Jack the Ripper Solved? Nope.

The other day I spent some of my morning playing around on the Book of Face when it seemed everyone was going bonkers.  Not only had the OSU Buckeyes lost but apparently someone figured out who Jack the Ripper was.  And they used SCIENCE to figure it out!  Wow!  Needless to say I was very excited. As a history nut and a science junkie I couldn’t wait to see how they did it.  And then I read the news about it and became sad.

“With the Vigilance Committee in the East End: A Suspicious Character” from The Illustrated London News, 13 October 1888 Wikipedia

I would like to start out stating that I am NOT a Ripperologist.  I didn’t even know that was a word until learning about it watching the show Whitechapel.  Why am I stating this right off the bat?  Because it seems part of the marketing campaign for this book has included an automatic jab at anyone who will dissent in its findings.  Claiming that Ripperologists will not accept the conclusions because they have a financial stake in the matter.  I’d wager that they are actually seeing a nice influx of income at the moment thanks to this book.  Regardless of their perspective on its conclusions.

The basics are this: DNA was found on a scarf which had belonged to Miss Eddowes, the 4th apparent victim of Jack the Ripper.  According to the news reports and this video, her DNA from blood and organ fluids was found as well as his DNA.  **I may have missed it but it seems to be implied that his DNA was recovered from semen stains?**  These were traced to modern descendents and relatives of the individuals to confirm not only the identity of Eddowes but also of a man named Aaron Kosminski.  Mr. Kosminski had been considered a suspect at the time but was not held or tried.  Many people were considered suspects at the time.  The presence of his DNA is touted as “proof” that he killed this woman, and therefore is Jack the Ripper.  I have a few thoughts about this…

Miss Eddowes, the 4th victim of Jack the Ripper http://www.casebook.org/victims/eddowes.html

They used Mitochondrial DNA for their work and this is great for molecular analysis.  It doesn’t change much over time (i.e. little genetic variation) which is why it’s been so useful for looking into our ancestral roots.  That’s great!  You can look at the mtDNA and figure out who is related to who.  .

But here’s where I would like to address a few concerns.  Let’s break down a few of my problems with what I’ve read about the matter thus far:

DNA degrades over time.  The DNA that would have been available for analysis was likely in poor shape.  Yes, there are methods of analyses which allow for testing of older and degraded samples, but it can increase the amount of error observed.  DNA from far older sources has been used to great effect in other fields such as archaeology, but this is always a point that never seems to be brought up.

It’s a big assumption that the presence of his alleged DNA on the scarf is only indicative that he came into contact with the scarf.  How do we know it occurred during the time of the killing?  Did they know each other?  Those who are more familiar with Ripper lore than I may know some answers to these questions.

Chain of custody issues aside, it’s difficult to make a solid determination and certainly not possible to “prove” that Aaron Kosminski murdered this woman.  We certainly cannot conclude that, even if he did murder Miss Eddowes, that he also murdered the other women as well.

Mr. Kosminski may have been admitted to a “string of lunatic asylums” but this is hardly evidence against him.  Admitting criteria were far different back then.  Someone with a trisomy disorder (Down Syndrome, etc) would have been held.

Granted, I have not read the actual book as it has yet to be released and many of my doubts and concerns may very well be addressed within its pages.  However, I do proceed with a large amount of skepticism.

Don’t get me wrong.  I find this fascinating and I look forward to checking the book out from the library when it is released.  This sort of thing really excites me and I just absolutely love it.  But, as I’ve learned over the years, by bringing science to the pop culture realm, we lose sight of some of the basic scientific principles we operate by.

 

The Black Death: Do Fleas Really Deserve All the Blame?

The Black Death was one of the most devastating events in history.   Originating from central Asia, it is believed to have traveled along the Silk Road until it reached the Crimea around the mid-1340’s.  From there it spread to become a pandemic in the truest sense of the word.  The Black Death was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 30-60% of the European population, and as many as 100 million deaths worldwide.   You all probably know this much already.  You also probably know that this was vectored via the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) living on black rats that made their way on merchant ships in the Mediterranean initially and then ventured north.  The Oriental rat flea is a nasty bugger, vectoring not just the plague (Yersinia pestis) but also Rickettsia typhi, and tapeworms.  But what if we can scratch one of those off that list?

Oriental Rat Flea

Skeletons unearthed a year ago during a work on a new rail line in London are shedding new light on some of our well established ideas regarding our not-too-distant past.  The bones were believed to be from a cemetery of plague victims.  Molars were removed from the skeletons and DNA then extracted from the teeth.  The plague bacterium was found in several of the teeth, indicating these individuals were exposed to and most likely died from the Black Death.  These results are not unexpected, of course so researchers continued to “dig”.  Archaeologists, geologists, historians, physicists, and microbiologists worked to better understand the circumstances surrounding these individuals lives and deaths.

