Y is for Yersinia pestis

Burying Black Death Victims in Tournai, Belgium. Gilles Li Muisis, on gavi.org.

We aren’t sure When or Who or Where or How Much. We used to guess about What, although now we seem to be sure. And, when I say we, I do mean scientists and people who study facts and sometimes historians who pay attention to them, instead of making up malarkey.

I’m talking about the Black Death, which I already covered last year in the Renaissance and the letter “B.” And I talked about it in a post on “How do they know?” so why cover it again? Because the key truth about the 14th century plague, the one which devastated Europe and is thought to have come across the Silk Road, is that there are so many unanswered questions.

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I’m Sorry, Genghis Khan*

Dear Mongol Empire,
I’m sorry that I suggested you caused the Black Death. I’m sorry that I thought your tribe was a bunch of bloodthirsty barbarians who raged across Asia, killing everything that moved, just for fun. I don’t know where I got that idea.

I’m sorry that I mentioned that you used biological warfare to bring the Black Death to Europe, when it was more likely ships that brought infected animals and people from those voyages in search of Chinese silk and porcelains. And I sort of glossed over the millions of deaths of Mongolians and others in the Far East. I’m sorry that I thought this sort of caused the Renaissance rather than giving credit to the Khan’s enhancement of trade along the Silk Road which brought printing and gunpowder from the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in Northern China to the West.

I’ll admit, I was a little confused about why the Mongols could end up being called hordes, Tartars, Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Buddhists, Muslims, and worshipers of a Sky God (Tenggeri). I think I’ve finally figured all that out. “Hordes” comes from a Turkish word ordu which means group, so it’s not throwing shade to say Mongol hordes. Anyway, I’m sorry I thought you all looked like Shan Yu in “Mulan.” I don’t know where that came from. (Oh, maybe “Mulan”?)

Mea culpa. Wait… that’s Latin. How about намайг уучлаарай?

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How Do Scientists Know?

Those scientists dudes–and dudenas–are so smart! They can tell you how much oxygen a dinosaur was using. They can figure out where the bubonic plague came from, 700 years ago. They can use new computers to rescan old pictures to look for earth-nudging asteroids. Exploring the universe with tools, logic, and an understanding of the behavior of things, they can describe what happened in places they can’t see and have never gone. Knowledge spreads ever-so-slightly outward into the vastness of the unknown.

Drawing of Dr. Jasmina Wiemann’s test subjects from scitechdaily.com.

Strangely enough, it gives me a warm and fuzzy sense of comfort. As the kids say, Science gives you All the Feels. But let’s not get it tangled up with Belief.

Hot Blood Begets Hot Thoughts and Hot Deeds

Whether dinosaurs were hot-blooded or cold-blooded is a century-old argument. It was two whole classes in my semester of Paleontology 2A, back in the 1980s. Dr. Jasmina Wiemann at CalTech may have come across clues that explain why it’s been so hard to determine. The answer is a little of both.

Dinosaurs were reptiles. They lay eggs, and they don’t have fur/hair–I will spare you the much longer explanation involving clades. Modern reptiles are cold-blooded, ectothermic; they rely on external sources to raise body temperature enough to move around. They have slow metabolisms, so are very thrifty with their energy movements. Mammals and other creatures are endothermic or warm-blooded, with fast metabolisms. We can move around even when it’s not warm or sunny, even though we’d rather burrow under the covers. And some of us have such low metabolisms that even thinking about Cheetos causes bloating. But I digress.

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