THE Scholarly Web

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May 12, 2011

The news of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of US special forces made headlines around the world, with many bloggers focusing on the inevitable conspiracy theories.

But one online account stood out for its different take on events, highlighting the accuracy of a prediction about the al-Qaeda leader's whereabouts made by academics in 2009.

The post on Science Insider (http://bit.ly/kCQJOA) reports that scholars at the University of California, Los Angeles made the prediction using a "probabilistic model" devised by Thomas Gillespie, a professor of geography, and a class of undergraduates.

"According to the model, there was an 88.9 per cent chance that bin Laden was hiding out in a city less than 300km from his last known location in Tora Bora: a region that included Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed," the post reports.

The prediction was based on "island biogeography", the idea that a species on a large island is more likely to survive a catastrophe than a species on a small one. Professor Gillespie is quoted as saying: "The theory was basically that if you're going to try to survive, you go to a region with a low extinction rate: a large town." It is "not his thing" to model terrorists' movements, he adds, but "the same theories we use to study endangered birds can be used to do this".

One effect of bin Laden's death was to knock the royal wedding off the top of the news agenda. Readers may have noticed that while the world went mad about the Duchess of Cambridge's dress, Times Higher Education remained a resolutely wedding-free zone.

Well, resolutely-ish. The arrest of two anthropologists planning to stage a mock execution on the day was too juicy to ignore, touching on issues as vital as freedom of speech and who would to feed the detained couple's pet rabbit (http://bit.ly/l61xwA).

The arrests sparked furious debate on THE's comment threads. One reader asked if it was truly a freedom of speech issue "or just some 'intellectual' people making an absurd and rather shallow point?" Another concurred: "Silly old buggers - should be sitting with their feet up in front of a good fire."

But they had supporters, too. "That the police can simply remove a peaceful protest because the views expressed are not those of the ruling establishment is utterly un-democratic," said one.

With wedding frippery and critical news analyses dominating the blogosphere, the situation in Japan, following March's devastating earthquake, has largely retreated from the West's focus.

But The Intercultural blog (http://bit.ly/8Hmcsp) offers a sobering reminder that the damage caused by such natural disasters cannot be repaired overnight.

Its author, Susan Burton, associate professor in the Faculty of Foreign Languages at Bunkyo Gakuin University in Tokyo, writes: "It was warm and sunny on Thursday. During a class I went to open some windows and found that the lintels had warped and the paint cracked post-quake. The stairs in C building are a bit suspect too. We are still saving power and only one lift in the building is working so I regularly run from my office on the ninth floor to the teachers' lounge on the third and back up for tea top-ups. It's the same in shops and on the subway ... I'll be a wraith by summer."

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