Richard Dawkins Can Pass as a Cricket

QuestionHave you ever started any projects that were did not complete?

Richard Dawkins: Yes. I have begun several projects which were never completed, not necessarily because they failed, but because I got interested in other things. And some of them were looking quite promising. For example, I began a project on the song of crickets; this was when I was still working in a department of animal behavior. Crickets sing by vibrating their wings against each other, and different species of crickets have a different pattern of song, which they control by the movement of the wings. And I was working on South Pacific crickets -- not in the South Pacific; I had a colony of them in Oxford. And this particular cricket, Teleogryllus oceanicus, has a rather complicated song. It says PRR-prr-prr-prr-prr-prr-prr, PRR-prr-prr-prr-prr-prr-prr, PRR-prr-prr-prr-prr-prr. And that just goes on and on and on. And I wanted to know how important the details of that song were. Did it really have to have that particular pattern? And the answer was probably yes, because it was unique to that species. Related species have a different kind of song. For example, Teleogryllus commodus, a related species, said PRR-prr, PRR-prr, PRR-prr. And presumably the difference between those two crickets was significant. What I did was to write a computer program to make a computer sing like a cricket, and in which you could easily program in, using a simple sort of language which I devised, for making any cricket song you like.

So, I was able to program quickly the song of Teleogryllus oceanicus, Teleogryllus commodus, various species of gryllus and so on. And then I devised a method for measuring the attractiveness of these songs, and it was a very light seesaw made of sort of balsa wood, very light balsa wood, and at each end of the seesaw was a loudspeaker which could be made to play artificial cricket song. And you put a cricket inside the seesaw. As the cricket walked along the seesaw towards the song, the seesaw tilted and made an electrical contact, which was counted as one approach to that loudspeaker. At that point or shortly afterwards, the computer would change to making the song come out of the other loudspeaker, whereupon the cricket would turn around and walk the other way, and then the seesaw would tilt the other way. So the number of tilts of the seesaw was a measure of the attractiveness of the song. So I had it all set up to measure the rival attractiveness of different kinds of song. But then I can't remember what happened, and I switched to some other piece of research. So that piece of research was never actually done. But the apparatus that I developed and the computer program that I wrote to sing like a cricket was all working. Now it's lost for ever because it was done on now-outdated computers. You can't get that kind of computer any more. And so that's gone. 

Recorded on: October 21, 2009. Interviewed by Paul Hoffman.

 

While Richard Dawkins has gone on to lead one of the more prolific scientific careers in modern times, one of his earlier projects remains lost and incomplete. Here, he recounts his work in the field gathering cricket songs—even doing some great impressions.

“Acoustic tweezers” use sound waves to levitate bits of matter

The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.

Kondo and Okubo, Jpn. J. Appl. Phys., 2021.
Surprising Science
  • Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
  • Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
  • Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Keep reading Show less

Cockatoos teach each other the secrets of dumpster diving

Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.

Surprising Science
  • If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
  • A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
  • But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
  • Keep reading Show less

    CT scans of shark intestines find Nikola Tesla’s one-way valve

    Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

    Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
    Surprising Science
    • For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
    • The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
    • The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
    Keep reading Show less

    Godzilla and mushroom clouds: How the first postwar nuclear tests made it to the silver screen

    The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.

    Culture & Religion

    As I sat in a darkened cinema in 1998, mesmerised and unnerved by the opening nuclear bomb explosions that framed the beginning of Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, it felt like I was watching the most expensive special effect in history.

    Keep reading Show less
    Quantcast