Category Archives: Weird Things

The first named human

Not surprisingly, the record of the first humans identified by a personal name goes back to before the dawn of history itself. Through his artistic ‘Love Symbol’, the The Artist Formerly Known as Prince gave us a clue how pre-writing names were probably rendered!

Example of Jiahu Symbols (Wikipedia)


Pottery shards and other artifacts uncovered in China often bare curious symbols dating from the dawn of Chinese writing between 6600 and 6200 BC. Called Jiahu Symbols, they are not part of a written language but merely personally-invented symbols scratched on pottery to mark ownership by a specific individual: In other words a name!


The first recorded name given in an actual writing system can be found on clay tablets dating from the Jemdet Nasr period in Sumeria between 3200 and 3101 BC.

Example of Jemdet Nasr cuneiform (Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The tablets are not profound treatises on human thinking, but accounting ledgers for tallying up goods and possessions! Some of the first names are those of the slave owner Gal-Sal and his two slaves Enpap-x and Sukkalgir (3200-3100 BC). Another name is that of Turgunu Sanga (3100 BC) who seems to have been an accountant for the Turgunu family. There are many more names from this period but none that appear much before 3200 BC.



Example of Iry-Hor’s name on a pottery shard (Credit:Wikipedia)

Looking to Egypt, Iry-Hor (The Mouth of Horus) would be the earliest name we know dating from about 3200 BC. Little is known about Iry-Hor other than his name found on pottery shards in one of the oldest tombs in Abydos, though based on his burial he was a pre-dynastic pharaoh of Upper Egypt. [Wikipedia]. King Ka, from around this same time, was the first to inscribe his name inside a box-shaped serekh as an indicator of kingship. Following king Ka and king Iry-Hor we also have kings with hieroglyphic symbols of Crocodile King and Scorpion Kingfollowed by the name of the first pharaoh, Narmer (Catfish King), who united both Upper and Lower Egypt and together with his wife Neithhotep, lived between 3150 and 3125 BC. She, by the way, is the oldest women to be mentioned by name. The name Neithhotep means “[The Goddess] Neith is satisfied”.

Other civilizations arrive at writing names much later than the Chinese, Sumerians and Egyptians, but we can still ask the same question.


Anitta (no known meaning to the name) was the king of the Hittite city of Kussara. He lived around 1700 BC and is the earliest known ruler to compose a text in the Hittite language, which is the oldest known Indo-European text.

Linear B is a syllabic script that predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries. The oldest writing dates to about 1450 BC. Some Knossos Linear B tablets mention people by name. A number of Mycenian names have exact equivalents in Homer such as Hektor , which means “holding fast”.

Following many other ancient naming traditions, even ancient Greek names have an intrinsic meaning. For example Archimedes means “master of thought”, from the Greek element (archos) “master” combined with (medomai) “to think, to be mindful of”. And of course nearly all ancient Egyptian names have a separate meaning such as Amun Tut Ankh whose heiroglyphic name can be directly transcribed with the words ‘Amun’s Image Living’. We know him more popularly as Tutankamun.


The Mayans rose to prominence around A.D. 250. The oldest clearly named king is given by a glyph that translates into Yax Ehb’ Xook which literally means “First Step Shark”. He was the first king of Tikal who ruled sometime between 63 and 90 AD. Much later in 420 AD we have the purported founder of Copan, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo whose name means “Sun-Eyed Resplendent Quetzal Macaw”.
The peoples of Africa, Australia and North America all had spoken languages but not written symbolism, so until writing was imported to these areas we have no documentable record of names. For example among Native Americans, the oldest known name dates from the arrival of the Pilgims and their historical record-keeping. We read about Tisquantum (meaning The Wrath of God) ca 1620 AD who was a member of the Patuxet tribe. In Africa, there are many names that have come forward in time literally by word of mouth, but no way to establish their actual dates of usage through writing. For example, the legendary Queen of Sheba (1005-955 BC) was traditionally believed to be a part of the Ethiopian dynasty established in 1370 BC by Za Besi Angabo. Among Australian Aboriginals, writing only appeared after the arrival of Europeans in ca 1780s who transcribed language sounds into Latin text. Some of their names include Tharah, which means ‘thunder’ or Mokee which means ‘cloudy’.

What is interesting about almost all ancient human names is that in their own languages they actually mean something. They are not sterile monikers. At a cocktail party a conversation between two ancient Egyptians would be ‘Hi, my name is Living Image of Amun’…Pleased to meet you! My name is The Beautiful One Has Come!” It would not be heard as ‘Hi, my name is Tutankhamun…Pleased to meet you! My name is Nefertiti!”

