From teeth to outer space

This is what human beings do. We wander over landscapes, whether terrestrial, cosmic or conceptual, looking for something different, better, more interesting.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It is OK to be dissatisfied. Human beings, wherever they are in the world, have never settled. That is just one of the lessons we can learn from the discovery of human teeth under a layer of 80,000-year-old stalagmites in a cave in south-east China.

María Martinón-Torres of University College London led the team that made the find that has rewritten human history. Until now, the story was that human beings headed out of Africa into Europe 60,000 years ago. Now, it seems that, at some point between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago, human beings left Africa and reached China. It is not yet clear what happened to those migrants but performing DNA tests on the teeth and comparing the results with DNA from current Chinese populations might give us more information.

What we know is that our species has been searching for something different – better, perhaps – for most of its existence. This has led us to explore far more than the furthest corners of this planet: we have reached out to every planet in the vicinity.

The official report on the last one, Pluto, is now in. Scientists feared that the solar system’s dwarf planet would be something of a dull, grey lump but it has turned out to be the opposite: it is spectacular. We have gone from blurred images of a distant world to a raft of surprising details. First, it is as perfectly spherical as Nasa’s New Horizons probe is able to measure. There seems to be an ice crust, a region containing four-billion-year-old craters, an area the researchers describe as having a “snakeskin” pattern – indications of a surface scarred by wind and an atmosphere that creates occasional frozen rain. Even Pluto’s moons – including Charon, Hydra and Nix – are geologically interesting. The decade-long voyage to Pluto was worth
the effort.

Yet still we are not satisfied. Human beings will soon begin charting a small, mystifying new frontier. The US energy department’s science office is making positive noises about the need to develop a new particle collider. Why? To explore the properties of the subatomic particles known as neutrinos. In particular, scientists want to know more about a phenomenon called “neutrinoless double beta decay”, in which the neutrino performs the unprecedented task of being its own antiparticle. No, it doesn’t make sense but that is the point: get the lowdown on this and new insights will open up.

This is what human beings do. We wander over landscapes, whether terrestrial, cosmic or conceptual, looking for something different, better, more interesting. We are born with “wonder lust”. Maybe the early exit from Africa was driven by necessity but the urge to find the evidence for it was the result of Chinese researchers making speculative searches in remote caves.

The voyage to Pluto was impelled by a similar curiosity. There is no calculable economic gain but it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t think that this kind of drive makes our world a better place – except, perhaps, those in charge of the UK’s science budget. Britain spends a smaller fraction of its GDP on science than any other G8 country. This month, MPs have been debating the government’s threat to cut science funding further. It’s enough to make you wonder. And not in a good way.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article appears in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister