Thursday, December 10, 2009

Interspecies Communication

Sometimes, for my reviews, I pick a book I've read some time ago. And I'll go through it, looking for a good section to quote, so you get a taste of the book.

With Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl, however, which I just read a few months ago, I read it all again!

It IS a remarkable story. The author, Stacey O'Brien, got involved with owl research at the California Institute of Technology. She adopted an injured 4-day old barn owl, and lived with Wesley for 19 years. In telling her story, she tells us a lot about barn owls: "Unlike human ears, which are in the same place on each side of the head, owls' ears are irregularly placed. One ear is high up on the head and the other is lower, so that the owl can triangulate the location of a sound much more accurately than a human can. The owl brain's large cortex is dedicated to auditory processing in much the way that ours has evolved for visual mapping, so it creates an auditory map of his world. As a result, a barn owl can accurately locate a mouse under three feet of snow by homing in on only the heartbeat, and can hear its footsteps from extremely far away."

"At two years of age, Wesley began to adapt his natural owl vocalizations to make new sounds to mean a variety of things. He adapted his begging sound, for example, to have slight variations in pitch, length, and intensity. Each new vocalization meant he was begging for a specific item. One variation meant 'I want you to open the door.' Another meant 'I want water.' Yet another one meant 'Let me off my perch.' Just the begging sound alone had about twenty new variations."

The author also has insights into human behavior:

"I wandered down the halls to check on some of the animals. Suddenly a closet door opened right in front of me, and a furry man walked out. He was what we called a 'troll.' Unshaven, his beard and hair both reached his belt. He didn't appear to notice me at all. He shuffled down the hall and disappeared into one of the bathrooms.

Theoretical mathematicians and physicists, trolls are ubiquitous at Caltech and go as far back into its history as anyone can remember. Caltech was built in the 1800s and was heated with steam that ran through a labyrinth of tunnels with all kinds of twists and turns. The steam and hot water pipes still run through the tunnels, making them warm in winter and comfortable in the summer. The trolls live deep in the labyrinth, rarely coming aboveground. That is their home and it's okay with everyone. They receive grants and their meager style of living doesn't cost much.

Each building has secret doors in certain closets that lead into the labyrinths so the trolls can go from building to building and use the locker rooms. People say Caltech is as close to Hogwarts as one can get in the real world, and I'd have to agree. I've been down in those tunnels, and as I walked through the darkness, I'd occasionally come upon a bluish glow, the computer screen of a troll. Next to the computer screen, in a small alcove, would be a twin bed, some blankets, piles of books and papers, and the computer. That was it. Productive genius theoreticians, they tend to keep to themselves and publish their work. Some of them clearly have what is now referred to as Asperger syndrome, a mild form of functional autism, but they are happy in their secret cubbyholes, doing calculations and making discoveries. After all, theoretical scientists do not require a lab -- only a piece of paper, a pencil, and a fantastic brain."

Most of the book is about Wesley and his human, Stacey, though, with several photos. He was a beautiful, intelligent bird, and Ms. O'Brien wrote a beautiful, intelligent book.


Becker said...

Thanks for this review! I've seen this one, and keep almost taking it home, I will definitely do so now!

gonovice said...

Good! I'm sure you'll like it. She's good with animals, she's observant and insightful, and they had a great relationship.

She also calls Jane Goodall "the Galileo of behavioral biology," to which I say, "Amen."

Sarah Stevenson said...

Wow, that is fascinating. I have a friend from high school who worked at Caltech--I'll have to ask her about the trolls!!

gonovice said...

Y'know, there were steam tunnels under my campus years ago, where some students used to go exploring. I wonder if any of them ever "settled in!"