We are humans. As such we have senses and social histories that color our world view. No matter how hard anyone tries to be impartial it’s just not truly possible. Unless you’re a fictional TV character or a robot. And even then I’m not so sure since both are created by fallible folks like you and me. Yesterday I wrote a brief update on an article I’d done a while back about Atlantis and then I went into the research on Yetis, which took an odd turn towards reality. Several people wrote to me that the scientists in both cases were wrong since their research did not support the known facts. Actually, in both cases that is patently untrue. It’s just that the research does not support the many myths surrounding each. Which brings us back to perceptions. Some of the best scientists I know admit their biases and make sure to note them so when their work is peer reviewed they can be accounted for. Well, they do that to the best of their abilities. Still, science muddles on and gets enough right to keep me interested.
Well two stories popped up today to truly drive home my point. First we’ll join Tia Ghose on a trip 2,600 years back in time to see sexism first hand.
Last month, archaeologists announced a stunning find: a completely sealed tomb cut into the rock in Tuscany, Italy.
The untouched tomb held what looked like the body of an Etruscan prince holding a spear, along with the ashes of his wife. Several news outlets reported on the discovery of the 2,600-year-old warrior prince.
But the grave held one more surprise.
A bone analysis has revealed the warrior prince was actually a princess, as Judith Weingarten, an alumna of the British School at Athens noted on her blog, Zenobia: Empress of the East.
Historians know relatively little about the Etruscan culture that flourished in what is now Italy until its absorption into the Roman civilization around 400 B.C. Unlike their better-known counterparts, the ancient Greeks and the Romans, the Etruscans left no historical documents, so their graves provide a unique insight into their culture.
The new tomb, unsealed by archaeologists in Tuscany, was found in the Etruscan necropolis of Tarquinia, a UNESCO World Heritage site where more than 6,000 graves have been cut into the rock.
“The underground chamber dates back to the beginning of the sixth century B.C. Inside, there are two funerary beds carved into the rock,” Alessandro Mandolesi, the University of Turin archaeologist who excavated the site, wrote in an email.
When the team removed the sealed slab blocking the tomb, they saw two large platforms. On one platform lay a skeleton bearing a lance. On another lay a partially incinerated skeleton. The team also found several pieces of jewelry and a bronze-plated box, which may have belonged to a woman, according to the researchers.
“On the inner wall, still hanging from a nail, was an aryballos [a type of flask] oil-painted in the Greek-Corinthian style,” Mandolesi said.
Initially, the lance suggested the skeleton on the biggest platform was a male warrior, possibly an Etruscan prince. The jewelry likely belonged to the second body, the warrior prince’s wife.
But bone analysis revealed the prince holding the lance was actually a 35- to 40-year-old woman, whereas the second skeleton belonged to a man.
Given that, what do archaeologists make of the spear?
“The spear, most likely, was placed as a symbol of union between the two deceased,” Mandolesi told Viterbo News 24 on Sept. 26.
Weingarten doesn’t believe the symbol of unity explanation. Instead, she thinks the spear shows the woman’s high status.
Their explanation is “highly unlikely,” Weingarten told LiveScience. “She was buried with it next to her, not him.”
The mix-up highlights just how easily both modern and old biases can color the interpretation of ancient graves.
In this instance, the lifestyles of the ancient Greeks and Romans may have skewed the view of the tomb. Whereas Greek women were cloistered away, Etruscan women, according to Greek historian Theopompus, were more carefree, working out, lounging nude, drinking freely, consorting with many men and raising children who did not know their fathers’ identities.
Instead of using objects found in a grave to interpret the sites, archaeologists should first rely on bone analysis or other sophisticated techniques before rushing to conclusions, Weingarten said.
“Until very recently, and sadly still in some countries, sex determination is based on grave goods. And that, in turn, is based almost entirely on our preconceptions. A clear illustration is jewelry: We associate jewelry with women, but that is nonsense in much of the ancient world,” Weingarten said. “Guys liked bling, too.”
She is 100% right. Ancient Egyptian males, several African tribes, ancient Chinese and many others had males who wore as much, if not more, jewelry than their female counterparts. Furthermore, history is jam packed with examples of female warriors and leaders. To use modern sexual mores is not a good idea.
