A map generated by ESA's Swarm array, detailing changes in the Earth's magnetic field - red is strengthening, blue is weakening. Image: ESA/DTU Space
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Get ready for the Earth's magnetic field to flip over

New satellite data has indicated that the Earth's magnetic field is weakening, ahead of a rare - but regular - event.

It's still somewhat surprising to think that plate tectonics has only been an accepted and established for roughly 50 years. That is, our understanding of the structure of atoms was more sophisticated, earlier, than our understanding of the planet we live on. Though, that's maybe unfair; as much as scientists could infer the existence of plate tectonics from, for example, the similarities between the coastlines of Africa and South America, gathering evidence to prove that the Earth has a crust floating on a molten mantle was somewhat difficult. (And it meant that the person credited as the modern theory's originator, Alfred Wegener, was considered a crank for years before the establishment changed its mind.)

After the Second World War, scientists were given the chance to use submarine-detecting devices for peaceful research missions, mapping the ocean floor. In the early 1960s a series of papers were published on the magnetic properties of the undersea world, with some surprising findings - it appeared that some places appeared to have ocean floor with a magnetic field that was the reverse of the Earth's. This chimed with the experience of fisherman living off volcanic islands, who have known for centuries that some patches of ocean can cause the north point of a compass to suddenly switch and point south; and it was consistent with magnetic rocks on land that also seemed to have the "wrong" magnetic polarisation.

Yet what became clear when those patches of irregularity were mapped, across the whole of the Atlantic and Pacific, was that they weren't randomly allocated patches - rather, it became clear that the ocean floor was laid out in long, symmetrical stripes of magnetism, emanating from faults like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It was clear that magma was coming up from inside the planet, magnetised with a certain polarity, and then cooling and forming new rock as two tectonic plates moved apart from each other; and that every time the Earth's magnetic field flipped, it reversed the polarisation of the magma that was becoming new sea floor. It was a key discovery in confirming the theory of plate tectonics.

It might be a surprise to hear that the Earth's magnetic field flips over, but it does - every few hundred thousand years, the field weakens, then suddenly (which is relative in this context, on the order of a few hundred years) what was north-facing becomes south-facing, and what was south-facing becomes north-facing. We monitor the Earth's magnetic field with satellites these days, and the European Space Agency's Swarm array has noticed it weakening more significantly than expected:

Measurements made over the past six months confirm the general trend of the field’s weakening, with the most dramatic declines over the Western Hemisphere.

But in other areas, such as the southern Indian Ocean, the magnetic field has strengthened since January.

The latest measurements also confirm the movement of magnetic North towards Siberia.

Rune Floberghagen, the mission manager for Swarm, told Live Science that this new data could mean that a flip is due within the next few hundred years, contrary to earlier estimates of around 2,000 years from now.

We don't yet know whether this is signifying a "proper" flip like the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal of nearly 800,000 years ago, or a more temporary one like the one that occured roughly 40,000 years ago during the last ice age, but which only lasted for slightly more than 400 years. This is in part because we still aren't totally sure why these reverses even happen at all. The poles wobble anyway, and it could be that the molten core of the Earth is a bit like a spinning top, occasionally changing its pattern of movement and falling over; or it could be because of large chunks of mantle nearer the surface "fall" into the centre periodically, causing turbulence that throws things off.

Regardless, the changing of the magnetic field is not a cause for alarm, even if the magnetic field is largely responsible for protecting us all from the worst effects of cosmic radiation. This is because the magnetic field does not entirely disappear - it just weakens. There are some who theorise that these events have been linked with mass extinction events, but the evidence is tenuous at best.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”