Einstein Stumped. A Healthy Hobbit?
If this seems a rather disjointed column, forgive me. I’m still
emerging from the aftermath of our Nor’easter and our flooded
basement. Two items that survived the drying out process were
issues of Pravda, the Communist party newspaper of the old
USSR. These date back to June 21 and 26, 1973 when we (my
wife, Brian Trumbore and I) were on a tour of what were then
termed “Iron Curtain” countries. The headlined story when we
were in Moscow was the meeting of Leonid Brezhnev with
President Nixon at the White House. We watched the
welcoming ceremony for Brezhnev on TV while dining in a
restaurant on Red Square. Before turning the papers over to
Brian Trumbore I hope to use my limited Russian to decipher
other news of interest to the Communists over three decades ago.
This past week another ruler, Queen Elizabeth, was in the White
House after stopping to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the
founding of the Jamestown colony and attending Kentucky
Derby. There was a very good article on Jamestown in the May
issue of National Geographic detailing the trials and tribulations
of those early settlers and their dealings with the Native
Americans. What caught my eye in the article was the effect the
English settlers had upon the ecology of the Jamestown region
and a widespread area of the U.S.
According to the article by Charles Mann, Jamestown colonist
James Rolfe was the perpetrator. Rolfe “drank” tobacco,
apparently the phrase used those times for smoking the stuff.
Arriving in Jamestown in 1610, Rolfe found the native tobacco
to be ill-suited to his taste and he had tobacco seeds from
Trinidad and Venezuela brought to Virginia. The resulting
tobacco proved to be a hit and tens of thousands of pounds were
soon being exported back to Europe. The ships arriving from
England to bring back the tobacco would dump ballast of rocks
and stones and earth to balance the tobacco.
The earth and stones, as well as the root balls of the plants
brought over from England, no doubt contained earthworms. Ice
Age glaciers in North America had wiped out the earthworm
population over a large portion of the continent. Without worms,
the leaves from the trees would just fall and build up on the
woodland floors. The northern trees and shrubs depended on the
nutrients in the leaf litter for growth and nourishment. However,
when the worms arrived they gobbled up the litter and soon the
forest floors became more open and drier and the ecology of the
forests changed. Other changes that the settlers also made
deliberately, clearing land for permanent settlements and
farming, drastically changed the environment for the native
populations. The lowly earthworm was in the advance guard of
the takeover of America from the Indians.
Worms have to beware of birds, of course. One bird that I
haven’t seen in several years is the so-called “bobbing bird”.
Last week, Brian Trumbore gave me a copy of “Einstein. His
Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson, possibly thinking that I
needed some light reading. Coincidentally, on the day I received
the book, I also received e-mail from Bob, a former Bell Labs
colleague. Bob had also gotten the book and he called my
attention to Albert Einstein’s encounter with the bobbing bird.
The bobbing bird is a novelty item or toy that I’m sure most of
you have seen. Another Bell Labs colleague, Miles Sullivan,
invented it. The “bird” sits in a mount that allows it to rotate and
dip its beak into a glass of water as though it’s drinking, then
rotate up out of the water. The intriguing thing is that the bird
just keeps bobbing its head in and out of the water as long as
there’s water in the glass. When Einstein was living in
Princeton, New Jersey he came upon the bobbing bird and was as
amazed as anyone else by this apparent example of perpetual
motion (impossible!). He spent hours trying to figure out how
the thing worked. Einstein was stumped and refused a
suggestion that he take the bird apart to come up with the answer.
The failure of arguably the greatest mind of the 20th century to
explain a simple toy’s bobbing caught the attention of the press.
Newspapers and magazines of the 1960s such as Time, Harpers,
the Washington Post, This Week magazine and others all had
articles on the bird and Einstein. Miles Sullivan patented the
bobbing bird in 1946 while still a lieutenant in the Navy living in
the Washington, D.C. area. Someone there saw the bird and took
it to the halls of Congress and it even came to the attention of
past president Herbert Hoover. Hoover was an engineer before
his political days and he came up with an answer explaining the
bird’s bobbing. His explanation was wrong!
Birds eat insects other than worms, termites for example. At
least I think they do. The Star-Ledger has a feature they call
World of Wonder and the May 3 edition featured termites. I was
quite surprised at what I didn’t know about termites, aside from
the fact that termites are more closely related to the cockroach
than to the ant. For example, did you know that a termite colony
has a king and a queen and they mate for life? Not only that but
life for these insects can be as long as 25 years! Another thing I
found astonishing is that termites never sleep. No wonder they
can do so much damage to a house – they apparently are nibbling
away all the time!
Some queen termites grow to as long as 4 inches and can
produce up to over 36,000 eggs a day! The eggs hatch into
nymphs, which can turn into workers, soldiers or reproductives.
The reproductives are the cream of the crop and can turn into
kings or queens and leave the termite mound to form new
colonies. Some African termite mounds can be 40 feet high –
that’s the height of a three or four story building!
Finally, let’s turn to another form of animal life. It’s the
“hobbit” found on the Indonesian island of Flores that we’ve
followed in these columns. Ever since the discovery of fossils of
this creature was announced, there’s been controversy as to
whether the creature was a pygmy, a small modern human, a
“sick” modern human suffering from microencephaly or a new
species of human designated by its discoverers as Homo
floresiensis. Most of the evidence supporting the various points
of view hinged on the shape of the fossil’s skull.
However, an article by Ann Gibbons in the April 6 Science
reports on the work of Matthew Tocheri of the Smithsonian
Institution in Washington. Tocheri did his Ph.D. research at
Arizona State University in Tempe on the structure and evolution
of the wrist in primitive and modern humans. He got permission
to study casts of the Flores hobbit and has concluded that the
wrist bones of the Flores individual are not those of a modern
human but more closely resemble the wrist bones of an ancient
hominid. According to Gibbons, Tocheri’s analysis of the wrist
convinces some of the skeptics that the Flores hobbit is indeed a
new species, definitely not a diseased modern human as others
claim. If true, this ancient human was living among us moderns
as recently as 18,000 years ago, a mere blink in geologic time.
Oh, you want to know how the bobbing bird works? You can go
to Miles Sullivan’s daughter’s Web site:
The site contains copies of news stories on the bird, Einstein, the
patent, pictures of the bobbing bird and more on Miles himself.
Allen F. Bortrum