Saturday, January 5, 2008

Louis J Sheehan Esquire 30028

Recent sonar surveys off the southeastern coast of the United States have detected dozens of broad furrows on the seafloor—trenches that were carved by icebergs during the last ice age, researchers suggest.

The channels, roughly parallel to the coast, are between 10 and 100 meters wide and typically less than 10 m deep, says Jenna C. Hill, an oceanographer at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. She and her team discovered the enigmatic features while conducting oceanographic surveys about 100 kilometers off Georgetown, S.C., in the summer of 2006. Waters in the area range between 170 and 220 m deep, she notes.

Most of the trenches run along straight paths for several kilometers, and one lengthy furrow stretches almost 20 km. Short berms alongside each groove are presumably composed of material that was plowed aside when the channels were carved, says Hill.

The seafloor features generally run in a southwest-northeast direction. However, the researchers noticed that some of the channels they discovered during a second survey last summer ended with a semicircular pit at their southwestern terminus. Suddenly, says Hill, the features made sense: Icebergs had plowed the furrows, and pits marked the sites where the ice masses became grounded and later melted.

The seafloor culs-de-sac indicate that the currents driving the icebergs flowed to the southwest, opposite to prevailing currents today. At present, warm waters of the northeast-flowing Gulf Stream bathe the region, says Hill. However, she and her colleagues suggest that an offshore shift in the Gulf Stream at the height of the last ice age—when sea levels were more than 100 m lower than they are now—would have allowed glacially fed, iceberg-rich coastal currents to penetrate this far south. Hill and her colleagues presented their findings last month in San Francisco at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The team's theory "makes dynamical sense," says John M. Bane, Jr., an oceanographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even today, he says, a seafloor feature about 100 km southwest of the berg-scoured region—a broad area called the Charleston Bump—can cause instabilities in the Gulf Stream that deflect the current offshore for a few weeks at a time, causing reversals in the coastal current. At the height of the last ice age, when sea levels were substantially lower, the Gulf Stream may have been more frequently, if not permanently, deflected offshore.

Most of the wild goats that ravaged this famous archipelago, denuding some islands of their vegetation, have been hunted down. The same goes for the wild pigs that ate turtle eggs and killed small animals. Now comes the biggest problem of all -- people like me.

Tourism has brought prosperity but it's also creating a new set of problems. Migrants are coming from the impoverished Ecuadorian mainland to work in the travel industry. The residents and tourists must be serviced by an ever-growing fleet of cargo ships and airplanes, which are bringing invasive species as unwanted hitchhikers.

In April, Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, declared the Galapagos, an island chain 600 miles offshore, in imminent danger. He also raised the possibility of restrictions on tourism. Pointing to unsustainable tourism development, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has put the Galapagos on its "World Heritage in Danger" list. Fewer than 4% of Unesco's sites are on this list. They could eventually lose World Heritage designation -- and the tourism draw that goes with it -- if changes aren't made.

The place to see giant tortoises is not in the Galapagos National Park, but on private tortoise reserves on Santa Cruz Island.

"The big problem is that the Galapagos was a formerly isolated island group that suddenly became part of the whole world scene," says David Blanton, executive director of the nonprofit International Galapagos Tour Operators Association.

The other-worldliness of the Galapagos -- a moonscape inhabited by creatures that exist nowhere else on earth and act like no others -- is what gives the islands their fascination. The isolation of the Galapagos made it an ideal laboratory for the theory of evolution. Species arriving by air or ocean currents had to adapt to the unique conditions of the islands, which were formed by volcanos rising from the sea bed. This inspired Charles Darwin to draw up his theory in the mid-1800s -- that only the fittest survive by gradually changing their physical characteristics to adapt to their surroundings.

The flightless cormorants, for instance, a bird native to the Galapagos, exchanged their ability to fly for stronger legs to enhance their swimming and diving prowess. The marine iguanas, the world's only seagoing lizard, developed nasal glands to excrete salt.

Many of these native animals, particularly the large, scaly iguanas, give a prehistoric aura to the landscape. This is made more dramatic by the volcanic craters in the distance, the beds of lava dotted with lakes and interspersed with patches of cacti. The only sounds are those of nature -- the calls of birds, the barking of male sea lions establishing dominance, the grunting of giant tortoises.