This widespread human habit of naming people by phrases is far different than what we experience in modern times. We rarely think too much about names like ‘John Cartwright’, or Mike Brown. My own Swedish name, Sten Odenwald, translates into ‘Stone of Oden’s Forest’, and occasionally I really do think of it as more than a set of sounds or letters that designate me.

So the next time you visit Starbucks, imagine having this conversation:
You: I’d like a vente hot chocolate with whipped cream.
Barrista: Your Name?
You: The Living Image of the Irridescent Higgs Field
Barrista: ??
You: Just call me Bob.

Check here on Tuesday, January 17 for the next blog!

What the…!!!!

You would think that a scientist lives in a purely rational world, but sometimes even we fall victim to events that are hard to explain at the moment. Here are my two favorite, and involuntary, journeys into the world of altered states!

I have had three experiences that some sufferers of migraine headaches may know all too well. Suddenly from out of nowhere, you may see flashing or shimmering lights, zigzagging lines, or stars. Some people even describe psychedelic images. For me, each one came on suddenly and caused me a bit of consternation before I figured out what was going on!


Each time, I saw a jagged crescent-shaped light that drifted across my visual field. I did not have a migraine headache either before or after, since I do not suffer from these painful conditions. But the shape and behavior of the image was identical to such migraine auras.

Called scintillating scotomas by opthamologists, in my case the effect occurred in the same part of my visual field no matter where I moved my eyes, so I knew that something was going on way up in my brain to cause it, and not in my retinas, like the experience of having those pesky ‘floaters’. Instead, it is caused by what is termed a ‘cortical spreading depression’. This is literally a physical wave of hyperstimulation followed by neural inhibition, that spreads out from the visual cortex and into the surrounding association areas at a speed of about 5 millimeters per minute. The whole thing lasts less 60 minutes and is quite amazing and slightly painful to watch. If you are driving a car at the time, it is extremely distracting and even dangerous. My events began as a flickering spot that expanded into a nearly ring-like, zig-zag shape about half the size of my visual field before fading away.

You can find simulations of this phenomenon at the Wikipedia page.

The second perceptual event that I have never forgotten was much more complex.

I woke up in the semi-darkness of my bedroom and could see the dim shapes of the furniture around me, but I absolutely could not move so much as an eyelash. My eyes were open, but felt like they were very dry and begging for me to blink to get some tears going to reduce the irritation. But that was not the thing that captured my attention. There, floating at arms-length was a bright visual scene about as big as a dinner plate that had a horse running around in a corral. As I watched, the initially very clear image became less and less distinct until it faded out completely. Within a few minutes, sounds began to flood back and I could again move around in a fully awake state.

I had this experience in my early-50s and it was never to reoccur. Now, I have had quite a few waking dreams in my life, where I woke up in a dream realizing where I was, then waking up a second time to the real world, but this was a completely different experience.I have searched the literature to look for an explanation, and come across discussions of waking dreams and lucid dreaming, but this event seems to be different. Unlike a lucid dream, I was not aware that I was dreaming as I was watching the visual scenery of the horse in the corral. Instead it did not seem like an unusual experience at all. My tendency towards scientifically analyzing my experiences did not kick-in. All I could do was watch and marvel at the event with a feeling of awe, and definitely not fear.The nearest I could find to my experience is the ‘Type 2 false awakening’ where ‘The subject appears to wake up in a realistic manner, but to an atmosphere of suspense.[…] The dreamers surroundings may at first appear normal, and they may gradually become aware of something uncanny in the atmosphere, and perhaps of unwanted [unusual] sounds and movements.’

There is also the phenomenon of sleep paralysis ‘in which an individual briefly experiences an inability to move, speak, or react. It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations to which one is unable to react due to paralysis, and physical experiences. These hallucinations often involve a person or supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one’s chest and difficulty breathing.’

Well, there was nothing terrifying about my experience. In fact, it was extremely pleasurable and awe-inspiring!

In reflecting back on these events, I find myself delighted that I experienced them because sometimes you want to have experiences in life that are extremely unusual and hard to explain just to have something to think about other than the predictable day-to-day world. I’m sure there are detailed medical reasons for each of my apparitions, because they all are related to how my brain works. Our brains are amazing organs that work overtime to make sense of the world, but they are still fallible.The difference between passing a kidney stone and a minor hiccup in the brain, is that our kidneys are not conscious. But, any little innocent tweak to our brain physiology is immediately interpreted as a change in behavior or of our conscious experience of the world.