They were generally poor people showing clear signs of malnutrition, and a history of hard labor.  One may have even been a vegetarian later in their life, possibly indicating a shift to monastic life at some point.  Not completely surprising considering the land was at one time part of a monastery.  These plague victims didn’t come from the same time period either.  With radiocarbon dating indicated the graveyard was used multiple times between the earliest outbreaks (1348-1350) and later ones in 1361 and the early 15th century.  Archaeologists are planning on more digs as they estimate the total number of bodies may number anywhere in the “low thousands”.

Black death researchers extracted plague DNA from 14th century skulls found in east London. Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA

But that’s not the whole story, not by a long shot.  I may be an history buff but I’m also a buggy person right?  So why would I be blogging about this if there were not some new interesting entomological tidbits to be shared?  Because I’m bored, yeah….fascinated with dead things, yeah…but there is buggy stuff to share!  Traditionally the belief has been that the Black Death was spread via the Oriental rat flea, as stated earlier.  But evidence derived from those teeth suggest that this may not be the case; or at least not always the case.

When researchers compared the genome from the molar-derived bacterium with that of more recent plague victims they found the genome largely unchanged.  The recent outbreaks of the plague such as in Madagascar last year saw the majority of deaths from a pneumonic or pulmonary plague.  This new information suggests that the transmission of the plague was likely not just via the rat flea but also likely the pneumonic strain.  This is a more virulent strain of the bubonic plague.  Exposure to the plague from the rat-borne fleas is treated with antibiotics and has a higher survival rate than its cousin.  The pneumonic form, acquired via inhalation and human-human contact, is very highly fatal with death typically resulting within 24 hours of exposure if not treated.  The 60 deaths attributed to the pneumonic plague (84 deaths in total) were believed to be spread in part because of increasing political turmoil in the area resulting in poor hygiene and a decline in living conditions.

This mirrors much of what is believed to have happened during the Black Death.  Political and social instability, significant decreases in living conditions and healthcare availability created a perfect storm of underlying problems.  Perhaps the rat flea gets a bit of a reprieve.  Initial introduction via the rats is likely to have occurred with the more virulent strain of pneumonic plague taking over and doing the most damage.

Research continues and I look forward to hearing about it.

 

A Very Ukrainian Christmas

As the story goes, many years ago a widow of little means and her children lived in a small, cold hut.  This family did not have much in the way of fancy things or even not-so-fancy things it seems.  One day a tree outside their home dropped a pinecone and it took root in the home.  Excited about having a tree for Christmas the children tended and cared for the tree.  As the holiday approached the family was sad that they had no way to decorate the tree.

Hearing the sobs of the young children the spiders of the household worked together and come morning the children had quite a surprise.

“Mother, mother wake up and see the tree. It is beautiful!” The children exclaimed!

The mother roused herself and saw the shining, gleaming tree before her.  The spiders had spun their intricate webs all over the tree and as the sun rose over the hillside the rays struck the silken strands creating changing them from silk to silver and gold!  From that day on, the widow and her family never wanted for anything.

To this day, in remembrance of this Christmas miracle, Ukrainians decorate their trees with artificial spider webs; welcoming in good luck and fortune for the coming year.

 

To learn more about The Ukraine and Ukrainian traditions check out their webpage.

Passing of a Great Man

The world has been made a bit gloomier today.  Nelson Mandela, a human who endured much, and from that brought about dramatic change and positivity to his and our world, has died.  I never met him and can only know the small bits of information that one can glean from media and books so I’m not even close to qualified to eulogize on his behalf.  But I will say this:

If I can be but half the person he was the world just may be a bit brighter because of it.  Aspire to that and aspire to more.

Catching (Fire) Bugs: Cinema & Entomology

Okay.  I’ll admit it.  I paid way to much to see the opening showing of Catching Fire.  It’s been a while since I’ve done such a thing but here I am.  Sitting in the theater.  But, it’s a Double Feature!!!!  Never mind that I can see The Hunger Games on Netflix any time I want….It’s on Imax!!

