Pigeons, the Internet, and the Meaning of Science

by Shane L. Larson

Albert Einstein famously remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.  The aperture through which we view the world around us and understand its workings is called “science.”  We make observations of the world, organize that empirical knowledge into patterns that seem logical and meaningful, then try to use those patterns to predict the future and explain the past.

There is, I think, an unfortunate tendency in today’s world to identify someone as a “scientist” only if they practice science as a profession.  This is as silly as only identifying a “cook” as someone who works in a restaurant downtown.  If you prepare food at home, for yourself or your family, out of necessity or simple joy, most of us would be perfectly happy calling you a “cook.”  But does the same candid use of the word “scientist” for everyone display a disingenuous labeling, a callous disregard for what we mean by “scientist?”  I’m sure some of my scientist colleagues, notorious for their rigid-mindedness and narrow world vision are bristling at this very moment.  But I’m okay with that, because I think it depends on what you mean by “scientist!”

The defining character of “science” is that it is an endeavour to understand the world.  The essential truth of this self-motivated journey of discovery is that it is, as far as we know, a uniquely human endeavour, driven solely by our curiosity, by our desire to understand.  Science is a manifestation of our desire to understand everything!  Where we came from, why water flows downhill, how a bug’s wings sometimes look clear and sometimes look irridescent, why we need to sleep, how our children can be so like us and so different, why trees don’t grow old and die like humans, how did octopi learn to spit ink, why are kumquats so delicious, how did there come to be rings around Saturn, why aren’t metals transparent, and an uncountable number of other questions.  By extension then, the defining character of a “scientist” is curiosity.  It has been my observation that everyone is curious about something, ergo, everyone is a scientist.

There are degrees to be sure, just like there are degrees of “cook.”  I’m not going to walk into Noma in Copenhagen and go toe-to-toe with Rene Redzepi, but I can still make a mean lasagne and entertain my dinner guests.  Similarly, many of you might not be comfortable debating the principles of Bose-Einstein condensation with Carl Wieman, but I bet you have still conducted an idle experiment with your microwave to understand the best possible conditions under which to nuke a chocolate chip muffin to perfection.

Flex your curiosity for a moment.  As an exercise, try Googling “draw a scientist.” Predictably, you get a dizzying array of mad scientists in lab coats with beakers, an ocassional Doofenshmirtz, and every now and then a hand drawn self portrait of a child labeled simply, “Me.”  Moreso than anyone else, even professional scientists, children know how to explore.  They constantly experiment, interpret, and reexperiment on the world.  Their entire lives are geared toward one thing: discovery and understanding and relenquishing all concerns to the overriding and insatiable curiosity that drives them from one activity to the next with passion, excitement and an uncrushable zest for new experiences.  Children are, by definition, young scientists.  They explore for no other reason than they want to know.  They collect empirical data, and change their notions of the world based on their observations.  Usually their explorations don’t gain them anything other than a deeper appreciation for the world around them, but sometimes they learn something they can use in the future, like leaving your sweater in the sun makes it deliciously warm when you put it on (as my daughter recently told me).

Let me tell you a story about another exploration that may not lead to anything, but has some important scientific lessons buried deep inside it.  I stumbled on this as a consequence of two apparently disjoint observations.  First, I live in rural Utah, nestled up against the Rocky Mountains in the southern end of Cache Valley.  My skies are dark because there is a lot of dirt between lightbulbs out here, but it means getting reliable broadband internet service is hard.  Second, I have a friend in Colorado who recently brought a homing pigegon to her house with her kids, then released it to fly back to its roost at the Denver Museum of Natural History.  About this time, you are scratching your head wondering “What do these two things have to do with each other?” and wondering whether or not it might be worthwhile to stop reading now and go see if you can find old episodes of “Sanford & Son” on YouTube.

The story about the homing pigeon caused me to initiate a common activity in the modern world: I went to the source of all knowledge and Wikipedia’d “homing pigeons.”  This predictably led to a random walk through the tree of knowledge (sometimes called “The Problem With Wikipedia”, http://xkcd.com/214/), until I stumbled upon something quite magnificent and awesome: the use of pigeons as an internet transfer protocol.  The “IP over Avian Carriers” is a defined protocol for communicating data between two points.  It began as a joke on April 1 in 1990, but as with many things, there is a deep kernel of truth for those willing to entertain the notion.  Imagine a pigeon carrying a micro-flash card, which by today’s standards is capable of holding 10 gigabytes of data or more.  A homing pigeon could cover roughly 30 miles in a hour, competing quite handily with most broadband connections!

To prove this point, in 2009 a South African telecom company hosted a pigeon race between their pet pigeon Winston and a local broadband provider.  Winston carried a 4 GB microSD card about 60 km in 2 hours, 6 minutes and 57 seconds, including upload and download of the card on both ends.  Winston won handily; the broadband transfer was only 4% complete when he finished.  Winston now enjoys the rockstar life of a tech and interent hero (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzsa4Byrso0).

What lessons can we take away from the “Pigeons are Better than Internet” experiment?  I think there are three.  First: The people who conducted this experiment are nerd heroes.  The should be everyone’s heroes for displaying unabashed curiosity and exemplary zest for life and knowledge.  Second: Nature is well adapted to many tasks, like transferring information from one place to another, and we are always going to be trying to catch up.  We should observe, mimic, and strive to attain the efficiency, simplicity and beauty of Nature’s solutions.  Third: the nerds who thought up the extremely cool experiment are scientists.  And so are you.  Everyone is a scientist.  On the surface, there was no real reason to test the speed of pigeons versus broadband internet, but someone had the audacity, the curiosity to try.  And in some small way, we learned something new, something that we should probably pay attention to.

Everytime you look at the sky and predict the weather based on past experience, you are solving a complex problem in climatology. Everytime you adjust the length of time you cook your muffins, you are conducting an experiment in thermodynamics.  Everytime you shim and adjust the door to your laundry room or bracket the shelves in your pantry you are engineering a better solution to the one that your housebuilder started with.  Does this mean you should be out designing new bridges or building particle colliders in Switzerland?  Maybe not — that takes years of training and skills you might not have yet.  But that doesn’t mean  you shouldn’t do science; that doesn’t mean you can’t discover something new, nor does it mean you shouldn’t be aware of the world around you.

Take a cue from your children.  Go out, explore, experiment, and understand the world around you!  Discover something new, build a backyard catapult (read “Backyard Ballistics” first, http://amzn.com/1556523750), invent the next must have accessory for everyday life (like Coffee Joulies, http://www.joulies.com/), or simply gaze into the deeps of the Cosmos with a pair of binoculars.  Above all else, remember that you are a part of the human voyage of exploration — a majestic, sweeping epic of self-discovery that has spanned thousands of years.  Take the next step, and share what you find with the rest of the world.  Be the scientist that I know is inside you.

For the moment then, I leave you.  I have an SD card, and somewhere around here, a cat…

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2 responses to “Pigeons, the Internet, and the Meaning of Science

  1. Pingback: 鴿子、網路、跟科學的意義 | PanSci 泛科學

  2. Pingback: 鴿子、網路、跟科學的意義 | PanSci 泛科學

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