Piltdown Man: on the trail of the hoaxer

Charles Dawson on the left in the photo – and the oval inset

It was a shocker, no doubt about it. The Piltdown Man scandal is arguably the greatest scientific fraud ever perpetrated in the UK.

When the fake remains of our earliest ancestor were unmasked for what they really were, shame was heaped on the research establishment. But exactly 100 years to the week that this extraordinary hoax was presented to the world, the Piltdown Man “fossils” are back in the lab and the subject of serious study.

The intention is not to try to re-authenticate them; rather, the purpose is to try to identify once and for all who was responsible for the deception.

The majority view is that it was Charles Dawson, a solicitor, antiquarian and amateur palaeontologist from the southern English county of Sussex.

He was at hand for most of the major “discoveries” at the dig sites on the edge of Piltdown village.

Most people believe his hand was responsible for planting the key faux specimens in local gravels…

But although chemical testing finally exposed the fraud in 1953, there has always been some doubt over the culprit’s true identity.

Hence, the new battery of testing now under way, which aims to close the book on the remaining uncertainty, according to Prof Chris Stringer from London’s Natural History Museum.

“What we’re trying to do is apply forensic level techniques to this material,” he told the BBC World Service Discovery programme…

You would be forgiven for thinking that the British scientific community would really have liked to pack the Piltdown specimens in a box and have them crushed. But the memory and interest is maintained, if for no other reason than the whole affair serves as a warning for how things can go horribly wrong.

That said, it proves also the power of the scientific method ultimately to find the truth. Prevalent theories stand or fall in the face of constant questioning; and although it took 40 years to finally unmask the deceit, the Piltdown claims were looking ragged long before their eventual collapse because of truly compelling discoveries made elsewhere in the world.

I’m already a forensics nut. Combine that with a detective story decades old and archaeology and I’m hooked.

It’s certainly worthwhile tracing the bits and pieces that went into this hoax. Especially if researchers can tie everything down to one person. Case closed.

Asian-Americans – too smart for their own good?


At the end of this month, high school seniors will submit their college applications and begin waiting to hear where they will spend the next four years of their lives. More than they might realize, the outcome will depend on race. If you are Asian, your chances of getting into the most selective colleges and universities will almost certainly be lower than if you are white…

In a 2009 study of more than 9,000 students who applied to selective universities, the sociologists Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford found that white students were three times more likely to be admitted than Asians with the same academic record.

Sound familiar? In the 1920s, as high-achieving Jews began to compete with WASP prep schoolers, Ivy League schools started asking about family background and sought vague qualities like “character,” “vigor,” “manliness” and “leadership” to cap Jewish enrollment. These unofficial Jewish quotas weren’t lifted until the early 1960s, as the sociologist Jerome Karabel found in his 2005 history of admissions practices at Harvard, Yale and Princeton…

In the 1920s, people asked: will Harvard still be Harvard with so many Jews? Today we ask: will Harvard still be Harvard with so many Asians? Yale’s student population is 58 percent white and 18 percent Asian. Would it be such a calamity if those numbers were reversed..?

Some educators, parents and students worry that if admissions are based purely on academic merit, selective universities will be dominated by whites and Asians and admit few blacks and Latinos, as a result of socioeconomic factors and an enduring test-score gap. We still need affirmative action for underrepresented groups, including blacks, Latinos, American Indians and Southeast Asian Americans and low-income students of all backgrounds.

But for white and Asian middle- and upper-income kids, the playing field should be equal. It is noteworthy that many high-achieving kids at selective public magnet schools are children of working-class immigrants, not well-educated professionals. Surnames like Kim, Singh and Wong should not trigger special scrutiny…

The way we treat these children will influence the America we become. If our most renowned schools set implicit quotas for high-achieving Asian-Americans, we are sending a message to all students that hard work and good grades may be a fool’s errand.

Folks who don’t comprehend the depth and intricacy of bigotry in the whole of our society aren’t any more likely to get the sophistication of this illness in the corner of our culture best equipped to offer reasonable-sounding excuses.

I won’t even start to offer a detailed analysis of the history of justice in the West that allows for affirmative action as an attempt at compensation for past wrongs.

Carrying forward the same polite system of discrimination from yesterday – I remember the billboards advertising hotels in the Catskills when some posted the tidy word “Restricted” down in one corner – doesn’t make the practice any less criminal, anti-social or damaging to the fabric and strength of our nation.

University of Sydney developing robots to automate farming

The idea of an automated farm has probably been around since rural electrification started in the early 20th century. Replacing back-breaking labor with robots has an obvious appeal, but so far cheap labor in many countries and the insistence of agriculture on being so darn rural has made automation limited in application. Despite this, Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies of the University of Sydney, is heading a team working on developing robotic systems for farms with the aim of turning Australia into the “food bowl” of Asia…

With its abundant arable land, Australia has the potential of profiting by meeting this need, but Australian labor costs are high, so automation has the potential to increase yields and improve efficiency by eliminating many manual tasks. The current project is more than just a mechanized farm with robots added. It’s an approach that involves developing intelligent machines that not only carry out manual tasks, but can observe their surroundings and assess situations.

Professor Sukkarieh’s team is testing the new automated systems at the Horticulture Australia regional center in Mildura. The first phase is the development of robots that can patrol orchards and gather data for a “comprehensive in-ground and out-of-ground model…”

Next year, the team will start the second phase, which will see the technology applied to standard tractors to allow them to automatically carry out tasks like applying fertilizers and pesticides, watering, sweeping and mowing.

The third phase is to develop harvesting robots. “The devices we’ve developed already can identify each individual fruit on the tree and its degree of ripeness, which is about 80 percent of the job done. But being able to harvest them is our ultimate goal,” he said.

Would have been happening in the US – and Oz – long ago if farmers didn’t have easy access to cheap migrant labor. And robots don’t distribute e.coli bacteria.