It is one of those little ironies of historical memory that we sometimes forget why we took an interest in some things. Take flying saucers. How many of us realise that the reason they made headlines in 1947 was not because Kenneth Arnold thought he saw spaceships from another world; but simply because he reported objects travelling at “incredible speed”? Our local paper headlined it “Officials Skeptical of Report of 1200 Mile-an-Hour Object”. The next day: “1200 MPH Flying Saucer Story Has Teller Up in Air”. The initial Associated Press dispatch specifically has Arnold saying that “he could not hazard a guess as to what they were” and ends with him admitting, “It seems impossible, but there it is.”
The reason it seemed impossible was because back in June 1947 aeroplanes were not capable of even half that speed. They had not even broken the sound barrier quite yet, although they were edging up to it. Chuck Yeager would win that prize a mere four months after the Arnold report. In his report to the Air Force, Arnold mentions an Air Force pilot suggested he had seen “some kind of jet or rocket-propelled ship that is in the process of being tested”. A subsequent communication to the Commanding General of Wright Field has him adding that he “felt certain they belonged to our government”.
The argument over whether the universe has a creator, and who that might be, is among the oldest in human history. But amid the raging arguments between believers and sceptics, one possibility has been almost ignored – the idea that the universe around us was created by people very much like ourselves, using devices not too dissimilar to those available to scientists today.
As with much else in modern physics, the idea involves particle acceleration, the kind of thing that goes on in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Before the LHC began operating, a few alarmists worried that it might create a black hole which would destroy the world. That was never on the cards: although it is just possible that the device could generate an artificial black hole, it would be too small to swallow an atom, let alone the Earth.
Sexual selection is, for lack of a better term, a sexy concept. Charles Darwin elaborated on the specific phenomenon of sexual selection in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. In The Third Chimpanzee Jared Diamond endorsed Darwin’s thesis that sexual selection could explain the origin of human races, as each isolated population extended their own particular aesthetic preferences. More recently the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller put forward an entertaining, if speculative, battery of arguments in The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. It’s clearly the stuff of science that can sell.
Sexual selection itself comes in a variety of flavors. Perhaps the most counterintuitive one on first blush is the idea that many traits, such as antlers, are positively costly and exist only to signal robust health which can incur the cost without debility. The idea was outlined by Amotz Zahavi in The Handicap Principle in the 1970s. Initially dismissed by Richard Dawkins in the original edition of The Selfish Gene, Zahavi’s ideas have come into modest mainstream acceptance, and the second edition of Dawkins’ seminal work reflects a revised appraisal.