Although right on the Equator, the cold Humboldt current, which flows by the Galapagos, provides teeming ocean life that supports many of the islands' species. The snorkeling here is distinguished not only by the large variety of fish, but by the chance to swim alongside tame sea lions, penguins and large sea turtles.

The islands' fragile ecosystem can be easily disrupted, particularly as the increasing number of planes and ships landing in the Galapagos bring foreign species. Whether insects, snakes or feral cats and dogs, the invaders can wreak havoc by destroying plants and other food sources, eating eggs or attacking birds or mammals.

Fire ants, for instance, have been discovered aboard ships that come from Ecuador and are small enough to slip through quarantine, says Charlotte Causton, head of the terrestrial invertebrate program for the Charles Darwin Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to conserving the Galapagos. "They radiate out like an army," she says of the ants, which wipe out everything in their path including eggs and vegetation. Increasing quarantine inspections would help combat the problem, but inspections have dropped 20% in the past five years as the government has committed less money, says Ms. Causton.

This isn't the only problem, says Robert Bensted-Smith, a conservationist based in Quito, Ecuador, who for five years headed the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos. Many new settlers to the islands become commercial fishermen, fishing legally to supply the tourist trade or illegally for shark fins to send to Asia, all of which has an adverse impact on the marine ecosystem. Ships contribute to pollution, and their anchors damage the sea bottom. Solid-waste disposal creates dumps that can be breeding grounds for invasive species.

The threat comes despite the fact that Galapagos National Park, which encompasses more than 96% of the land on 19 islands, could serve as a textbook example of environmental consciousness. No tourist can set foot in the park without a guide, and groups are limited to 16 people. The ships that carry 100 passengers, the maximum allowed, have at least six or seven guides. Groups and their guides go ashore in separate inflatable boats, largely being kept out of each other's way on land. On their morning and afternoon excursions, passengers have to stay on designated trails, with no toilet facilities and no smoking or eating allowed.

For tourists, no matter how much they've read about the Galapagos, it is astonishing to see animals, reptiles and birds that have no fear of humans. They will allow you to come right up to them, since they haven't experienced humans as a threat. The guides rigidly enforce the rule of no interaction between visitors and wildlife -- no feeding, no petting, no noises to get them to turn around and pose for a picture.

Park authorities are putting restrictions on islands that are being degraded by overuse. On Daphne Island, for instance, only one group of 16 visitors is allowed each month because the few trails erode easily.

Because of the restrictions, there is never a feeling of being overwhelmed by a flood of tourists as, for instance, at Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The stark volcanic islands, whose rugged trails sometimes require rock-hopping or balancing on slippery surfaces, provide a wilderness experience that isn't marred by being part of a 100-passenger ship.

The ship I sailed on, Galapagos Explorer II, is the largest allowed in the islands and one of the most luxurious. These big cruise ships have come in for criticism from environmentalists for bringing a new type of tourist, more interested in luxury and in going to a trendy place.

But if the Explorer was an accurate indicator, any allegation that the passengers were more interested in cocktails on-deck than in Darwinism didn't hold water. Some of the passengers were fanatics, attending onboard lectures day and night -- with topics ranging from saving the oceans to the life of penguins. Armed with high-powered binoculars and guidebooks, the birdwatchers were a particularly hardy breed, sometimes picking out distant birds that the guides had missed.

And while the ship was certainly comfortable, the 6:30 a.m. daily wakeup call, the difficult hikes, and the absence of conventional cruise-ship entertainment like live music or nightclubs were hardly cushy. It presented an opportunity to devote each day to seeing and studying the Galapagos, and the ability to put aside all the usual distractions of daily life proved exhilarating.

Some environmentalists say President Correa's declaration of imminent danger is a positive sign. The Correa government took over in January 2007 and hasn't yet introduced any measures that directly affect tourists. But things are starting to change. The new governor of the Galapagos, known as a dedicated environmentalist, headed the national park for eight years.

Environmentalists say that the new Correa government -- unlike previous administrations, where politics and corruption frequently stifled efforts to protect the islands -- is showing a willingness to enforce existing regulations and consider new ones. "The government took ownership of the problems of the Galapagos, and this is making change possible," says Mr. Bensted-Smith, the conservationist based in Quito.

