supposedly robbed us. In scholarship, convergence facilitates communication and progress. As Evans says, it’s “not so different from the effect of shared language.”

But several observers perceive losses as well. According to Alex Bentley, an anthropologist at Durham University in England, this tendency “makes academic research a popularity contest. My hypothesis is that the way that we latch onto ideas is going to become more fashion-based.”

Naturally, papers that are ranked high in “top papers” lists are more likely to get downloaded again, in part because it’s easiest, but also because their position enhances their legitimacy. “When people become more aware of each other’s choices, they factor those choices into their own activities,” says Evans. One threat is that these decisions can accumulate to amplify an initial choice that might have been arbitrary.

Some scholars lament other lost aspects of print resources. Indexes and tables of contents provide a context, giving a broader snapshot of the field at a given time. And after consulting them, the researcher must make a considered decision to take the next step. By contrast, in online searches, the researcher tends to follow hyperlink to hyperlink, in a journey that resembles “a plunge down a rabbit hole,” in the words of Robert Berring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied the impact of electronic media. “If you get to an index, a table of contents, you see the environment that surrounds it. In the culture of paper, a lot of these signals are important.”

If the narrowing effect is real, what is to be done about it? One possibility is that online tools will emerge to counteract it. Evans himself is working on developing a system that would use sophisticated statistical analysis to find papers including statements that agree or disagree with other statements, “rather than treating papers as bags of words,” Evans says.

Some experts are skeptical that innovative search tools will enter widespread use soon. Instead, they say, it’s up to individuals to be more conscious of the limitations of the current tools.

This caution has far-reaching importance. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein has written about the ways that, contrary to mythology, the Internet can have detrimental influences on democracy, as people retreat to their virtual bubbles.

Many Internet users customize their consumption of news sources and other information in a way that fosters polarization. This, it could be argued, has elements both of the narrowing effect and the long tail. Americans seek out sources that reflect their personal beliefs, consistent with Anderson’s vision. But, akin to the narrowing Evans observes, large groups – liberals and conservatives – converge on different reference points, resulting in mutually unrecognizable versions of reality. The common lesson of all of these phenomena is to be cognizant that the tools we use affect us in ways we may not fully appreciate. We should always be searching, the findings suggest, for new ways to search.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a contributing writer for Ideas. She can be reached at rebecca.tuhusdubrow@gmail.com.

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Unlimitedness of Worlds

Thanks to the Necromancer for bringing this to my attention.

Unlimitedness of Worlds

Found in Epicurus‘ (341-270 BCE) Letter to Herodotus:

“Moreover, there is an unlimited number of cosmoi, and some are similar to this one and some are dissimilar. For the atoms, which are unlimited…are also carried away to very remote distances. For atoms of the sort from which a world might come to be or by which it might be made are not exhausted [in the production] of one world or any finite number of them, neither worlds like this one nor worlds unlike them. Consequently, there is no obstacle to the unlimitedness of worlds.”

From Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, eds., The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994), 8.

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