At Discover Magazine, Richard Pallardy offers an anecdote: In April 1970, Ric O’Barry visited a dolphin named Kathy at the Miami Seaquarium, where she was languishing in “retirement” after three years as the title character on the television show Flipper. O’Barry, who had captured her from the wild and trained her to perform, remembers thinking that she seemed depressed. She was all alone in a concrete tank — not a good thing for a highly social animal like a dolphin. He claims the former cetacean starlet swam into his arms, sank to the bottom of the tank and refused to resurface, drowning herself. Richard Pallardy, “Do Animals Commit Suicide?” at Discover Magazine (August 10, 2021) There is no lack of Read More ›
British science writer Philip Ball, author of How to Grow a Human, offers an even-handed account of a controversy on the origin of our ability to understand numbers (numeracy). Numeracy is the beginning of mathematics, the most abstract of all human pursuits. It isn’t possible to get very far in mathematics without some ability to abstract. Ball cites as an example the difference between 152 and 153. Many life forms, competing for a pile of food items, can distinguish between 2 and 3. But distinguishing between 152 and 153 clearly requires abstraction. It’s the same principle as the chiliagon, a geometric figure like a triangle except that it has 1000 sides. A triangle can be envisioned concretely. A chiliagon can Read More ›
At a time when many people see numbers, arithmetic, and mathematics as mere oppression, others are intrigued by the basic question, how did the human race learn to do math? There are some clues, as a new project called Quanta is trying to establish. First, while no animals use abstract numbers in the wild, some animals can do rough figuring: Although researchers once thought that humans were the only species with a sense of quantity, studies since the mid-twentieth century have revealed that many animals share the ability. For instance, fish, bees and newborn chicks can instantly recognize quantities up to four, a skill known as subitizing. Some animals are also capable of ‘large-quantity discrimination’: they can appreciate the difference Read More ›
This year saw a huge uproar in science media over claims that prominent researcher of spider behavior Jonathan Pruitt, a behavioral ecologist currently at McMaster University in Canada, had fabricated evidence of complex, seemingly intelligent behavior in spiders. After many colleagues recently raised concerns in blogs and tweets that behavioral ecologist Jonathan Pruitt had fabricated the data behind a slew of provocative results regarding animal personalities and social spiders, he denied the charges, saying any problems were inadvertent mistakes. Elizabeth Pennisi, “Embattled spider biologist seeks to delay additional retractions of problematic papers” at Science (March 12, 2020) Some of Pruitt’s data management mistakes seem rather curious: More than 20 scientists — co-authors, peers and other interested observers in the field Read More ›
Can birds really do statistics? A reporter writing up the results of a study for a popular science magazine seems to think so. The researchers are (appropriately) more cautious. But what are the issues here?