Steps are now being taken to tighten quarantine procedures and to keep out illegal migrants, says Mr. Bensted-Smith. The government is discussing subjects that were formerly off limits, such as stopping local boat owners from selling their tourist licenses, which can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, to outsiders. The government is also considering doubling the entrance fee for the national park to $200 a person, which would provide more money for conservation activities.

But the biggest problem so far remains unsolved: what to do about the flood of tourists. "It's not a simple solution, because to limit tourism will be to limit income," says Mauricio Castillo, an official for Unesco in Quito. In addition to restricting the number of visitors, he says that ways to channel more tourist revenue to the local islanders are now being considered, as well as raising the costs of a Galapagos trip, so that higher prices will dampen tourist numbers but still provide enough revenue.

Some of the passengers on the Explorer were facing dilemmas of their own about visiting. Several of them said that they had traveled to the Galapagos this year specifically because of President Correa's declaration.

"I've always wanted to come to the Galapagos," said a German physician, who asked that his name not be used because he didn't want to be painted as a villain. "We heard tourism will be restricted in the future, so we came now."

As Iowa Republicans prepared to caucus yesterday, polls showed Mike Huckabee, the Southern Baptist minister-turned-politician, leading in some polls and placing a close second to Mitt Romney in others. The core of Mr. Huckabee's support, of course, comes from evangelical voters. Couching his policy positions in the language of faith and morality, Mr. Huckabee portrays himself as the dream candidate of the religious right. In October, he boasted to a gathering of conservative Christian activists: "I don't come to you, I come from you." The "language of Zion," he said, was "his mother tongue and not a recently acquired second language." Echoing the Gospels, he told the Des Moines Register editorial board that the essence of what made him tick was: "Do unto others as you would have done unto you." He admitted that his faith shapes his policy, but "if [voters] understand in what way, I think that they will say 'good, that's the kind of policy we would like.' "

But one wonders whether his newfound supporters would really say that if they took a close look at his policies. With increasing frequency, Mr. Huckabee invokes his faith when advocating greater government involvement in just about every aspect of American life. In doing so, Mr. Huckabee has actually answered the prayers of the religious left.

Since John Kerry's defeat in 2004 at the hands of at least a few "values voters," the Democratic Party has been trying to take back God, even launching a Faith in Action initiative at the Democratic National Committee. Meanwhile, a small but organized group of liberal religious leaders and faith-based political activists has been trying to convey the message that, as one recent book had it, "Jesus rode a donkey." They argue that increasing the government's role in the fight against global warming, poverty and economic inequality is a biblical imperative. They usually de-emphasize the importance of abortion and gay marriage in their agendas, lest they offend the secularist wing of the party.

Democrats have made some inroads with evangelical voters. A recent Pew poll showed that the percentage of Americans who see the party as friendly to religion has increased to 30% from 26% since 2006. But no one has articulated the message of the religious left more effectively than Mr. Huckabee.

In August, he told a group of Washington reporters that the application of his faith to politics must include concerns for the environment, poverty and hunger. "It can't just be about abortions and same-sex marriage," he said. "We can't ignore that there are kids every day in this country that literally don't have enough food and adequate drinking water in America."

As governor, he championed the ARKids First, which extended free health insurance not only to children of the working poor but to some lower middle-class families. He pleased teachers unions with his consistent opposition to school choice and voucher programs. He satisfied labor by signing into law a minimum-wage hike of 21%. "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" -- Mr. Huckabee's oft-cited scriptural justification for growing government -- proved costly for Arkansans, who saw government spending double and their taxes rise about a half-billion dollars during his tenure.
It's unlikely that Mr. Huckabee, as president, would be able to shepherd a federal marriage amendment through the House, the Senate and the state legislatures, but signing into law a cap-and-trade system ostensibly aimed at limiting global warming (something he has called a "moral issue") would be much easier. If he wanted to push protectionist "fair trade" policies and a greater federal government role in health care, a Democratic Congress would be more than willing to let him live out his faith on the taxpayers' dime.

Looking at the past 30 years of American politics, many on the religious right reasonably assume that candidates who speak openly about their faith are conservatives, but that hasn't always been the case. Jimmy Carter is the most prominent recent example of left-leaning piety. The author Gary Scott Smith, in "Faith and the Presidency," reminds us that President Franklin D. Roosevelt even offered scriptural justification for the New Deal.

