Newly discovered legacy of Cherokees: honey locusts

Robert Warren, an ecologist at Buffalo State University who lived for years in North Carolina, [noticed] something peculiar about a tree species sprinkled through the southern Appalachians. Honey locusts are covered with enormous, glossy thorns, some as long as your hand, and they bear long brown seed pods. They prefer poor, salty soil. But Warren was seeing them scattered in the lush river valleys….  ‘One day I was out in the field,’ he recalls, ‘and it dawned on me that every time I saw a honey locust, I could throw a rock and hit an archaeological site.’

“It took years to develop and verify the insight that he published in a PLOS One paper: The honey locust’s distribution seems to be more closely linked to the existence of centuries-old Cherokee settlements than to its ecological niche. The signature of people forced off this land by Andrew Jackson more than 150 years ago still remains in the form of these trees.

“With the permission of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Warren surveyed their land, as well as national forests and other private land, for trees. He also investigated whether the trees could have been borne to their destinations by cattle or deer or on rivers….

“[But] the explanation that fits best is that people brought them along for food and other purposes…. He once thought he had found a honey locust with no tie to an archaeological site, in North Carolina. But this one, too, turned out to have a human connection. The friend who brought Warren there explained that a Cherokee man used to live nearby. The night before he was forced to leave for Oklahoma, Chief Rabbit had signed the property over to a new owner, and a tree from that time is still standing….”

Unlikely site for historic moment in physics: RDU

[John Archibald] Wheeler struggled to mend a rift in physics between general relativity and quantum mechanics—a rift called time. One day in 1965, while waiting out a layover, Wheeler asked colleague Bryce DeWitt [at UNC Chapel Hill] to keep him company for a few hours. In the [Raleigh-Durham International] terminal, Wheeler and DeWitt wrote down an equation for a wavefunction, which Wheeler called the Einstein-Schrödinger equation, and which everyone else later called the Wheeler-DeWitt equation. (DeWitt eventually called it “that damned equation”)….

“His work on the physics of black holes had led him to suspect that time, deep down, does not exist. Now, at the airport, that damned equation left Wheeler with a nagging hunch that time couldn’t be a fundamental ingredient of reality. It had to be, as Einstein said, a stubbornly persistent illusion….

“In recent years, Stephen Hawking… has been developing an approach known as top-down cosmology…. By applying the laws of quantum mechanics to the universe as a whole, Hawking carries the torch that Wheeler lit that day back at the North Carolina airport….”

— From “Haunted by His Brother, He Revolutionized Physics” by Amanda Gefter at Nautilus magazine (Jan. 16, 2014)