The History of Urbanization: 3700 BC – 2000 AD

The History of Urbanization: 3700 BC – 2000 AD

This map visualizes the history of urban settlements over 6,000 years.

The data shown in the map comes from a Yale-led study published earlier this month in Scientific Data, which compiled the most comprehensive dataset on historical urban populations to date.

The data has a number of limitations and is “far from comprehensive.” Certain parts of world are better represented than others, and some well known cities do not appear until centuries after they were founded. That said, it is the first global-scale collection of pre-1950 urban populations, and a good starting point for future research.

Neanderthals Were Smarter Than We Thought!

Neanderthals Were Smarter Than We Thought!

Neanderthals (or Neandertals) are our closest extinct human relatives. There is some debate as to whether they were a distinct species of the Homogenus (Homo neanderthalensis) or a subspecies of Homo sapiens. Our well-known, but often misunderstood, fossil kin lived in Eurasia 200,000 to 30,000 years ago, in the Pleistocene Epoch.

In decoding just 0.1% of the genome of the oldest DNA ever recovered from an ancient human, the molecular biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, threw out enough raw data to map the modern human genome dozens of times over

Your ancestral history might be a lot more interesting than you think. Here’s what makes us human… and part Neanderthal.

How the World’s Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change

How the World’s Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change


Feeding more than 7 billion people with minimal environmental and climate impacts is no small feat. That parts of the world are plagued by obesity while starvation is rampant elsewhere shows part of the problem revolves around distribution and social equity. But agricultural methods pose some of the biggest challenges.

Over the past half century, the world has moved increasingly to industrial agriculture—attempting to maximize efficiency through massive, often inhumane livestock operations; turning huge swaths of land over to monocrops requiring liberal use of fertilizers, pesticides and genetic modification; and reliance on fossil fuel-consuming machinery and underpaid migrant workers. This has contributed to increased greenhouse gas emissions; loss of forests and wetlands that prevent climate change by storing carbon; pollution from runoff and pesticides; antibiotic and pesticide resistance; reduced biodiversity; and soil degradation, erosion and loss.

The “solution” offered by many experts is to double down on industrial agriculture and genetic modification. But doing so ignores how natural systems function and interact and assumes we can do better. History shows such hubris often leads to unexpected negative results. Others are attempting to understand how to work within nature’s systems, using agroecological methods.

One promising development is the renewed interest in a soil-building method from the distant past called “dark earth” or “terra preta,” which involves mixing biochar with organic materials to create humus-rich soil that stores large amounts of carbon. In the book Terra Preta: How the World’s Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change and Reduce World Hunger, Ute Scheub and co-authors claim increasing the humus content of soils worldwide by 10 percent within the next 50 years could reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to pre-industrial levels.

Dark earth’s benefit to climate is just one of its many exciting possibilities. It also enhances soils so they produce higher yields, helps retain water and prevents erosion. It’s more alive with biodiverse micro-organisms, making it easier for crops to adapt to changing conditions. And it’s a good way to recycle nutrient-rich food scraps, plants wastes and even human and animal urine and feces, rather than allowing them to pollute soil, water and air through burning and runoff.

Biochar is a form of charcoal made via pyrolysis—heating organic wastes in a low-oxygen environment.According to Scheub, “If you pyrolyze organic wastes, up to 50 percent of the carbon, which plants have extracted from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, is converted into highly stable carbon, which can persist in soils for thousands of years.”As well as carbon, biochar retains nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous and because it’s porous, adding it to soils and compost helps them store nutrients and water.

Western scientists first studied terra preta in 1874 when Canadian-born Cornell University professor Charles Hartt and his team found patches of dark, fertile soils, several meters deep, along parts of South America’s Amazon River where earth is normally low in nutrients and organic matter. Later archeological research determined the soils were created by human communities up to 5,000 years ago.

Scientists have since shed more light on the technique. Because the ancient practice is still employed in Liberia and Ghana, Africa, scientists from Sussex, Cornell and other universitieswere recently able to compare dark earth to soils nearby where the technique isn’t used. They found dark earth contained 200 to 300 percent more organic carbon and can support “far more intensive farming.”

Cornell University lead author Dawit Solomon was surprised that “isolated indigenous communities living far apart in distance and time” achieved similar results unknown to modern agriculturalists.

“This valuable strategy to improve soil fertility while also contributing to climate-change mitigation and adaptation in Africa could become an important component of the global climate-smart agricultural management strategy to achieve food security,” he said.

Scheub and her co-authors say the technique can be used on any scale, from home and community gardens to large farms. Terra Preta includes instructions for creating biochar and enhanced soils, but cautions that organic wastes should be used rather than valuable forest products.

Dark earth won’t solve all our climate problems, but combined with reducing fossil fuel use, it could make a huge difference while addressing many agriculture, food security and hunger issues.


Amazing ‘Ambiguous Cylinders’ Illusion

Amazing ‘Ambiguous Cylinders’ Illusion

This is the ‘ambiguous cylinders’ illusion, the creation of Kokichi Sugihar, a professor of engineering at Meiji University in Japan. It’s also the second prize winner in 2016’s Best Illusion of the Year contest, a community-run competition that aims to remind us that “all perception is illusory to some extent.”

This optical illusion will blow your mind. Just HOW do these rows of squares become rows of circles (and vice versa) when reflected in a mirror?

Like this illusion, the ambiguous cylinders rely on the viewer looking at a structure from a certain angle— in addition to some judiciously placed folds that look like curves when seen back to front.

Bill Nye: Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?

Bill Nye: Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?

When we asked Bill Nye the Science Guy if he thinks we are living in a computer-generated simulation, he turned to some basic scientific principles to justify his answer.


So are we living in a videogame? Are we actually part of a giant simulation? I don’t think you can know. I think you can argue that whoever has written the simulation, whatever super entity has written the simulation could make it so sophisticated that even your memories are a result of this being programmed by the simulator or simulatrix.

So the question is at some level irrelevant but another level I think we would have to agree it’s unknowable. You can just presume any level of sophistication that makes it undetectable to us. With that said there have been a lot of science fiction stories where people discover that they’re living in a dome or inside a hollow world or underground and the metaphors for this are from our everyday experience.

You hear about kids who have been kidnapped and kept in a room until they’re 14 and they know nothing of the world outside. And the human mind apparently at some level is uncapable of detecting that outside world unless something goes wrong.

For me as a philosopher to prove that we’re living in a videogame is an extraordinary level of effort. But if you can do it bring it on. But it seems to me it’s a hard question to resolve because it’s easy to imagine a game designer, a simulation designer making it so sophisticated that you can’t tell.

Good luck out there.