Speaking to the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, in 1933, FDR explained that the "object of all our striving. . . should be to help citizens realize the abundant life Christ said he came to bring." According to Mr. Smith, "Roosevelt wanted to ensure that 'all elements of the community' had an equitable share of the nation's resources. The federal government's social planning, he contended, was 'wholly in accord with the social teachings of Christianity.' " It is not hard to imagine Mr. Huckabee -- standing at a podium in the Rose Garden to announce a raft of government programs -- talking in exactly this way.

In the United States, the only two major carriers that use the technology compatible with European networks are AT&T and T-Mobile. As to which has better coverage in the U.S., my own anecdotal experience is that this varies greatly depending on where you are, and that neither has coverage that's as good as Verizon's in as many major cities. However, Verizon (like Sprint) uses a technology that isn't compatible with European networks, though it has one or two phone models that include both technologies.

When producers initially began mapping out season 16 — yes, 16! — of Survivor, they considered making it their second All-Stars edition. But then they considered something else. ''None of us felt like a full-on All-Stars was the right choice, because we did it once and since then so many other shows have done it,'' says host Jeff Probst. ''It felt like we needed a twist.'' And when has this seminal reality show not embraced a twist? Enter the Fans vs. Favorites concept of Survivor: Micronesia (debuting Feb. 7 on CBS at 8 p.m.), featuring one tribe of former Survivor standouts, and another tribe of newbies who idolize the players they are about to compete against.

So who was lucky enough to make the cut? The Favorites tribe features contestants going all the way back to season 7, including two from the recently completed Survivor: China — gravedigger James Clement and the person who engineered his ouster, Amanda Kimmel. Survivor: Fiji sends its most popular player, 55-year-old Yau-Man Chan, while the Cook Islands season is responsible for three contestants: flirt-tastic Parvati Shallow, triple-crossing Jonathan Penner, and challenge dominator Ozzy Lusth. Rounding out the tribe is Survivor: Panama 's Cirie Fields, Vanuatu's Eliza Orlins and Ami Cusack, and Survivor's biggest villain ever: Pearl Islands ' Jon Dalton (a.k.a. Jonny Fairplay), who once famously faked his own grandmother's death to further himself in the game. ''You can't do the season and not invite your most notorious person,'' says Probst. ''And Fairplay delivered, I will say that.'' Does that mean he delivers a victory? Don't bet on it, laughs Probst. ''This guy is no threat to win this game — zero.''

No people from the highly regarded Palau or lowly regarded Guatemala seasons made the trip. That is in large part because two popular contestants — Stephenie LaGrossa and Bobby Jon Drinkard — already appeared in both those seasons, and Palau's winner, Tom Westman, declined to participate. (No other past winners were chosen.) Survivor: Micronesia was shot on many of the same beaches as the Palau season, and will also feature the return of Exile Island, which was absent from Survivor: China.

The Fans taking on the Survivor two-timers include a large-and-in-charge firefighter (Joel Anderson), a beauty pageant coach (Chet Welch), a golf course vendor (Kathleen Sleckman), and a man who scoops ice cream for a living in Hell…Michigan, that is (Erik Reichenbach). In contrast to recent seasons, where contestants were heavily recruited and largely unfamiliar with the program, the new players of Micronesia are all followers of the show. How they fare against their heroes remains to be seen.

The effects of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 are only too well known: It knocked the hell out of Aceh Province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, leveling buildings, scattering palm trees, and wiping out entire villages. It killed more than 160,000 people in Aceh alone and displaced millions more. Similar scenes of destruction were repeated along the coasts of Southeast Asia, India, and as far west as Africa. The magnitude of the disaster shocked the world.

What the world did not know was that the 2004 tsunami—seemingly so unprecedented in scale—would yield specific clues to one of the great mysteries of archaeology: What or who brought down the Minoans, the remarkable Bronze Age civilization that played a central role in the development of Western culture?

