Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in a photo taken by the Rosetta spacecraft, 6 August. Photo: Getty
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Hunting the rocky rubber duck: how comet-chasing Rosetta could change history

This ball of rock and ice formed at the same time as our solar system and should, if predictions are correct, contain complex organic molecules, the same stuff as terrestrial life is made from.

We learn a lot about ourselves from the newspapers. When the Times reported the launch of the comet-hunting Rosetta spacecraft in March 2004, the story merited only 44 words. The report was consigned to page eight; the front page was dominated by the Ashura massacre in Iraq, in which al-Qaeda bombers killed 178 Shia Muslims.

Ten years later, after Rosetta finally reached comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the Times put the spacecraft on page 19, behind stories of wrangles over monkey-selfies, among other things. But don’t be fooled: Rosetta is important. In an era of fatalistic acceptance of humanity’s shortcomings, the Rosetta team reminds us what we can achieve.

The comet, which is about 400 million kilometres from earth, appears to be composed of two lumps of rock, one smaller than the other, so that it resembles a rocky rubber duck. To put its spacecraft into orbit around this oddity, with an eventual view to sending an instrument-laden craft to the surface in a controlled landing, the European Space Agency has had to harness unprecedented creativity.

The solution is this: initially, Rosetta will orbit the comet in a triangular pattern as it maps the exact shape and density of the rock. For two weeks, Rosetta will be at 100km from its surface, then at 70km – at which point the flying will get more difficult. The comet occasionally ejects plumes of gas from its core, and these will buffet the spacecraft, potentially knocking it off course. Early next month, if all has gone well, Rosetta will drop into a circular orbit 30km from the comet’s surface. After another fortnight, it will move further in, sitting at a precarious distance of 10km. Then, in November, the lander will drop to the surface and the team will have made history.

The mission’s aim is to discover what exactly the comet is made of. This ball of rock and ice formed at the same time as our solar system and should, if predictions are correct, contain complex organic molecules, the same stuff as terrestrial life is made from. Rosetta’s lander is equipped with instruments that will help us determine whether life on earth was seeded by a comet crashing into our planet. As history lessons go, it doesn’t get more profound than this.

Such is the promise of the mission that the researchers have described comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as “scientific Disneyland”. There will certainly be a roller-coaster ride as the comet moves towards the sun: some of its ice core will be vaporised, throwing out pieces of rock and jets of steam, making its environment hard to endure.

But endure Rosetta no doubt will. The problem-solving demonstrated by the research team showcases what scientists can achieve when they collaborate internationally. Two thousand people, from 14 European countries and the US, are creating milestones in, and lessons about, human history. So it’s a shame that humanity’s worst side seems to eclipse Rosetta’s every move.

The lander will touch down on the comet’s surface – our first controlled landing on a comet – on 11 November. That will be Armistice Day, in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War. Most media reports will no doubt squander the chance to celebrate humanity’s greater achievements, preferring that we wring our hands about history and yet fail to learn its lessons. Don’t be distracted: there will be more insight to gain from Rosetta’s moment of glory. 

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 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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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.”