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Digitized logbooks from the 1800s reveal a steep decline in strike rate for whalers.
A good look at mariners’ records<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTg2NjUyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3Nzk3NjA0Nn0.5ft-4gBb777El40qlxNTzeRMQuf_84GDnf2sxe12U78/img.jpg?width=980" id="82117" width="1440" height="810" data-rm-shortcode-id="d2bb78efd142be939e1c1facb2ca7e35" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Aris Suwanmalee/Adobe Stock<p>The paper was written by cetacean experts <a href="http://whitelab.biology.dal.ca/hw/hal.htm" target="_blank">Hal Whitehead</a> of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and <a href="https://risweb.st-andrews.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/luke-edward-rendell(91488083-0929-4e13-a1d8-d8366630af09).html" target="_blank">Luke Rendell</a> of University of St. Andrews in Scotland, along with data scientist <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=AXoR9wwAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Tim. D. Smith</a>. Whitehead and Rendell are co-authors of "<a href="https://amzn.to/3f5Z63o" target="_blank">The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins</a>."</p><p>The researchers were working from the logbooks of American whalers operating between 10° and 50° in the North Pacific Ocean in the 19th century. The daily logs listed a ship's noon position, the number of sperm whales sighted, and how many whales were harpooned ("struck") or processed ("tried"). These records allowed the researchers to identify the date on which first contact with local whales occurred. From there, they were able to calculate the rate at which whales were encountered over the subsequent years.</p><p>The researchers found that about 2.4 years after first contact, whalers' strike rate fell by 58 percent. </p><p>At first, it seems the whales didn't quite know what to do about the whalers and responded to them similarly to the manner in which they defend themselves against the only predator they'd known up to that point: orcas. They formed defensive circles, their powerful tails pointed out to fend off their attackers. Unfortunately, this provided no defense against harpoons and likely made whaler's jobs easier by gathering groups of whales together where they could be easily killed.</p><p>Soon however, the leviathan strategy shifted and whales took to swimming upwind away from whalers' ships, an effective evasive maneuver that kept them ahead of the wind-driven boats. As White tells <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/mar/17/sperm-whales-in-19th-century-shared-ship-attack-information?fbclid=IwAR16FXhh0pd6Xb5tvqA4S0Y0ybI9E3GiF_ci0V0MhQj_UzH8Xe8ZY16oaPg" target="_blank">The Guardian</a>, "This was cultural evolution, much too fast for genetic evolution."</p>
Whale social learning and strategy<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTg2NjUyNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjEwMzgwNn0.9TekhzUMiZxTH-rpE2lq-dsAGdh4ovpzTXKnVvDbcDw/img.jpg?width=980" id="499f1" width="1440" height="980" data-rm-shortcode-id="57ca130e8a4595af1097c43c97f2aa67" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Spectrogram of a humpback whale song
Credit: Spyrogumas/Wikimedia Commons<p>While there remains debate over whether whale communities exhibit characteristics we'd recognize as culture, examples of what seems to be social learning support the idea that it does exist.</p><p>Whales are known to communicate with each other over large distances through their haunting—and mysterious to us—<a href="https://medium.com/@dealville/whales-synchronize-their-songs-across-oceans-and-theres-sheet-music-to-prove-it-b1667f603844" target="_blank">songs</a>. These songs provide some hard-to-argue-with evidence for social leaning among whales: They evolve over time, and as they change, those changes are reflected by entire local whale populations. "We don't have to do anything but observe it to know that there's no explanation other than learning from others that can account for this," wrote Whitehead and Rendell to NPR in 2015.</p><p>Rendell wrote in <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/340/6131/485" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science</a> in 2013 about what seems to be an innovation that was shared among whales: the spread of a particular type of feeding, "<a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/image-of-the-week/lobtail-feeding-in-whales/" target="_blank">lobtailing</a>," that seems to have spread from <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/130425-humpback-whale-culture-behavior-science-animals" target="_blank">one humpback whale</a> in 1980 to hundreds in a wider area over the next few decades.</p><p>There are also examples of cetaceans clearly using strategy, such as the manner in which orcas hunt together for <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/facts/weddell-seal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Weddell seals</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1748-7692.2010.00453.x" target="_blank">described</a> by NOAA scientist Bob Pitman. The seals attempt to evade the orcas by remaining out of the water on ice floes. The orcas synchronize their flukes to create waves that either knock a seal off of a floe, or break the ice apart. Once the seal is in the water, the orcas blow bubbles under the water and apparently using their tails to create enough turbulence that the seal finds it harder to get back on the ice. If it does get out to safety, the orcas do it all over again until, according to Pitman, by about the fourth attempt, they usually have their prey, which they share.</p><p>And then there's the whales' evasive tactics for dealing with 19th-century whaling ships.</p>
