‘Bird brain’ is not an insult
“Gifts of the Crow,” Free Press

Traditionally speaking, “bird brain” is not a complimentary term. But maybe it should be. In their new book, wildlife researcher John Marzluff and naturalist Tony Angell examine the surprisingly high IQs of the corvid family of birds, which includes crows, ravens and jays. How smart are they? Marzluff and Angell document crows in Australia’s New Caledonia that use such foreign objects as wires to fashion hooks that help them snag unreachable food. In another chapter, they subject crows to a three-step intelligence test that involves fetching a small tool to retrieve a long tool, which can then be used to access a treat. The crows pass. The authors find many humanlike behaviors in crows: taking risks, teasing other animals for fun, even leaving gifts for humans who feed them. “Corvids assume characteristics that were once ascribed only to humans, including self-recognition, insight, revenge, tool use, mental time travel, deceit, murder, language, play, calculated risk taking, social learning, and traditions,” write Marzluff and Angell. “We are different, but by degree.”

Fusion energy: Still far away
Scientific American, June edition

In “Fusion’s Missing Pieces,” Geoff Brumfiel examines the scientific community’s long, red-tape-ridden march toward fusion power. Since the mid-1980s, an international coalition of researchers has been attempting to build ITER — the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor — in the south of France, a fusion reactor that would generate energy by slamming elements together rather than smashing them into pieces, as fission reactors do. If it could be made to work, the device, which would run on hydrogen, could provide a clean and plentiful supply of energy. But these days, there’s not a lot of optimism that the reactor will ever be finished.

First, the physics are tough: Hydrogen atoms repel one another, and forcing them to fuse requires more energy than the reactor could generate. According to Brumfiel, this problem could be solved using superconductors, special materials that can be made to channel high current with no resistance. But the amount of superconductors and liquid helium coolant required would be prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, the countries working on different components of the reactor — which will all have to fit together — are arguing over which nation will design what, and how. In other words, progress is slow.

But many scientists think that fusion is the only way to meet the world’s future energy needs. “It’s CO2-free, it’s essentially unlimited, it has no environmental impact; come up with an alternative,” Raymond Orbach, chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy, tells Brumfiel. “Come up with an alternative.”

Aaron Leitko

Book cover, “Gifts of the Crows” by John Marzluff and Tony Angell.