Europe’s first great culture sprang up on the island of Crete, in the Aegean Sea, and rose to prominence some 4,000 years ago, flourishing for at least five centuries. It was a civilization of sophisticated art and architecture, with vast trading routes that spread Minoan goods—and culture—to the neighboring Greek islands. But then, around 1500 B.C., the Minoan world went into a tailspin, and no one knows why.
In 1939, leading Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos pinned the blame on a colossal volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, about 70 miles north of Crete, that occurred about 1600 B.C. The event hurled a plume of ash and rock 20 miles into the stratosphere, turning daylight into pitch darkness over much of the Mediterranean. The explosion was recently estimated to be 10 times as powerful as the 1883 eruption of Krakatau in Indonesia, which obliterated 300 towns and villages and killed at least 36,000 people. So extreme was the Thera eruption that many writers linked it to Plato’s legend of Atlantis, the magnificent island city swallowed up by the sea. Marinatos’s theory was bolstered in 1967 when he dug up the ruins of Akrotiri, a prosperous Minoan town on Thera that had been buried in volcanic ash. Akrotiri became famous as a Bronze Age Pompeii because the ash preserved two-story dwellings, exquisite frescoes, and winding streets almost intact.

On further examination, though, the ruins did not confirm the theory. It turned out that the pottery on Akrotiri was not from the final phase of Minoan culture; in fact, many Minoan settlements on Crete continued to exist for at least a generation or two after the Thera cataclysm. Archaeologists concluded that the Minoans had not only survived but thrived after the eruption, expanding their culture until they were hit by some other, unknown disaster—perhaps some combination of fire, earthquake, or foreign invader. Thera’s impact, it seemed, had been overestimated. But startling new evidence is forcing archaeologists to rethink the full fury of the Thera explosion, the natural disaster it may have triggered, and the nature of the final blow to the once-great Minoan civilization.

Each summer, thousands of tourists encounter the Minoans at the spectacularly restored ruins of Knossos, an 11-acre complex four miles south of Crete’s capital, Heraklion. Late-19th-century excavations by Sir Arthur Evans revealed Knossos to be a vast, intricately engineered, multistory building, complete with flushing toilets, statuettes of bare-breasted priestesses, and frescoes of athletes vaulting over bulls. In 1900, Evans discovered an impressive stone throne, from which he believed the legendary King Minos and his descendants had presided over Bronze Age Crete. In the 1980s, however, a new generation of archaeologists, including Joseph Alexander “Sandy” MacGillivray, a Montreal-born scholar at the British School at Athens, began questioning many of Evans’s assumptions. Smaller-scale versions of Knossos have turned up at nearly every Minoan settlement across Crete, and scholars now suspect there was no single king but rather many independent polities.

MacGillivray also became interested in how the civilization ended. At Palaikastro, in the island’s far northeastern corner, MacGillivray and his colleague Hugh Sackett have excavated seven blocks of a Minoan town of perhaps 5,000 inhabitants, their plastered and painted houses arranged in a network of tidy paved and drained streets. One striking find was the foundations of a fine mansion, paved with fancy purple schist and white limestone and designed around an airy central courtyard “of Knossian pretensions,” as MacGillivray puts it. “But after the house was destroyed by an earthquake, it was abandoned and never rebuilt, and that preserved some things we had a hard time explaining.”

The house was dusted with a powdery gray ash, so irritating that the diggers had to wear face masks. Chemical analysis showed that the ash was volcanic fallout from the Thera eruption, but instead of resting in neat layers, the ash had washed into peculiar places: a broken, upside-down pot; the courtyard’s drain; and one long, continuous film in the main street outside. It was as if a flash flood had hosed most of the ash away, leaving these remnants behind. Some powerful force had also flipped over several of the house’s paving slabs and dumped fine gravel over the walls—but this part of the site lies a quarter of a mile from the sea and far from any stream or river.

That wasn’t the only oddity. Another building “looked like it had been flattened, the whole frontage facing the sea had been torn off, and it made no sense. And we asked ourselves, could a wave have done this?” MacGillivray says.

The strangest and most significant find, however, was a soil layer down by the beach that looked like nothing MacGillivray had ever seen in four decades as a field archaeologist. A horizontal band of gravel about a foot thick was stuffed with a mad jumble of broken pottery, rocks, lumps of powdery gray ash, and mashed-up animal teeth and bones. Perhaps an exceptionally violent storm had inflicted this chaos, MacGillivray considered, but he began to suspect that a tsunami was the more likely culprit.

The statue at Mallia may have been smashed and burned during an
uprising against the Minoan elite.

