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Why is it called a murder of crows?
Admit it: you have no idea why a group of crows is called a murder. Here's why.
- In the English language, groups of animals often have interesting names. But a murder?
- It has to do with crow's scavenger-like nature...
- ... but ornithologists are arguing that we change the name.
In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Homer destroys Marge's garden scarecrow and inadvertently becomes leader to the local crows. Marge is hesitant to share her bed with a "gang of crows," and Homer gently rebukes her, "It's a murder. A group of crows is called a murder."
That got me wondering: Why doesn't Marge just leave Homer already? It wasn't a few episodes back that she learned Homer never told her about his Vegas wife. How is becoming god-emperor to a murder of crows not grounds for categorical divorce?
Then again, some questions will be forever insoluble, so I turned my attention to something more manageable. Why exactly is it a murder of crows? I know English has a fondness for giving animals fanciful group names, especially birds. A parliament of owls, a charm of finches, a lamentation of swans, the list goes on and on. But why are crows stuck with such a mean-spirited moniker, while ravens — a much larger member of the Corvidae family — live with the much less severe "unkindness of ravens"? For that matter, why the fancy group names in the first place?The answer, I discovered, lies in terms of venery. No, not that venery. At least, I hope not, but be prepared for this to get real weird, real fast.
Terms of, ahem, veneryNEW DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 28: A black crow seen eating street snack made of puffed rice outside India Gate, on September 28, 2018 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Terms of venery are special types of collective nouns that denote groups of animals. The word venery entered English in the early 14th century through the Medieval Latin venaria, which means "beasts of the chase, game." Although archaic by today's standards, venery can still be used to mean "the practice of hunting."
If you're curious, the word's contemporary usage — that is, "indulgence of sexual pleasures" — entered English in the mid-15th century through the Medieval Latin veneria, or "sexual intercourse." Likely these two became homonyms as a play on words. The sport of hunting being compared to hunting for a mate. Clever, no?1
This history is why terms of venery sound like verbal filigree. They weren't coined by scientists creating a way to catalogue species, but by 15th-century English gentlemen who were showing off their wit.2 When these Englishmen went hunting, they would devise names for animal groups based on their poetic interpretation of nature. Some of these terms were clever (a charm of hummingbirds), some obvious (a paddling of ducks), and others just pretentious (an ostentation of peacocks, really?).
Nor was the trend limited to birds. Terms of venery gave us congregations of alligators, armies of caterpillars, cauldrons of bats, and sloths of bears.
These kennings eventually found their way into books — such as in the 15th century The Boke of Saint Albans, a treaties on hawking, hunting, and heraldry — where they were picked up by the literate class. As time went on, they gained an air authority and evolved from playful use of language (re: ye olde slang) to technical terms used by sticklers to show off.
But why a murder?
A European collared dove — groups of doves are referred to as a 'piteousness' because of their prevalence in the Old Testament of the Bible
Terms of venery were often based on characteristics people perceived in the animals, not from their intrinsic nature. A "piteousness of doves," for example, refers to the fact that the bird holds a special place in Christianity — dove returned to Noah with an olive leaf to signal the receding floodwaters, and God came down as a dove to celebrate Jesus' baptism. It has nothing to do with a dove's pious peck.
Likewise, the crow received its term of venery based on religion and folklore. Unfortunately, crows lacked a PR campaign as effective as, well, God.
Crows are omnivorous scavengers and will eat just about anything — insects, seeds, fruits, eggs, and small animals. Historically, they would often appear on battlefields, in cemeteries, and after disasters to snack on the tasty carrion we humans left lying around. One of Europe's species is in fact named the carrion crow.
This association with death led people to believe crows portended disaster. The all-black feathers probably didn't help. Folklore and superstitions further fueled the belief. One folktale tells how crows form a parliament to decide the fate of a member of the flock. Should the verdict be unfavorable, the parliament will set upon the lone crow.3 There's also the Irish mythological figure Morrigan (or Morrigu), who is associated with war, death, and doom and appears as a crow.
It isn't hard to see how someone thought a "murder of crows" would be a appropriate.
But this reputation is hardly fair, and science is showing us that we've massively misjudged this species. Crows are incredibly smart, social birds. They are capable of using tools, playing tricks, and learning new skills.
One study asked crows and children to get a treat out of a tall, narrow tube filled with water. The crows quickly figured out that adding objects to the tube raised the water level, bringing the treat within range. Children younger than 8 fared poorly compared with their corvid opponents.4
Crows have also been known to bring gifts to humans who care for them. Gabi Mann, an 8-year-old Seattleite, feeds local crows in her garden, and the birds show their appreciation by bringing her colorful baubles, such as earrings, marbles, and LEGO blocks. I don't know of any dove, no matter how pious, as thoughtful as that.5
A crow, crowing.
So, our answer is that a group of crows is called a murder because some doublet-clad Englishman wanted to show off his poetical talents by cementing the species' bum rap. In fact, ornithologists don't use terms of venery. They refer to a group of birds, any birds, as a flock.
Since terms of venery aren't authoritative and are numerous enough to be unwieldy, would we be better off retiring them?
