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Saturday, August 18, 2012


As my small but faithful readership knows, I try to be a man of faith. However, that does not mean that I am anti-science. I'm fascinated by our ability to fly a rocket an incredibly long way (anywhere from fifty-four million kilometers to over four hundred million kilometers), detach a landing module and deposit a technical dreamboat onto the surface of a distant, red planet. In fact, if you go here, you can read all about NASA's current program managing several rovers on the surface of Mars, including the latest, Curiosity. According to NASA:

Human space exploration helps to address fundamental questions about our place in the Universe and the history of our solar system. Through addressing the challenges related to human space exploration we expand technology, create new industries, and help to foster a peaceful connection with other nations. Curiosity and exploration are vital to the human spirit and accepting the challenge of going deeper into space will invite the citizens of the world today and the generations of tomorrow to join NASA on this exciting journey.

This looks like a spot I visited in Saudi Arabia!

I'm not here to debate the wisdom of spending billions of dollars on space exploration. There are some tremendously useful technologies that have come out of the space program - things like cordless tools, for example. What is on my mind are those things that we do in the name of science that, well, have some questionable value to mankind as a whole.

In fact, I was listening to NPR yesterday morning and heard about an ongoing experiment to determine if animals flock together (herd, school, etc.) to be safer. The very first line of the on-line report says "By tricking live fish into attacking computer-generated "prey" scientists have learned that animals like birds and fish may indeed have evolved to swarm together to protect themselves from the threat of predators."

In a burst of sarcasm I will likely regret I thought, "Really? Marlin Perkins taught us that in the Sixties without the aid of computer generated prey."

Our generations' Steve Irwin

I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, with Marlin Perkins traveling around the world teaching us about animal behaviors and all manner of weird things - including the fact that when you were watching a herd of wildebeests on the plains of Africa, the one straggling in the back was likely to get eaten by that cheetah hiding in the brush.

At the risk of mixing metaphors in this blog, that's not rocket science.

Near the end of the NPR segment, Christos Ioannou (University of Bristol, UK) says, "I think it's the first evidence that this coordinated behavior we see in bird flocks and fish schools, where individuals are really highly coordinated in the direction they're heading, has an anti-predatory effect, to our knowledge that's the first time it's been done in a really clear, experimental way."

Again, can't we see this type of behavior playing out in the wild nearly at will? Perhaps the caveat is in an experimental way. I'm not sure how much this experiment cost or who paid for it but this is just one example of science trying to prove something that seems, well, intuitive.

I'm sure that there are other reasons that creatures flock or school together but after growing up watching Wild Kingdom and other shows that presented cool information about animals, this is just an area where I didn't think we needed to expend a lot of resources. Of course, Wild Kingdom isn't on the television anymore and sadly, Steve Irwin has passed, so maybe there is a need for folks like Ioannou and his fellow researchers to come up with video games for predatory fish. If nothing else, perhaps they are this generations' Marlin Perkins?

Or maybe, they'll end up like these guys:

What do you think?


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