MacGillivray invited Hendrik Bruins to Palaikastro. The Dutch-born geoarchaeologist and human ecologist had a reputation as a skillful analyst of the thorny dating controversies that beset archaeology in the Middle East, but figuring out the chaotic layer overlooking the beach presented a novel scientific challenge. “Identifying a tsunami deposit is a completely new field,” Bruins explains. “Until the early 1990s, earth scientists didn’t even recognize that tsunamis do more than just destroy the coast—they leave distinctive deposits behind as well. I needed to do a lot of different tests to convince myself, as well as my colleagues, that we were dealing with a tsunami and not something else, like debris from a storm surge.”

Another building looked like it had been flattened. Could a wave have done this?

Bruins sent thin sections of the chaotic deposit to micropaleontologist Chaim Benjamini, a colleague at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. Benjamini identified the tiny round shells of foraminifera and fragments of red coralline –algae; these marine organisms suggested that the ocean, rather than a river or a flash flood, had been involved. If the marine organisms had been scooped up from below sea level and dumped on the elevated promontory, something much bigger than a storm surge must have pounded the coast of ancient Crete.

The strange pattern of gravel deposits in the town offered further evidence of a deep oceanic disturbance. Then there were lumps of gray ash in the beach layer, “resembling unstirred instant-soup lumps at the bottom of a cup,” according to Bruins. He sent samples of these lumps to two state-of-the-art geochemistry labs in Germany, which analyzed the sample’s geochemical signature. The results of both tests were identical: a perfect match between Theran ash and the “soup lumps” on the beach.

Finally, there was the question of when all this disruption occurred. Bruins sent fragments of cattle bones and seashells from the chaotic layer to the radiocarbon dating lab at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Because of well-known problems in calibrating dates from 3,500 years ago, he knew the lab would be unable to pin down the exact calendar age of the samples, but the uncalibrated measured age of the cattle bones closely matched the latest equivalent dates for the cataclysm on Thera.
Louis J Sheehan
Louis J Sheehan, Esquire
Louis J Sheehan Esquire

All the clues pointed to one answer: A giant wave had struck Palaikastro Bay while freshly fallen ash from Thera was still lying about, inundating the town for miles inland and streaking it with strange patterns of ash. But could even a giant wave be big enough to wipe out an entire civilization?

MacGillivray consulted Costas Synolakis, an energetic Greek-born earth scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he pioneered the predictive computer model used by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. Synolakis’s first attempts to model tsunamis in the early 1990s began as a solitary exercise. Everything changed after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Synolakis visited Banda Aceh, the city in northwestern Sumatra closest to the epicenter of the undersea quake, where hundred-foot waves had destroyed a city of more than 150,000 people in minutes. “It was a surreal, absurdist landscape,” he says. “It took an effort of imagination to conceive that people had ever lived there.” Almost overnight, Synolakis’s expertise in computer modeling of tsunamis became a focus of worldwide scientific and media attention.

In 2000, Synolakis had con- sulted on a study to model a hypothetical Minoan tsunami. He found that no matter how steep the waves were when they started out at Thera, they dissipated quickly, reaching only three to nine feet at most when they hit Crete, some 70 miles away. The study concluded that such waves could have been “disruptive,” but not devastating, to Minoan Crete.

Synolakis was still thinking that way when he visited Palaikastro in May 2006. Then MacGillivray took him down to the beach. “The moment I looked at that debris layer, I was absolutely stunned,” Synolakis says. “The image that came to me, right then and there, is what I saw everywhere after the December 2004 tsunami: a blanket of cultural debris, broken dishes, broken glass, bits of bone, people’s belongings scattered everywhere. It looked exactly like that kind of debris carpet, and you don’t get it in a smaller tsunami. The presence of this chaotic deposit suggested that the tsunami was at least three or four meters [10 to 13 feet] at the shoreline.” What had begun as a casual visit now turned into a full-blown research project. Synolakis hired a boat and took depth measurements of the seabed in Palaikastro Bay. When he tested the hillside behind the Minoan town to establish how far the wave had penetrated inland, he found what appeared to be more layers of chaotic debris at an astounding 90 feet above sea level.

About 60 miles to the west of Palaikastro, near the palace of Mallia, the research team found yet another strikingly similar chaotic deposit. Plugging in all the new data, Synolakis drastically revised his tsunami model. “When we put it all together,” he says, “we’re looking at a wave that’s on the order of 15 meters [50 feet] when it hits the shore at Palaikastro. This is a gigantic wave, much larger, wider, and longer than we thought; its volume is 10 times more than what we estimated only six years ago. We’re talking about an extreme event, certainly on the order of the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster.”

