Heavens above: the achievement of Curiosity and the Hubble Space Telescope

Long may our exploration of the heavens continue.

If it’s celestial wisdom you’re looking for at this time of year, you could do worse than take a moment to consider Nasa’s achievements. Up there, out there, are objects that give cause to reflect on things bigger than any one of us. Maggie Aderin- Pocock writes about Voyager here, but let’s look at the other two parts of the trinity: Curiosity and the Hubble Space Telescope.

On 12 December, Nasa scientists unveiled Hubble pictures that show the oldest galaxies in the universe. It has taken 13.4 billion years for their light to reach us from a time when the universe was just 500 million years old. The images promise to help us gather knowledge on one of the most opaque periods of cosmic history.

The Curiosity probe is roving around on the surface of Mars, sending back not only pictures, but the results of chemistry experiments that could tell us our true place in the cosmos. The recent (still tentative) discovery of carbon in the Red Planet’s soil could mark the moment we began to accept that the building blocks of life are scattered throughout the universe; that earth is special only to us, its inhabitants.

Despite our awe, it is not the heavens that are most impressive. In fact, wonder at the beauty and scale of the sights in the universe is almost an inappropriate reaction. Did we expect it to be small and dreary? What really is wonderful is that a carbon-based life form, having evolved in one unremarkable corner of the cosmos, has developed the temerity and skill to probe and explore it. We tame the universe and have begun to understand its origins and mysteries.

We’ve had our failures – this Christmas, it is nine years since the Beagle 2 mission, for instance – but we keep pushing ourselves into the heavens nonetheless. Long may it continue.

A self portrait by Nasa's Curiosity probe on Mars. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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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.”