hree interesting science news items to round out the week:

Surviving the Winter, and Copying Nature

Dr. Bernd Heinrich, whose work with ravens I’ve reported on several times in this blog, has a guest piece in yesterday’s NYT entitled Hibernation, Insulation, and Caffeination on animals’ winter survival. I’ve written three times on this topic, first on frogs’ self-antifreeze protection in Somewhere Someone Calls My Name, second on the clothing of the peoples of the arctic, which imitates and uses native animals’ protective covering in The Perfect House, and last week in my paean to birds’ winter survival skills, in The Fear of Nature. I’d love to see Dr. Heinrich take on the issues of man imitating nature, and of our attempts to understand animal language (see second item below). It’s a very hot topic today in the sciences, from using refraction rather than pigmentation to produce colour, as butterflies do, to attempts at understanding and replicating other species’ methods of navigation. John Lienhard, in his NPR program The Engines of Our Ingenuity says it best, I think:

People often ask me if invention copies nature. The answer’s a surprise. We seldom manage to copy nature. She’s too complex. Her secrets are too deeply buried. Our forbears were once in closer touch with organic nature. They knew the herbs of the forest and, without chemistry, they extracted medicines and processed chemicals from them. They used nature. But they made no attempt to copy her… We did the same thing when we learned to fly. We couldn’t combine lift with propulsion in a flapping wing. So we gave up, froze the wing in place, and drove the plane forward with a propeller. It was a crude solution for a hopelessly complex problem.

Incidentally, complete transcripts of that NPR program are available online.

Communicating with Animals

In a recent article entitled If I Could Talk to the Animals I described a grey parrot named Alex that stunned his owners by impatiently saying “want a nut” and then in exasperation spelling “n-u-t” when his expectations of receiving a treat for answering his lessons correctly were not met. Now the BBC is reporting another grey parrot named N’kisi who does some even more remarkable things — inventing his own words, conjugating verbs using consistent rules, using the correct verb tense, and even evidencing a whimsical sense of humour. His first words on meeting Dr Jane Goodall, having seen pictures of her before with apes, were “Got a chimp?” If I had a spare million or two I think I’d spend it, before anything else, on understanding animal communications and emotions. If we could learn, or even only imagine, what other species are saying, thinking and feeling, we could change everything. [Thanks to Aalia Wayfare at The LeftHander for catching this]

Disappearing Ink

And finally, from the New Scientist, the first small steps towards erasable paper. This invention, licensed by Toshiba, uses three chemicals, the first two of which give the ink its colour, and the third reverses the process, rendering the ink invisible and allowing the paper to be reused. It’s not a commercially viable solution for most, since an additional piece of equipment is needed to erase the pages, and the energy (manufacturing, processing, and human) needed by the process is exorbitant relative to the benefits received. But it’s a start. Discarded newspaper and writing paper still makes up 35% of our landfill sites, the process to produce it causes serious pollution, and it consumes an ever-increasing number of trees.

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3 Responses to SCIENCE SHORTS

  1. Doug Alder says:

    THere is some fascinating research going on right now with pygmy chimps (bonobo chimpanzees) who it seems are the most intelligent primates besides ourselves. There was an intersting New Scientist article last year ( and there was an even more interesting show on CBC today regarding one bonobo that seems to truly understand human speech.While wearing a welder’s helmet to mask her face his trainer makes up new sentences that he has never heard before – such as put the keys in the refrigerator – and the chimp complies by picking up the keys and putting them in the fridge. Later they showeed him playing Pacman. He taught himself how to play and – and his is very important – figured out how to beat the game. The most important part though is that he taught himself from birth to recognixze the symbols they use – they never tried to teach him – they were trying to teach his mother I believe it was. He observed and figured it all out.Unfortunately I did not see the entire show – I have a suspicion that this chimp and the one in the New Scientist article may be the same. Of course as I ponted out a year ago ( I’m sure the linguists will just redefine what constitutes language and rationality like they have every other time someone has dared to suggest another species has achieved the capacity for ratiocination

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Avi: Thanks for the link — I can’t get enough of Bernd’s writing.Doug: Yes, the accusations of anthropomorphism will always follow any suggestion of animal intelligence and emotion, even though Jeff Masson has painstakingly showed that such accusations do not hold water. Just as with previous generations’ claim that slaves and women were ‘less than persons’ and hence not entitled to rights, those in power are unwillingly to cede it or share it without a fight. This time around we’ll have to wage the fight on animals’ behalf, and it will take a century, if we last that long. But I think we realize instinctively (if not rationally) that the presumption that just because a species does not speak human language or radically alter its environment, does not mean that species is not sentient, intelligent, and capable of emotion every bit as profound as ours, if not more.

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