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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hyenas cooperate, but do we?

First of all, I think the history of this article is a great example of how we tend to overlook things about animals that aren't what we expect them to be. We focus so much on our nearest relations in the animal kingdom, sometimes we blind ourselves to the ones that aren't so closely related, but are still capable of so many amazing and BRILLIANT things. We give other animals that aren't chimps and gorillas short shrift because they're not human-like. Because they're not "as smart" as the others.

The line that really caught me, was this:

Researchers have focused on primates for decades with an assumption that higher cognitive functioning in large-brained animals should enable organized teamwork. But Drea's study demonstrates that social carnivores, including dogs, may be very good at cooperative problem solving, even though their brains are comparatively smaller.

If you want to talk about brain size, maybe we should be looking at whales and elephants. I don't think that it's the answer to the question of intelligence, honestly. I don't think we're really able to measure intelligence effectively, either. What is "smartest"? Smartest at a set task, at a set series of tasks, but until we're able to really understand the mind of the animal, I don't think we're ever really going to know who REALLY IS the smartest.

And that same above quote made me stop and reflect on human behavior. The part about the assumption involving primates as large-brained animals and organized teamwork. I think at some point we really get too smart for teamwork. We don't want to teach other people what we can do, and we don't want to ask for help or give help. And look at us! We fight amongst ourselves instead of cooperating.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Break Out the Tinfoil Hats, My Friends!

Because, we're mind reading, now! (Well, okay, maybe that's an exaggeration. we're only reading NUMBERS, but still!)

I can't be the only person who thinks this is incredibly cool. But forget about people, I mean, not that mind reading wouldn't limit the infinite ways in which we misunderstand each other, accidentally and purposeful, but my personal dream has always been to be able to read the minds of animals! To find a way to improve that communication!

Yeah, so maybe I sound kind of like a tree-hugger, but I'm really dying to know what goes on in the brains of a lot of animals other than ourselves. Dolphins. Elephants. Whales. Imagine what we could learn from these other species, if we could only TALK to them. I mean, whales are incredibly mysterious. We don't really understand them at all. We don't know where they go 9 months out of the year. We don't know what they do with themselves. We don't know why they go where they go that we CAN track. The Ocean itself is a mystery--but what if one of its denizens was willing to show us the way? I bet a dolphin would be a hilarious tour guide. And elephants-- what kind of smack are they talking about us in the circus? Are they REALLY pissed off about being performers, or do they like the attention and have strong relationships with their people? It's proven that elephants experience depression, and have strong bonds with other elephants, can they have them with people?

Seriously, mind reading, on any level, could offer us so many insights! To human behavior, to animal behavior, to the world! To observe instinct acting on the brain-- how does it work? Is it just impulse without thinking? is it collective memory? How do other living things see the world? Feel about the world? Feel in general!

My husband and I talk about this a lot. Or at least with frequency, because I'm kind of obsessed with the idea of cross-species communication on a greater level. He doesn't believe that mind reading will offer us much insight. He thinks that the process of thought will be so different between ourselves and any other species that it won't be translatable. I can't bring myself to agree with him, but that's mostly just out of stubbornness. Maybe he's right, and we'll need to learn some common language of thought, but I can't believe that direct mind to mind communication would be impossible. I don't want to believe. What do you believe?

And in the meantime, if it ever happens, sign me up!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

what an odd trend.

So this article from the wall street journal gave me some food for thought: New Light on the Plight of Winter Babies.

Firstly, I didn't even realize that this was even a thing. Babies born in winter have it harder? Don't do as well? Totally news to me. But I LOVE that this is something that's been debated seemingly for so long, and is now being looked at in a totally new and different way--that is, that perhaps the reason is because there's a correlation between winter babies and lower income/lower class/less educated families.

It also says in this article that babies born into the same family tend to have birthdays around the same times. In my family, I'm the youngest of five children. Our birthdays fall all within the months between March and mid September, but we cluster in July, August and September. My oldest sister is the oddball who was born in March. I'd never really thought about it at all before. My parents are both highly educated individuals, and both came from families where education was valued and appreciated. I'm not sure though, when my aunts and uncles birthdays fall, but that's kind of outside of their data points, since they were only looking at the years between 1989 and 2001. Honestly, my entire family falls outside of their data points too.

But here's the other thing that fascinated me: this research is being done by economists. It baffles me. Wouldn't this be more of a sociological issue, than economical? But that's kind of the beauty of it too--people from different backgrounds look at data differently, and can see things outside the box. This is why people with backgrounds in liberal arts are valued in medicine. This is why having a well rounded education (in my humble opinion) is important! This is why it scares the crap out of me that in New York State, the Regents board has all but wiped the Roman Empire and Classical History from is curriculum for world history.

And while I'm on that topic-- not to betray my social networking addiction-- I was looking at a facebook quiz that some people on my friendslist were taking, and I noticed that Julius Caesar was classified as "evil" in the same vein as Hitler. It really gets my goat, I'm not going to lie. Julius Caesar was a hero to the Roman people. The only people who didn't like him were the senators, and that was just because they didn't want to share their power. I'm not saying Julius Caesar was any kind of angel, but certainly he doesn't deserve to be classified or even spoken of in the same breath as Hitler, when a person is discussing villainy.