With eyewitness video of that disaster lingering in everyone’s minds, it took little imagination to visualize the physical destruction that must have hit Palaikastro, Mallia, and elsewhere along the Cretan coast. But evidence suggests that the Minoans survived the disaster for at least a generation or two; the real end came later, in an outbreak of fiery vandalism. Throughout Crete, temple-palaces were burned and ransacked, and there are no obvious signs of battle, invasion, or natural disaster at these ruins. Of all the great Minoan palaces, only Knossos survived; eventually it was taken over by the Mycenaeans, the mainland Greeks who prospered as the fortunes of Crete declined.
A leader of the Palaikastro team, Belgian archaeologist Jan Driessen, contends that the wave of destruction was the tail end of a spiral of instability that the Thera catastrophe set in motion. A steep drop-off in the number of Minoan sites suggests that there had been a famine or an epidemic, one perhaps touched off by the environmental effects of the eruption combined with the later tsunami.

There may have been a spiritual crisis as well. At Palaikastro, archaeologists found that a shrine had been violently destroyed and a cult statuette deliberately smashed and burned. Driessen suggests there may have been a reaction against the religious cult represented by the statuette, perhaps as part of a populist uprising against the elite in their villas and temple-palaces. The loss of life and livelihood after the eruption may have aggravated problems of class difference and widened the gap between the elite and the commoners, which Driessen says “existed already in Minoan society.”

The terrifying scale of the Thera eruption, followed by the devastating force of the giant tsunami it created, may have led to a gradual unraveling of the values and beliefs that had sustained this brilliant civilization for so long. In his poem “The Hollow Men,” T. S. Eliot writes these famous lines: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”

For the Minoans, it appears their world ended with both.

While teaching physics at École Polytechnique in France, physicist Jean-Baptiste Masson used hair fibers as an example of a complex system that could be modeled simply. The example made him wonder: Does curly hair get more tangled than straight hair? He thought that a person sporting, say, Shakira’s mane of curls would have more kinks than someone with pin-straight hair, but he wasn’t sure.

So Masson enlisted hairdressers to count the tangles in 123 limp-locked people and 89 curly-haired people. Straight hair had an average of 5.3 tangles, nearly twice as many as curly hair. Masson then created a model to help him understand why straight hair is, oddly, more prone to knotting. His answer: The greater the angle of intersection, the more likely the hair will knot. Curly strands intersect more often, but strands of straight hair rubbing together at steeper angles than curly hair make for more knots.

Harry Miles recalled being home on leave for Christmas, relaxing with his family. His brother was telling a joke he’d heard a thousand times, but the punch line always got him. “I was hysterically laughing, and then my head went limp,” Mr. Miles said. “It was baffling.”

A minute later, he felt normal again. “I’m fine,” he told his family.

A few months later, while on guard duty on a ship in the Mediterranean, Mr. Miles found himself lying on the ground, unable to move. His commanding officer and several doctors stood over him. “I could hear them all talking, but I couldn’t open my eyes. I was asking myself, how come I can’t move?”

Again, the episode was over within minutes. The event was chalked up to heatstroke, and he returned to duty. By the time I learned about this event, it was almost 50 years later, when Mr. Miles was 71. I had taken over his primary care when his former doctor moved away.

“Doctor, excuse me. . . . I’m getting a spell,” he said. His words were starting to slur. “I’m trying to fight it off.” Then he crumpled in slow motion. His eyelids drooped, his facial muscles sagged, his head hung down, and a moment later his whole body slumped in the chair. “I can talk to you, but it will be hard to understand me,” he mumbled.

I had no idea what to do. Was my patient going to slide to the floor or pass out completely? I called for a nurse and asked her to keep an eye on him. I found his wife in the waiting room, and we hurried back together. She sat down next to her husband and whispered to him. For the next five minutes, she stroked his limp hand as he talked to her incoherently. From his slouched position, he managed to grimace and tense his chest muscles. Then it passed. He stood up and apologized.