Back to the present and future<p>Unfortunately, modern vessels , equipment, and strategies were not as easy to evade, and whale populations were severely depleted in the 20 century. And while that threat is <a href="https://wwf.panda.org/discover/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/cetaceans/threats/whaling/?" target="_blank">hopefully diminishing</a>, modern fishing tactics such a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-36389-x" target="_blank">long-line fishing</a> that hooks whales, the intrusion of <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/ocean-noise-pollution" target="_self">human noise</a> in the oceans, <a href="https://www.blueoceansociety.org/blog/how-does-ocean-plastic-affect-whales/" target="_blank">plastics and other floating waste</a>, and <a href="https://us.whales.org/our-4-goals/create-healthy-seas/climate-change/" target="_blank">climate change</a> means that today's seas are just as challenging as ever to whales. Maybe moreso. And nobody can outswim climate change.</p>
How our brains interpret computer code could impact how we teach it.
- Computer coding is a relatively new skill, so our brains can't have specialized areas for it from birth.
- The question of how we process computer code, as a language or as math, could impact how we teach the subject.
- A new MIT study suggests our brains treat it as its own special topic.
"Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute." - Harold Abelson.<p> The study, carried out by a team from MIT and Tufts University, had two dozen participants read code, English, and logic puzzles while in an fMRI machine. By seeing which parts of the brain lit up while doing these tasks, the researchers could determine how our brains process coding languages.</p><p>If the areas of the brain associated with language processing were to light up, then we treat code like we treat languages. The same would go for the math parts. The control tasks, reading either a real sentence or a nonsense one and memorizing the location of colored squares, demonstrated the baseline activation levels for these systems in each subject. </p><p>The coding languages used in the study were Python, a language considered highly readable by many, and ScratchJr, a symbolic picture code designed for children. </p>
An example of the code and puzzles that might be seen in the experiment.
Credit: MIT<p>When the subjects were in the machine, they were asked to work through the code and predict the output. The brain scans showed only limited responses in the brain's language processing centers, but a considerable amount in the multiple demand (MD) system, which often handles math, logic, and executive tasks. </p><p>While this may sound like a win for the "coding is math" argument, it isn't quite the slam dunk you might think it is. This system handles most of our "difficult" thinking and is useful for many things. Logic and math typically cause the left half of it to fire up while the right half handles abstract thinking. </p><p> Working with Python caused both sides of the system to activate. ScractchJr worked the right side a little more than the left. </p>
What does this mean?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/BSKkCMcjegU" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> These findings suggest that the brain handles coding as a unique and complex process. As lead author Anna Ivanova put <a href="https://www.zdnet.com/article/reading-software-code-activates-the-part-of-your-brain-used-for-crossword-puzzles-and-logic-problems/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">it</a>: "Understanding computer code seems to be its own thing. It's not the same as language, and it's not the same as math and logic."</p><p>The authors note that this does not rule out the possibility that very experienced programmers might have specially dedicated areas of the brain for <a href="https://news.mit.edu/2020/brain-reading-computer-code-1215" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">coding</a>. It also doesn't settle what the right way to <em>learn </em>the subject is; it could be the case that learning it requires elements from both pedagogues.</p>
Are there any limits to the study?<p> This study was very small, it only involved about twenty people, and all of them had knowledge of the coding language they were tested with. The codes used are noted for their readability, and the results may differ if future test subjects without coding knowledge are trying to decipher something like <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esoteric_programming_language#Piet" target="_blank">Piet</a>.</p><p> Despite these limitations, the study does provide helpful information about how the brain handles coding languages. It will undoubtedly be the first of many investigations into this topic.</p>
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The key? A computational flattening algorithm.
An international team of scholars has read an unopened letter from early modern Europe — without breaking its seal or damaging it in any way — using an automated computational flattening algorithm.