Why Comet Ison is not an epic fail

Who’d be a comet in this era of rolling news coverage and internet commentary?

Who’d be a comet in this era of rolling news coverage and internet commentary? Errant celebrities and under-performing footballers have suffered less criticism, uninformed speculation and unwanted exposure.

The pressure has been on for Comet Ison. After being hailed as the “comet of the century” by various media sources for months, the Huffington Post pulled no punches a few weeks ago, with a headline declaring that the disappointing comet “Fails to dazzle so far”. Even New Scientist had to grit its teeth to get through a period of waning faith: “Until last week, it looked like Ison might be a total dud,” the magazine reported. A couple of weeks ago, the Independent grudgingly acknowledged that things might be looking up: “Comet ISON, the much anticipated ‘comet of the century’, is finally beginning to live up to its reputation.”

Even NASA has been known to trash-talk comets. Remember 2011’s Comet Elenin? Following a spate of predictions that Elenin would be responsible for calamity on Earth, NASA representatives were quick to burst its celebrity bubble. After Elenin disintegrated in the sun’s heat, the “icy dirtball” broke up into a “trail of piffling particles” making an “unexceptional swing” through the inner solar system, according to a NASA expert. It was “gone and should be forgotten”.

They might soon say the same about Ison. Yesterday the comet came within three quarters of a million miles of the sun’s surface, and was exposed to the full force of solar heating. It appeared to break up under the pressure, and the European Space Agency declared it dead. But now it has reappeared, diminished but triumphant, like an icy Obi-Wan. It’s no longer going to be the comet of the century, though.

NASA’s observing campaign for Ison distanced itself from that epithet long ago. The Comet Ison observing campaign has noted that Comet Elenin was “ridiculously over-hyped”, and were determined that their comet shouldn’t suffer the same fate. The tremendous number of observations and science data we have already recorded from Ison means that, even with the fizzled-out hopes, labelling it an epic fail is “particularly harsh” according to the NASA campaign’s site. Scientists only discovered ISON last September, and have scrambled to assemble missions that will photograph and analyse it. Scientists want to study the comet for clues to the conditions in the Oort cloud, a sphere of icy rocks in the outer regions of the solar system. This is where most of the comets we see are thought to originate.

Ison’s final indignity will come thanks to the many scientific instruments in space; there is no danger of the comet escaping unpapped. This week its fate will be caught by no fewer than eight space-based cameras. Out there, no one can hear you scream, but everyone can see you burn bright - or fall apart.

Another celebrity, comet Hale-Bopp appears in the sky over Merrit Island, Florida in 1997. Photo:Getty.

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 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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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.”