I don't think so. They're a fun, inventive way to use language and express our interest in the animals we share the planet with. I'll be the first to admit that a "romp of otters" is adorable and should be said whenever the opportunity arises.
But if we're going to keep these collective terms, we should set some ground rules:
First, grammar sticklers need to just stop. Imagine that four hundred years from now, parents told their teenagers, "She's not your girlfriend, Timmy. You're both younger than 18, so technically, she's your BAE." Arguing that it is only proper to refer to a group of crows as a murder is just as ridiculous. Such arguments only serve to make sticklers feel superior in their trivial knowledge and make English more difficult for non-native speakers to learn. Enough already.
Second, we should update terms of venery when they become obsolete. The phrase "murder of crows" expresses reservations from a time when we didn't understand how complicated, smart, and versatile the species was.
The difficulty will be deciding on what characteristic of the crow should we focus on. We could highlight the crow's problem-solving brain. An intelligent of crows, or a genius bar of crows? Then again, we could focus on their thoughtful nature. A charity of crows, perhaps? Yeah, "charity of crows" has a pleasant ring to it.
1. Entry for "venery." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved on Aug. 25, 2018, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/venery#etymonline_v_49968.
2. Terms of venery. Peter Lewis. Medium. Retrieved on Aug. 25, 2018, from https://medium.com/@plewis67/terms-of-venery-2fc9c8684a23
3. A murder of crows: Crow Facts. PBS.org. Published on Feb. 21, 2013. Retrieved on Aug. 26, 2018, from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/a-murder-of-crows-crow-facts/5965/.
4. Of Beasts and Brainpower. Kat McGowan. Popular Science. Spring 2016. Pg. 60. Print.
5. The girl who gets gifts from birds. Katy Sewall. BBC News. Published on Feb. 25, 2015. Retrieved on Aug. 26, 2018, from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31604026.
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
- Voyager 1, humankind's most distant space probe, detected an unusual "hum" in the data from interstellar space.
- The noise is likely produced by interstellar gas.
- Further investigation may reveal the hum's exact origins.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space. Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
As the American population grows, fewer people will die of cancer.
- A new study projects that cancer deaths will decrease in relative and absolute terms by 2040.
- The biggest decrease will be among lung cancer deaths, which are predicted to fall by 50 percent.
- Cancer is like terrorism: we cannot eliminate it entirely, but we can minimize its influence.
As the #2 leading cause of death, cancer takes the lives of about 600,000 Americans each year. In comparison, heart disease (#1) claims more than 650,000 lives, while accidents (#3) take about 175,000 lives. (In 2020 and likely 2021, COVID will claim the #3 spot.)
Headlines are usually full of terrible news about cancer. Seemingly, you can't get away from anything that causes it. RealClearScience made a list of all the things blamed for cancer — antiperspirants, salty soup, eggs, corn, Pringles, bras, burnt toast, and even Facebook made the list.
The reality, however, is much more optimistic. We're slowly but surely winning the war on cancer.
Winning the war on cancer
How can we make such a brazen statement? A new paper published in the journal JAMA Network Open tracks trends in cancer incidence and deaths and makes projections to the year 2040. The authors predict that around 568,000 Americans will have died of cancer in 2020, but they project that number to fall to 410,000 by 2040. That's a drop of nearly 28 percent, despite the U.S. population being projected to grow from roughly 333 million today to 374 million in 2040, an increase of 12 percent. That means cancer deaths will decrease in both relative and absolute terms.
What accounts for this unexpected good news? The lion's share is the number of deaths attributable to lung cancer, which is projected to decrease by more than 50 percent, from 130,000 to 63,000. This drop is largely due to the decreasing use of tobacco products. Other deaths predicted to decline include those from colorectal, breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers, among others, such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
The authors credit screening and biomedical advances for saving many of these lives. For instance, lead author Dr. Lola Rahib wrote in an email to Big Think that "colonoscopies remove precancerous polyps." She also noted that targeted therapies and immunotherapies have helped reduce the number of deaths from leukemia and NHL.
We'll never cure cancer
Now the bad news: We'll never cure cancer. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is obvious: We all die. The lifetime prevalence of death is 100 percent. The truth is that we are running out of things to die from. After a long enough period of time, something gives out — often your cardiovascular system or nervous system. Or you develop you cancer.
The second reason is that we are multicellular organisms and, hence, we are susceptible to cancer. (Contrary to popular myth, sharks get cancer, too.) The cells of multicellular organisms face an existential dilemma: they can either get old and stop dividing (a process called senescence) or become immortal but cancerous. For this reason, the problem of cancer may not have a solution.
Finally, there isn't really such a thing as a disease called "cancer." What we call cancer is actually a collection of several different diseases, some of which are preventable (like cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine) or curable (like prostate cancer). Unfortunately, some cancers probably never will be curable, not least because cancers can mutate and develop resistance to the drugs we use to treat them.
But the overall optimism still stands: We are slowly and incrementally winning the war on cancer. Like terrorism, it's not a foe that we can completely vanquish, but it is one whose influence we can minimize in our lives.
China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.
But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.
Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.
Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.
According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.
The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.
But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.
Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.
Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.
We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.
Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).
With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.