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10/23/2001

Revisiting Alex

Did you by any chance see the Scientific American program with
Alan Alda on Public TV last week? If not, you missed seeing
Alda visiting with Alex and Dr. Maxine Pepperberg. Last
March, I wrote a column about birds and mentioned the
fascinating work that Pepperberg has done with her African grey
parrot, Alex. According to the TV program, she and Alex have
now been together for 23 years. Pepperberg has brought Alex up
to be one cool dude. That parrot put on quite a show, correctly
naming colors of objects, numbers of objects (he can count up to
six), names of objects and which objects are bigger or smaller
than another object. I had discussed these accomplishments in
the March column but it was still amazing to actually see Alex in
action.

Pepperberg is now expanding Alex''s horizons. For example, she
has devised a dispenser of Alex''s favorite nuts. To operate the
dispenser, Alex had to learn to move the handle up or down or
twist it either clockwise or counterclockwise. The proper action
is dictated by appropriate arrows that are varied by Pepperberg.
Alex followed the arrow directions perfectly. In order to try to
entertain Alex when nobody''s around to keep him company,
Pepperberg and her associates have rigged up a device that
permits Alex and his other parrot compatriots to behave as couch
potatoes. A number of taped selections have been made for the
parrots'' TV viewing. For example, one selection is of
Pepperberg talking and interacting with the parrot(s). I look
forward to another program some day that will tell what kinds of
TV fare Alex and his friends prefer. If it turns out to be
"Everybody Loves Raymond", I''ll be truly impressed!

As I mentioned in the previous column, Pepperberg does not
teach Alex directly but uses another person as a foil to carry out
the desired action. To demonstrate this technique, while Alex
watched, Pepperberg held up a spoon and asked Alda to
purposely give her the wrong answer when she asked him what it
was. She would then pull the spoon away when Alda reached for
it. When he correctly identified the spoon, she gave the spoon to
Alda and he pretended to be quite happy playing with it. I''m not
sure whether this was the first time Pepperberg had used a spoon,
but she then asked Alex to identify it. Alex balked and asked for
a nut. However, when he didn''t get the nut, he did say "Ssss",
trying to pronounce "spoon". Later, he did manage a closer
approximation to the word.

Having revisited our parrot, Alex''s ability to distinguish between
clockwise and counterclockwise brought to mind an article in the
September 17 issue of Chemical and Engineering News. The
article dealt with dumbbells rotating clockwise and
counterclockwise. Not your ordinary dumbbells, but the
molecule NO, nitric oxide, which I discussed in my very first
column in connection with Viagra and other matters.

Since NO is just one atom of nitrogen bonded to one atom of
oxygen, you consider it as a sort of dumbbell. You can picture a
dumbbell rotating either clockwise or counterclockwise. In the
work described in the article, two researchers named Chandler
and Cline shot a beam of argon atoms into a beam of NO
molecules. As you might expect, the NO molecules were
knocked all over the place, scattered by the impinging argon
atoms. What Cline and Chandler did was to measure the rotation
of the NO molecules coming off at different angles. What they
found was that the NO molecules were fussy about which way
they were going to rotate. At one angle, most of were spinning
clockwise but at another angle it just the opposite. I must admit
that, while I was mildly surprised, I wasn''t particularly excited by
the work. But hey, I''m desperate for material this week, and I
thought you should know that NO is not forgotten.

Now that we''ve revisited NO and Alex, you''ll have to excuse me.
I''m leaving to spend the afternoon taking my 8-year old grandson
to the Thomas Edison historical site in nearby West Orange, New
Jersey. Edison was also the subject of another of my columns
back in November 2000. Maybe I''ll want to revisit him also.
........ I''m back. I think the afternoon was a success. The ranger
took us through Edison''s office, machine shop, stockroom,
chemistry lab and we also saw a replica of the Black Maria in
which Edison made his first movies.