And how on earth do you teach the rest of world history without the foundation of the Roman Empire? I mean, it's the context for the rest of western civilization!

Argh!
ahem.
And that is my first post after returning from vacation. Enjoy my unfocused rantings.
Or, you know, not.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Levitating Mice! and rooms jam packed with light...

So we send all these astronauts into space without really understanding what the effects of "Zero" gravity are on the human body. Then they get home, and we say Oh, whoops, maybe we should look into that? To be fair, in the sixties when we were sending people to space for the first time, we probably had really no idea what to expect at all, as far as what challenges we would face, but by now I'd think, personally, that we'd sent plenty enough people up, frequently enough, and for extended enough periods, that maybe we'd have done some of this testing in, oh, I don't know, SPACE, instead of SIMULATING space on Mice.

Apparently, I'm wrong.

Of course, this doesn't mean I don't think that it's INCREDIBLY cool that they've found a way to make animals levitate. It is really neat. But isn't it a little bit late to be testing what simulated zero gravity does to Mice? Or maybe what I'm trying to say, is wouldn't it be more productive to send the mice to space to find out? Or can Mice not survive the force of blast off?

It just doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Why simulate something, when you can have them experience the real thing and get results without that added avenue of error? Haven't we sent monkey into space? dogs? I thought this kind of thing was what the international space station was for? Or, okay, they want to find a way to simulate zero gravity on earth to train astronauts-- that makes sense-- but wouldn't it also make sense to do parallel experimentation on earth and in space, so that you know it really is an accurate simulation? So that you know the results will be the same?

On an unrelated note, and something which will probably ruin my credibility as someone with any kind of scientific background (I swear, I minored in Biology-- I was going to be a wildlife biologist! Physics was just never really my thing because the New York State Board of Regents destroyed it for me by not allowing me to use calculus-- Yes. You read that correctly. I wasn't allowed to use calculus to do physics. Yes, it was the most idiotic thing ever. Yes it made me hate physics passionately forevermore.) I've always wondered if it was possible to pack a room with light so densely that a person would be unable to move.

You see, light is energy waves, right? It bounces off things and into your eye, and that's how you see colors--different wavelengths bounce off different colors. Well, if something can BOUNCE, it seems to me that it ought to be exerting some kind of force when that happens. (I'm pretty sure this is totally flawed logic, and I'm pretty sure the reason is that energy waves are not matter, and have no mass or something, but I can't shake the idea so just go with it.) So what if you filled a room with tons and tons of light, across the spectrum, so that there was nothing in the room that the light wasn't bouncing off of, and so much bouncing was happening that there was no room for anything else--No Nothing Left. (Nothing being an absence of matter--the space between your molecules. The space between the electrons and the nucleus of your atoms. We're really made up of a lot of nothing, which has always boggled my mind.) So that all the space in the room was taken up with light waves. Could you pin someone to a wall?

Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm pretty sure a person would go blind first.

Anyway. Levitating Mice. I don't think it's worth closing the barn door-- the horses already got out.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Lost World!!

Okay, this Lost World they found in the crater of an old volcano is INCREDIBLY COOL. To see how these animals evolved independently and differently is really neat. I'm really sad that I don't get BBC to watch the three part documentary. I kind of wonder how the animals got there to begin with-- did they survive a kilometer fall into the crater? And then how did they survive? I mean, plants obviously could be dropped into the crater without as much fuss-- a bird overflies it and poops, you know? But the other animals, the other species, how did they arrive? If the volcano erupted, it would have killed anything that was already there. But we're talking 200,000 years, too, so that's a lot of time for things to find their way in and then become trapped.

I'm anxious to hear more. I'm kind of hoping they put the documentary on hulu or something so I can watch it. I'll have to check out the BBC website and see what my viewing option are to learn more.

I love these little micro-universes. It's like seeing how things could have happened for the whole world. Like Mother Nature's little ecto-plasmic-goo experiment, to see what mixing these ingredients together would result in. You know what I'm saying?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Brain Size in Big Cats!

Disclaimer: Tigers are my most favorite animal in the world. I could go on for an eternity about the threat of extinction and conservation of tigers, but I'm going to go ahead and skip that and jump into this article. It probably is only interesting to me, but I don't care.

Are Tigers 'Brainier' Than Lions?

The answer is YES! On average, according to this study, they have a brain that's 16% larger (!!!!) than lions do!

This is surprising for a couple of reasons-- 1) Lions and Tigers are really really similar in overall size, lions even have longer skulls; and 2) It has been posited by science (though not proven at all) that social animals generally evolve larger brains to accommodate the demands of, well, group dynamics and socializing.

I kind of find that second point really interesting. It occurs to me that perhaps social animals don't have to have larger brains BECAUSE they live in groups, so generally speaking, they could be a little bit less smart because the numbers are in their favor.

Anyway, they don't know why tigers have larger brains, but it sounds like they're going to keep looking into it, and I'll be REALLY fascinated to hear what parts of the brain are more developed in tigers vs. lions when that's addressed.

Yeah, sorry. This is lacking in social commentary and philosophical discourse in a big way. But I figure at least it's a better post than my wordcount (I'm flying through my fourth book in 10 months--it's been a huge distraction from the blog).

Also, I suck at using parentheses.