That’s when I learned about Mr. Miles’s unusual medical history. He had been told that cataplexy was the cause of those strange episodes. In cataplexy, a strong emotion like laughing, surprise, anger, or fear can make a person suddenly go weak while completely awake. Some cataplectics have very mild attacks, like a slight weakening of the eyelids or facial muscles; for others, the whole body becomes limp. Mr. Miles said that the attacks had stopped for many years but then resumed while he was a high school teacher, coach, and lifeguard.

But there was more going on. About 20 years ago, he was also diagnosed with narcolepsy, a disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and periods of irresistible sleep. Although he had been taking Ritalin to keep alert, it was no longer controlling the problem. He had been feeling exhausted, as if he had been sleep-deprived for days, and the cataleptic attacks were occurring almost daily.

Cataplexy most commonly occurs among people with narcolepsy, and it has to do with entering REM sleep (a state in which dream-induced paralysis occurs). In 2000, researchers discovered that an important brain hormone called hypocretin is dramatically reduced in people with narcolepsy and cataplexy. Hypocretin acts like the body’s own caffeine: It stimulates areas of the brain that maintain wakefulness. But studies have shown that people with narcolepsy and cataplexy have only 10 percent of the normal amount. Thus, people with low hypocretin may fall into REM sleep—with their muscles lax, their minds awake, sometimes dreaming or even hallucinating—in the middle of the day.

Most of the time, Mr. Miles could fight off the impulse to sleep. But when the cataplexy began to recur, he was in trouble. Ritalin did nothing for the sudden muscle weakness. If he tensed his muscles, he could usually ward off an impending attack, but he felt self-conscious. Teaching and coaching, and especially lifeguarding, became too risky. Eventually he lost his job and had to further curtail his activities. Even a chat with a neighbor could lead to an attack. He began staying at home almost all the time.

When I saw Mr. Miles in my office about six months after our first meeting, the news wasn’t good. Almost immediately, his words started to run together. “I’m getting the attacks all the time,” he said, struggling to keep his head up. “I’m exhausted. . . . The Ritalin isn’t working anymore.”

He looked as though he had fallen asleep—his arms were splayed out, his head rested on his shoulder, his body had slid down in the chair, and his eyelids were barely open—but I knew he was awake. Three minutes later the attack was over. I prescribed Prozac (fluoxetine), an antidepressant that can sometimes help lessen the symptoms of cataplexy, and increased the dose of Ritalin. But when he called a month later, he said that the new combination wasn’t helping. He was losing hope that he would ever lead a normal life again.

Finally, a year later, a breakthrough came. Researchers found that a sedative drug called Xyrem seemed to help people with cataplexy. Patients on Xyrem slept better at night and had fewer cataplectic attacks during the day. But this wonder drug comes with baggage. Also known as the pharmaceutical form of GHB (short for gamma-hydroxybutyrate), it is none other than the infamous date rape drug (and was the poison in some very dangerous Chinese-made toys). Originally marketed in the early 1990s as a dietary supplement for improving athletic performance and for sleep, it was reclassified as a prescription drug by the FDA and approved for use only under some of the tightest restrictions that exist for any pharmaceutical. A single pharmacy provides it, and doctors and patients must register with the pharmacy.

A sleep specialist prescribed Xyrem for Mr. Miles, and over the past year his life has improved immensely. A few months ago, during a checkup, I asked him about his last full cataplectic attack. He paused. “You know, I can’t really remember,” he said. “I felt one coming on a few months ago, but it was very mild. It wasn’t hard to fight it off.”

He gave a little laugh. “I’m a normal human being again.”

“There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours,” wrote Epicurus. That’s how astronomer Chris Impey begins his compelling investigation into the history of the search for extraterrestrial life. Starting with the Greeks and their philosophical inquiries, Impey traces the scientific work on the origins of life and the evolution of Earth and of distant worlds. He examines theories on the conditions required for biological life to arise and how likely it is that such life exists on other planets in our own or other solar systems. Impey asserts that water is a promising presence. In fact, NASA’s strategy has been to “follow the water.” That’s why Mars was an early object of interest and why Saturn’s moon Enceladus joined the list of possible life holders in 2006 when the Cassini orbiter spotted geysers at its south pole. Will we one day find other beings in the universe? Impey isn’t sure, but he does believe that science is the only tool that can discover them. As he puts it, “The debate over the existence of ETs might never be settled by observations, but it certainly can’t be settled without them.”

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