Daily Archives: 6 April 2014

April 6, 2006 (a Thursday)

*Tiktaalik roseae* fills in the evolutionary gap between fish and land animals.

On this date, two articles were published in the science journal Nature reporting the discovery of a fossil that might in time become as much of an evolutionary icon as the proto-bird Archaeopteryx. Several specimens of this transitional form, named Tiktaalik roseae, were found in late Devonian river sediments on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Arctic Canada.

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Lead, Violence, and Society

Big Business conducted a Big Experiment with America's youth you never knew about.

Big Business conducted a Big Experiment with America’s youth you never knew about.

When Rudy Giuliani ran for mayor of New York City in 1993, he campaigned on a platform of bringing down crime and making the city safe again. It was a comfortable position for a former federal prosecutor with a tough-guy image, but it was more than mere posturing. Since 1960, rape rates had nearly quadrupled, murder had quintupled, and robbery had grown fourteenfold. New Yorkers felt like they lived in a city under siege.

Giuliani won the election and selected Boston police chief Bill Bratton as the NYPD’s new commissioner. Bratton aggressively cracked down on small crimes, believing bigger crimes would drop as well. And they did.

But in fact, violent crime had actually peaked in New York City in 1990, four years before the Giuliani-Bratton era. By the time they took office, it had already dropped 12 percent. And it continued to drop. And drop. And drop. By 2010, violent crime rates in New York City had plunged 75 percent from their peak in the early ’90s.

It’s not just New York that saw a big drop in crime. In city after city, violent crime peaked in the early ’90s and then began a steady and spectacular decline. Washington, DC, didn’t have either Giuliani or Bratton, but its violent crime rate dropped 58 percent since its peak. Dallas’ fell 70 percent. Newark: 74 percent. Los Angeles: 78 percent.

The disappearance of lead from gas and paint is one of the most compelling hypotheses to explain the decline of violent crime in America, especially in cities — big cities, with their density and traffic, were particularly vulnerable to airborne lead.

It’s the only hypothesis that persuasively explains both the rise of crime in the ’60s and ’70s and its fall beginning in the ’90s. Two other hypotheses — the baby boom demographic bulge and the drug explosion of the ’60s — at least have the potential to explain both, but neither one fully fits the known data. Only gasoline lead, with its dramatic rise and fall following World War II, can explain the equally dramatic rise and fall in violent crime. In fact, gasoline lead may explain as much as 90 percent of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.

Having said that, it’s important to note that the evidence so far is not conclusive in favor of any of the hypotheses.

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April 6, 1895 (a Saturday)

On this date, Oscar Wilde was arrested after losing a libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry.

Wilde had been engaged in an affair with the marquess’s son since 1891, but when the outraged marquess denounced him as a homosexual, Wilde sued the man for libel. However, he lost his case when evidence strongly supported the marquess’s observations. Homosexuality was classified as a crime in England at the time, and Wilde was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to two years of hard labor

April 6, 2012: A Tribute to Fang Lizhi!

Fang Lizhi, shown in this June 4, 1999 photo at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Fang Lizhi, shown in this June 4, 1999 photo at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

On this date, Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist whom many regarded as “China’s Sakharov,” died at age 76 in Arizona.

Fang Lizhi — who worked on his nation’s elite nuclear program in the 1950s — was one of the most brilliant Chinese scientists of his era. He was also the most courageous.

In the 1980s, when he broke with communist orthodoxy and spoke out on human rights and democracy, he was the highest-ranking person in the People’s Republic ever to do so. In the years and months leading up to the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, he dared to tell the historical facts – about Mao, the Party, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution – to a new generation. His trenchant words inspired a generation of Chinese youth but led to his firing, expulsion from the Communist Party and forced exile, which lasted until his death.

He once explained that it was the principles of science — which values doubt, independent judgment and egalitarianism — that led him to embrace human rights. Fang warned in 2010: “Regardless of how widely China’s leaders have opened its market to the outside world, they have not retreated even half a step from their repressive political creed.” How much did China lose by forcing a citizen with his gifts to live the last 22 years of his life in exile?

April 6, 1928 (a Friday)

James Watson

On this date, the American molecular biologist James D. Watson was born in Chicago. Best known as one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, Watson along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”.

During his undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, Watson’s boyhood interest in bird-watching matured into a serious desire to learn genetics. This became possible when he received a Fellowship for graduate study in Zoology at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he received his Ph.D. degree in Zoology in 1950. He began working at the Cavendish Laboratory in England in early October 1951. Watson soon met Crick and discovered their common interest in solving the structure of DNA. They thought it should be possible to correctly guess its structure, given both the experimental evidence at King’s College plus careful examination of the possible stereochemical configurations of polynucleotide chains.