Lapses in sanity aside I wanted to take this little 30 minute break between HG and CF to write a little note about personal project that I’ve been working on for some time.  It should come as no surprise that I really like bugs.  I really love cats too (remember, I’m *that* person) but I really like insects and other arthropods.  I also happen to love movies and television.  I find movies and television can tell us a lot about ourselves as a culture.  We don’t only look to cinema for escape, we also look to it for clarity in ourselves.  That, and things blow up…which is freaking cool (I can’t even tell you how excited I am for the next Avengers film…but I digress…

So what’s my personal little project?  Glad you asked….It’s a sort of combination of those things, bugs and movies/tv.  And as I wait for Catching Fire to start up I thought I’d point out a few things that you might have missed from The Hunger Games, both the book and the film.  The film is a rather faithful adaptation to the novel and it succeeds where a number of adaptations fall flat (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I’m looking at you).  Like a lot of films that incorporate arthropods into the script, ours appear as a villain.  But contrary to popular portrayals, the Tracker Jackers double as savior too.  Those stung by these four-winged, stinging villains will suffer terrible hallucinations, pain, and possibly death.  Katniss manages to suffer only troubling visions, unlike some of her competitors. – Is this the point where I should say “Spoilers”? – They also saved her from a potentially deadly situation.  These deus ex machina death-wasps also exemplify an all too common phobia among Western audiences.  Admittedly, this phobia is warranted in some cases (if you’re “deathly” allergic to wasps, it’s not a phobia…it’s legit fear)  Death and insects are paired more than once in the filmic adaptation of Hunger Games.

Chopping down a Tracker Jacker nest.

This may be the point where you get confused.  More than one entomological player in The Hunger Games?  Yup.  But you might not have noticed it.  In fact, the entomologists I’ve talked to about this didn’t even notice it.  This tells me that I’m just that nuts and notice useless information.

The book doesn’t feature this other insect but the filmmakers seemed to make a discernable effort to feature it.  Or, as Mr. Plinkett would say, “You might not have noticed it…but your brain did.”  As Katniss takes her first moments to breathe and settle into the trauma of the arena she sits and surveys her bag.  As the absence of a soundtrack fills the theater we are reminded that she is in a place and time that will see no escape for her.  I say no escape because even if she survives, she will forever carry the experience and themes of the arena with her. – A point made clear throughout the rest of the books and hopefully films. – Death is now her only consistent companion and this is where our little friendly insect comes into play.  She sits.  She absorbs.  And then the cannon.  “The familiar sound of the cannon that marks the death of another tribute” we hear the announcer say.  Paired to the sound of the cannon and the announcers’ cheery tone Katniss finds a butterfly.  A simple black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes: Nymphalidae: Lepidoptera)…female at that.  Butterflies and moths have a long history of being harbingers of death and guides for the dead.  Once again, that purpose is being served.

Eastern Black Swallowtail

 

Screen shot from The Hunger Games.

And, now a little quick note post Catching Fire.  If you’re interested in a review I’ll post one here at RottenTomatoes.  I noticed an interesting continuation of the entomological portrays in this film as well.  When in the jungle environment we see and hear the buzzing of anonymous insects.  But what really struck me was again, a butterfly.  Or rather a lot of butterflies.  **Spoilers???**  As Effie begrudgingly, and sorrowfully reaches for the names from the glass bowls her outfit is another stunning portrayal of the excesses of the Capitol…and of that ancient metaphor for the passing of the soul and harbinger of death.  A dress made completely of butterflies.  The butterflies that adorn her, guide shield her as she is soon to adorn and guide her tributes to the coming slaughter.

So there you have it.  My two cent psychological assessment of the bugs in a couple of movies.  If you think I had fun with this, you can’t imagine the field day I’ve had with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Happy Darwin Day Everyone!!!

12 February, 2013 is the 204th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin the British naturalist who helped revolutionize the way we understand biology today.  There is no question that evolution by means of natural selection has, is and will continue to occur.  Those who deny truth need to visit any number of scientific sources which can easily explain evolution and natural selection (they are two different concepts).  If you’re one of those who simply refuses to accept evolution as a natural phenomena, regardless of the overwhelming evidence in support of it, then I politely invite you to no longer educate the youth of this nation and/or leave congress.

Hear Representative Rush Holt (New Jersey) speaking today before US Congress in an effort gain recognition for this day.  I for one, support this effort wholeheartedly.

“Transcript: Mr. Speaker, I rise today to honor the birth of Charles Darwin.

Only rarely in human history has someone shown a fundamentally new way of thinking about the world, an insight so revolutionary that it has made possible further creative and explanatory thinking.

In my previous field of physics, we have Galileo and Newton and Einstein. In biology, at the top of any list would be Charles Darwin.

Without his insights – without his recognition that natural selection enables ever-increasing complexity and functionality and enables the development of ever-more wonderful forms of life – our modern understandings of biology, ecology, genetics, and medicine would be impossible, and our comprehension of the world around us would be vastly poorer.

I’ve introduced a resolution to honor February 12th as a ceremonial Darwin Day to recognize the importance of scientific thinking in our lives and to honor one of humankind’s greatest thinkers.”