For those who might not be familiar with it, the Black Maria was
the predecessor to Hollywood. It was a pretty small structure
that could be rotated on a track by a couple of husky pushers.
The reason for rotating the building was to follow the sun''s path
during the day. The roof could be opened to let in the sunlight to
illuminate the actors being filmed. At the end of the tour,
young Douglas said, "That was very interesting." I told the
ranger that she had just received the ultimate compliment from
an 8-year old.

I mentioned in my earlier column that Edison and I have
something in common - we''re both Honorary Members of The
Electrochemical Society (ECS). I''m under the gun to finish a
truly major job, editing a centennial history of ECS with a
deadline just a week away. Edison is one of the figures in this
history and only last week my co-editor obtained copies of
correspondence between Edison and ECS back in the early
1900s. One letter asked Edison if he would allow attendees of a
meeting of ECS in New York City to visit his West Orange
laboratory. Edison responded with a note scrawled to his
secretary on the ECS letter, "Write to say that the visit would not
be convenient just now as on account of the accident at my
Cement works. I am compelled to be at the works for the next
month. E". (He signed his notes to staff with "E".)

I knew that Edison was into a lot of different endeavors but
hadn''t heard of him being into cement. It seems he had the idea
that inexpensive houses could be made by pouring cement rather
than building them of wood. He felt that these cheap houses
would be gobbled up by an appreciative public. The public
didn''t respond as expected and the cement house idea flopped.
Nevertheless, a movie at the Edison site showed a cement house
that was still in use in a nearby town and it looked in quite good
shape to me. My wife and I have just gone through the paint job
from Hell this past summer and fall. We suffered through two
complete sanding jobs on our whole house, with its cedar
shingles, thanks to the ineptitude of the first painter. After that
experience, I might welcome a cement house!

What else can I revisit? I''m always writing about "roots" and I
did see something in the November issue of National Geographic
that could be pertinent. It''s been known for some time that all of
us mammals owe a debt of gratitude to some little rodent-like
creature that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. Our
mammalian roots had gone back about 150 million years.
However, 16 years ago in China, a skull was found that derived
from a tiny little creature about the size of a paper clip. Since
1992, paleontologist Zhe-Xi Luo and his colleagues have been
studying the skull and they now conclude that the critter''s
sizeable brain capacity and the separation of its ears from its jaw
are both mammalian traits. The interesting thing is that tiny little
animal, weighing only a couple grams, was scampering around
under the dinosaurs some 195 million years ago, about 45
millions earlier than our other mammal-type ancestors. This
little guy might just have been our great great.........great
grandfather! Or grandmother.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-10/23/2001-      
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Dr. Bortrum

10/23/2001

Revisiting Alex

Did you by any chance see the Scientific American program with
Alan Alda on Public TV last week? If not, you missed seeing
Alda visiting with Alex and Dr. Maxine Pepperberg. Last
March, I wrote a column about birds and mentioned the
fascinating work that Pepperberg has done with her African grey
parrot, Alex. According to the TV program, she and Alex have
now been together for 23 years. Pepperberg has brought Alex up
to be one cool dude. That parrot put on quite a show, correctly
naming colors of objects, numbers of objects (he can count up to
six), names of objects and which objects are bigger or smaller
than another object. I had discussed these accomplishments in
the March column but it was still amazing to actually see Alex in
action.

Pepperberg is now expanding Alex''s horizons. For example, she
has devised a dispenser of Alex''s favorite nuts. To operate the
dispenser, Alex had to learn to move the handle up or down or
twist it either clockwise or counterclockwise. The proper action
is dictated by appropriate arrows that are varied by Pepperberg.
Alex followed the arrow directions perfectly. In order to try to
entertain Alex when nobody''s around to keep him company,
Pepperberg and her associates have rigged up a device that
permits Alex and his other parrot compatriots to behave as couch
potatoes. A number of taped selections have been made for the
parrots'' TV viewing. For example, one selection is of
Pepperberg talking and interacting with the parrot(s). I look
forward to another program some day that will tell what kinds of
TV fare Alex and his friends prefer. If it turns out to be
"Everybody Loves Raymond", I''ll be truly impressed!

