It isn’t always worth doing the science

A new working paper that came out last month offered an explanation for why so many students begin college as science majors and end up switching to other subjects: science is hard. Of course, this isn’t a new conclusion: the New York Times covered it two years ago, and the Onion was on it back in 2002, but the paper’s recent publication helped its thesis attract considerable attention in recent weeks.

As a biology major who decided to go to law school, you might be tempted to lump me in with the people who gave up on science because it’s hard. But I’m here to argue that that doesn’t have to be the case. Sometimes, science is really easy, as will be demonstrated through the example of some science I did that consumes the rest of this post.

On my way home from work today, I listened to a Science Friday segment that aired back in January 2011, An Earlier Departure Out Of Africa? Here’s how SciFri host Ira Flatow introduced the segment:

Most anthropologists agree that human evolution started in Africa and spread from there. But when did our ancestors venture out, and what route did they take? That’s one of the biggest questions in human origins . . . and now there is some new information that could really heat up the debate and . . . helping some scientists fill in some of the blanks.

Researchers report this week in the journal Science that they have found an ancient toolkit in an unlikely place, and they’re talking about the United Arab Emirates. The finding, they say, suggests that modern humans may have left Africa a lot earlier than anyone had thought, and their exodus may have taken a whole different route than what most people are talking about.

Here to talk about it with me is Will Harcourt-Smith. He is a research associate in paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.

Being published in Science is sort of a big deal, which gives you an idea of the interest this finding garnered back when it was published two and a half years ago. But before you get too impressed, let’s hear a little more about this discovery — and why we should be so impressed [feel free to skim, and concentrate on the parts I bolded]:

FLATOW: What is so interesting about this discovery? This pouch – was it a pouch or just a group of tools, just a bunch of tools found together?

Dr. HARCOURT-SMITH: That’s it. It’s just a bunch of tools. I mean, not just. They’re incredibly important. But there are no skeletal remains of humans, fossilized remains.

The reason it’s important is really twofold. It’s an unusual part of the world to find these tools at this date.

FLATOW: What date are we talking about?

Dr. HARCOURT-SMITH: About 120,000 years ago. And in general, we don’t find tools like that down in the Arabian Peninsula. This is way down in the Arabian Peninsula, not far – you know, as you said, in the UAE.

And conventionally, we think that modern humans emigrated out of Africa somewhat later, about 60,000, 70,000 years ago, through the Middle East, advanced, you know, into Europe and eventually sort of further east into Asia.

This implies that they may have taken a second route, which would have been through the Horn of Africa, straight into Arabia. And they’ve done a really neat bit of work here. They’ve not just looked at the stone tools, they’ve also looked at the sea levels and the geology, and they think that humans would have been able to get across at the straits there, right at Yemen near the port of Aden.

They would have been able to get – it’s very narrow there anyway, and they would have been able to get across. So we’re looking at a second route out of Africa, which is quite exciting.

There is, admittedly, some disagreement*, but wouldn’t it have been a whole lot easier to just glance at a map?

east africa to middle east bridge

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*An alternative to the article I wrote would have just used the scientific findings to decide which version is right. Why did I choose to go in the direction I did? You can’t ask a kashe on a ma’aseh.

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