So the next time you experience something ‘odd’, don’t be too worried about it. Just sit back and try to enjoy the altered experience. In the end, it may only be a completely innocent, though inscrutable, brain hiccup!

In my next blog I will describe how a brain filled with complex associations manages to make sense of it all!

Check back here on Wednesday, December 7 for the next installment!

Ocular migraines:

False awakening:

Sleep paralysis:

Stranger than Science?

Most of my childhood was spent in a wonderful twilight of comprehension between my imaginary world and the world I was being introduced to in school, and through my many science-related hobbies. I make no apologies for this as an adult scientist, and consider my tenure in this wonderful place, time well spent in nurturing the person I am today.

What the ....

Even now, as I look back over 64 years of amazing life, there remain a handful of events that standout, and for which I have no good explanation…nor do I chose to seek for one!

The first of these was in 9th grade, when as I was walking home from school, leaping one-by-one up the 52 stairs from Galindo Street to Carrington in Oakland. Suddenly, my breathless and speedy stride was broken by the sight of a paperback book tossed to the side of one of the steps. I picked it up and noted the author was Franck Edwards; the title of the book was ‘Stranger than Science’. For the next few days I stayed up late into the night reading about spontaneous human combustion, strange disappearances, and a whole host of other ‘documented’ occurrences that science could not explain. So, where did the book come from and why did I happen upon it at exactly that moment?

The next event happened while I was visiting my cousins Dan and Annika at their summer home in Sweden. Dan and I decided to take his moped out for a ride down a rocky deserted road, several miles from their house. It was an overcast swampland scene with seagulls screeching overhead. We randomly stopped and I hopped off to turn over some large stones, looking for whatever might be under them. A salamander? A nest of peculiar insects? After a few tries, and under the fourth stone, there laid a 5-krown paper note. What were the odds of finding Swedish paper money out in the middle of nowhere? Who had put it there? Swedish lore is rife with tales of trolls who live under rocks and stash their valuables there. Sounds like a good explanation to me!

In college, while camping in the high country of Yosemite near Merced Lake, I was shocked to hear, out of nowhere, a peculiar and powerful musical sound. Two deep-base notes rang out from the distant deserted, alpine valley where a thunder storm had been in progress, and for 20 seconds I was entertained in the twilight as these two tones switched back and forth, never changing their pitch in-between cycles. Had the sounds from the thunder been somehow been converted to these pure tones by reflection from canyon walls?

Also in college, I was again standing in the twilight, gazing up at the UC Berkeley urban sky, when eight pinpoint lights forming a V-shape, glided silently by over-head at an apparent speed that eliminated airplane landing lights, or a flock of birds. The shape spanned a dozen full-moons, but made absolutely no sound at all. My first and only ‘UFO’ sighting?

Finally in graduate school at Harvard, I was spending a few days with my brother Richard’s family at their home some two months after his wife, my sister-in-law Darlene, had died. I was still in shock over losing my dear sister, and was spending the night that Christmas in her former home. At about 3:00 am I was awaken by some thing just beyond my view, stroking my cheek. To this day I have poetically interpreted it as my sister-in-law reaching out to console me over my grief in losing her.

Given some thought, we all have accumulated over our lifetimes unusual anecdotes like this, that could not be readily explained because in each instance we did not have the complete set of facts at our disposal from which to form a plausible explanation. In most cases, we even refuse to delve too deeply into them because we have discovered it is rather fun and comforting not to actually know what happened!

Not long after I received my PhD in astronomy in 1982, I happened upon another book that captured my adult imagination. William Corliss (1926-2011) had published the quotidian ‘Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena’ in which he had culled from a variety of reputable scientific journals, descriptions of unusual events such as strange sounds, inexplicable lights, and other phenomena. I read it from cover to cover, with both the practiced gaze of a freshly-minted scientist, and that 10-year-old that I used to be. I still like to turn its pages from time to time and read 19th century reports of ball lightning, earthquake lights, unusual aurora and other things that probably do have a rational explanation. But what to I make of ‘ghost lights’, ‘rains of frogs’ and other things that stir up human emotions of deep mystery and ‘things going bump in the night’?

A future science will no doubt find explanations for them, but for now I remain happy that they are a part of my world, though not currently explained. In the end, we do have to leave SOMETHING for our children to explore!

In the next blog, I will describe how strokes have helped neuroscientists understand how human brains create consistent explanatory models of the world, and how this process can break down with some rather unbelievable results!

Check back here on Tuesday, November 29 for the next installment!

Aurora picture Credit Tommy Richardsen –