Actually, it never was and never will be.
But, as you can clearly see, even the best minds can succumb to social prejudices.
Another form of perception is wishful thinking. Cadell Last asks an interesting question; if the theory is that an advanced civilization would actually use a star as a fuel source, not just solar panels but actually tap into it, and that such fuel sources would show erratic orbits, can you imagine being the guy who looked at the data and asked “Hey, guys, is that what I think it is?”
Cadell talks to that guy.
Philosophy and the physical sciences have a long and interesting past spanning the entirety of human history. Philosophers have played the role of logically deducing the existence of certain physical phenomena that were untestable. Physical scientists have then either empirically confirmed or refuted the philosophical speculation proposed when the necessary technology and/or method were developed.
Sometimes the philosophical speculations failed to describe the nature of reality, like the Ancient Greek proposition that the heavens were composed of a fifth element: aether. However, on several occasions, the philosophical speculations turned out to be quite exact. For example, in the 4th century B.C.E. philosopher Democritus deduced that the universe was composed of indivisible units of matter known as “atoms.” This belief wassubstantiated over 2,000 years later by the theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (you may have heard of him).
A similarly impressive academic partnership manifested when the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno read the On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres by astronomer Nicholas Copernicus. Bruno found Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the solar system ground breaking (which it was), and logically deduced that all stars in the night sky were fundamentally similar to our own Sun, and that they had worlds gravitationally bound to them. He famously stated that:
This space we declare to be infinite, since neither reason, convenience, possibility, sense-perception nor nature assign to it a limit. In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own.
Of course, we now know that Bruno was more or less right. Most stars seem to exist as systems with at least one exoplanet.
In the modern world some believe that this ancient relationship between philosophy and the physical sciences is dead, or dying, or functionally redundant. But I most certainly disagree. Last week I had a chance to meet with philosopher (and systems theorist)Clément Vidal (@clemvidal). Vidal has pointed out that there are certain binary star systems that astrophysicists have had difficulty explaining with conventional astrophysical models. These binaries are semi-detatched stars that exhibit an energy flow that is irregular, but not out of control. Vidal argues that instead of an astrophysical model, we need an astrobiological model to describe these strange systems.
In essence Vidal is claiming that these systems are not typical binary stars, but rather civilizations that have advanced well passed a Type 1 civilization on the Kardashev scale and are now actively feeding on their parent star. He calls these hypothetical civilizations starivores. And if he is right… then there are approximately 2,000 known starivores in our galaxy alone.
Surely this idea is worthy of scientific attention and empirical testing. Democritus’s speculation was tested after the introduction of the special theory of relativity. Bruno’s speculation was tested as our telescope technology improved. Is there any theoretical model or technology we could use today that could validate or refute Vidal’s speculation?
Perhaps, the necessary test is related to understanding the nature of the binary systems “metabolism.” Metabolism is one of the fundamental and necessary conditions for complex living systems because it allows them to draw and sustain order from the surrounding non-living chaos. So if these binary systems are actually intelligent civilizations feeding on their parent star then we should expect a degree of energy flow control that cannot be described by the laws of physics alone.
This idea may come as a shock. Over the past 50 years scientists have been disappointed by data indicating that we are alone in the Milky Way. Physicists like Max Tegmark have even gone so far as to suggest that we are the first intelligent civilization to arise in the entire universe. And he might be right… but he might be very wrong as well.
Major breakthroughs in the sciences can come from ideas that at first seem bizarre… even impossible. But the universe has also proved to be stranger than we ever imagined. In my opinion Clément Vidal has called our attention to an interesting phenomenon that our current theories cannot describe fully. I strongly suggest reading his Ph.D. thesis discussing the possibility of starivores (Chapter 9 — PDF here). And if you are a researcher interested in putting his speculation to the test, the Evo Devo Universe community has just announced the creation of the High Energy Astrobiology Prize. The community is interested in receiving a research study that can either positively or negatively test the starivore hypothesis.
I’m interested to see what we discover!
I sincerely doubt we are alone in the universe. Heck, I doubt if we’re alone in our galaxy. There are just too many opportunities for life to develop.
Or, to be more blunt, do you really want to live in a universe where I’m the most evolved being you know?