When You Know Your Doctor Is A Hopeless Nerd

Look, I love the original Star Trek TV series as much as any ardent Trekker.  I loved Kirk, and Spock, and Bones, and Scotty’s thick Scottish accent, and Uhura and the cool little gadget she wore that stuck out of her ear, and Sulu and Chekhov.  I even liked some of the bad guys, like Kang and the Romulan woman with the bad complexion that Spock seduced in one of the later, forgettable episodes.

3-27-14-1But even I would never try to invent a tricorder like the one used on the original series.  Of course, as any dedicated fan of the show knows, the tricorder was a device that allowed the crew of the Starship Enterprise to gather enormous amounts of information simply by vaguely waving the tricorder in the general direction of an object or person.  In the classic episode City on the Edge of Forever, where Kirk must kill his beloved Edith Keeler, Spock apparently used a tricorder to record millennia of human history being displayed by the time portal that allowed Bones to go back in time and change human history so the Nazis won World War II.  (Trust me — this synopsis, while totally accurate, doesn’t do the episode justice.  It really is a great episode.)

But I digress.  Three ER doctors from Philadelphia, who seized upon the fact that Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy used the tricorder in diagnosing the medical condition of his patients, have invented their own version of the tricorder.  Their device monitors vital signs, goes through a series of questions that assist in the diagnosis, and ultimately helps the doctor to come up with a determination of what’s wrong with the patient.

So, these doctors are total Star Trek nerds — a conclusion confirmed by the fact that, as the article linked above shows, they had their picture taken in replicas of the uniforms worn by crew members in the original series.  So what?  It looks like they’ve been inspired by the show to create a useful diagnostic tool, which is a good thing.  No word, however, on whether this tricorder also makes that really cool whirring sound that fans of the show remember so well.

Next up — the transporter!

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Our Tangled Family Tree

Consider Homo naledi.  A humanoid species whose remains were found several years ago in a cave in South Africa, it had a smaller brain than our direct ancestors, walked upright, and may have used tools.  And, scientists now believe, it lived between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago — which means it would have been alive and kicking when early humans were, too.

mm8345_20150306_134-3The dating of the remains of Homo naledi suggests that the family tree of human beings is a lot more tangled than people once thought.  As scientists focus more and more on searching for fossil evidence of human-like species, they are uncovering new information that reveals a number of different species romping around the pre-historic world.  The Smithsonian page on human ancestry now shows more than 15 early human species.  With so many variations of humanoids, there are bound to be evolutionary dead ends — and, the more human-like remains that are found, the more likely it is that the different offshoots of the evolutionary tree overlapped in time and may have interacted.

Scientists already believe that, around 300,000 or so years ago — or about the same time as the dates suggested for Homo naledi — there were three different offshoots of one of the root humanoid ancestors, Homo heidelbergensis.  Humans remained in Africa, Neanderthals ventured from Africa into Europe, and Denisovans moved east, into Asia.  We know that, for many years thereafter, there was physical interaction between human ancestors and Neanderthals, because many modern humans have a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA.  With three groups of humanoids around, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Homo naledi existing in that same time frame.   And who knows whether scientists will unearth evidence of other distinct, humanoid species that also date from that same time period?

The intriguing question is:  what happened to those other species?  Did the human ancestors simply prove to be superior in brainpower, body design, tool-making ability, and other attributes that gave them an evolutionary advantage and allowed them to simply out-compete the other species for food, living space, and other conditions that made humans more successful in reproducing . . . or did the early humans slaughter those who were different and drive them into extinction?  Maybe there is a reason that the remains of Homo naledi were found in a cave — they were desperately hiding from our ancestors.