The Friday Fillip

It’s a science fillip this Friday and I’ve got three mildly related stories for your delectation.

1. The Complete Works of Charles Darwin is/are online. Here you’ll find “Darwin’s complete publications, thousands of handwritten manuscripts and the largest Darwin bibliography and manuscript catalogue ever published; also hundreds of supplementary works: biographies, obituaries, reviews, reference works and more.” You might want to take a look at the celebrated Voyages of The Adventure and Beagle — and you can, both in a scan of the original work and in the plain text version alongside. Or you may want to give your eyes a rest from text and feast them upon some of the 1000 illustrations available on the site. And if the use of your eyes for any purpose is simply too, too fatiguing at this point in the week, you can listen to a not-bad computerized voice read Darwin’s works in downloadable MP3 files. Which mention of audio brings me to my next science story…

2. Robert McCarthy, an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University, is a supporter of homo Neanderthalis, defending them against charges that they were nasty, brutish and short. And against claims that they were dumb. He and his team have reconstructed Neanderthal vocal tracts and have given a computer the task of coming up with a sound that such pipes might make. In McCarthy’s view, Neanderthals lacked the ability to produce “quantal hallmarks,” which are, I think, the variations in vowel sounds that let us distinguish between a long and a short ‘e’ for example. If a computer-generated Darwin is not to your liking, you may enjoy listening instead toa computer-generated Neanderthal ‘e’ — and a normal ‘e’ with which to contrast it. But enough of computer noises; it’s time for my third science story.

3. Which involves very human noises, thanks to the marvelous Tom Lehrer, the singing satirist from the sixties who also happened to have a day job as a mathematician at Harvard. He turned 80 last week, an event noted by the Official Google Blog, which took the occasion to link to various of his hilarious songs that are available on YouTube. Though my own favourite is the Vatican Rag (not mentioned by Google for some reason), in deference to today’s science theme and because some of you may not regard mathematics as a science, I’ll direct you immediately to the Element Song, a tour de force in which the master reels off the periodic table at a machine gun pace. But these are only two of his many masterpieces, most of which you’ll find with this YouTube search.

Oh, and curiously, Tom Lehrer wrote a song about the letter ‘e’, “Silent E” for Sesame Street, which I’d not heard before.


  1. Happy birthday, Tom Lehrer! Simon, I can’t believe you didn’t mention “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, given the spectacularly springlike day we have going on.