As I mentioned in the previous column, Pepperberg does not
teach Alex directly but uses another person as a foil to carry out
the desired action. To demonstrate this technique, while Alex
watched, Pepperberg held up a spoon and asked Alda to
purposely give her the wrong answer when she asked him what it
was. She would then pull the spoon away when Alda reached for
it. When he correctly identified the spoon, she gave the spoon to
Alda and he pretended to be quite happy playing with it. I''m not
sure whether this was the first time Pepperberg had used a spoon,
but she then asked Alex to identify it. Alex balked and asked for
a nut. However, when he didn''t get the nut, he did say "Ssss",
trying to pronounce "spoon". Later, he did manage a closer
approximation to the word.

Having revisited our parrot, Alex''s ability to distinguish between
clockwise and counterclockwise brought to mind an article in the
September 17 issue of Chemical and Engineering News. The
article dealt with dumbbells rotating clockwise and
counterclockwise. Not your ordinary dumbbells, but the
molecule NO, nitric oxide, which I discussed in my very first
column in connection with Viagra and other matters.

Since NO is just one atom of nitrogen bonded to one atom of
oxygen, you consider it as a sort of dumbbell. You can picture a
dumbbell rotating either clockwise or counterclockwise. In the
work described in the article, two researchers named Chandler
and Cline shot a beam of argon atoms into a beam of NO
molecules. As you might expect, the NO molecules were
knocked all over the place, scattered by the impinging argon
atoms. What Cline and Chandler did was to measure the rotation
of the NO molecules coming off at different angles. What they
found was that the NO molecules were fussy about which way
they were going to rotate. At one angle, most of were spinning
clockwise but at another angle it just the opposite. I must admit
that, while I was mildly surprised, I wasn''t particularly excited by
the work. But hey, I''m desperate for material this week, and I
thought you should know that NO is not forgotten.

Now that we''ve revisited NO and Alex, you''ll have to excuse me.
I''m leaving to spend the afternoon taking my 8-year old grandson
to the Thomas Edison historical site in nearby West Orange, New
Jersey. Edison was also the subject of another of my columns
back in November 2000. Maybe I''ll want to revisit him also.
........ I''m back. I think the afternoon was a success. The ranger
took us through Edison''s office, machine shop, stockroom,
chemistry lab and we also saw a replica of the Black Maria in
which Edison made his first movies.

For those who might not be familiar with it, the Black Maria was
the predecessor to Hollywood. It was a pretty small structure
that could be rotated on a track by a couple of husky pushers.
The reason for rotating the building was to follow the sun''s path
during the day. The roof could be opened to let in the sunlight to
illuminate the actors being filmed. At the end of the tour,
young Douglas said, "That was very interesting." I told the
ranger that she had just received the ultimate compliment from
an 8-year old.

I mentioned in my earlier column that Edison and I have
something in common - we''re both Honorary Members of The
Electrochemical Society (ECS). I''m under the gun to finish a
truly major job, editing a centennial history of ECS with a
deadline just a week away. Edison is one of the figures in this
history and only last week my co-editor obtained copies of
correspondence between Edison and ECS back in the early
1900s. One letter asked Edison if he would allow attendees of a
meeting of ECS in New York City to visit his West Orange
laboratory. Edison responded with a note scrawled to his
secretary on the ECS letter, "Write to say that the visit would not
be convenient just now as on account of the accident at my
Cement works. I am compelled to be at the works for the next
month. E". (He signed his notes to staff with "E".)

I knew that Edison was into a lot of different endeavors but
hadn''t heard of him being into cement. It seems he had the idea
that inexpensive houses could be made by pouring cement rather
than building them of wood. He felt that these cheap houses
would be gobbled up by an appreciative public. The public
didn''t respond as expected and the cement house idea flopped.
Nevertheless, a movie at the Edison site showed a cement house
that was still in use in a nearby town and it looked in quite good
shape to me. My wife and I have just gone through the paint job
from Hell this past summer and fall. We suffered through two
complete sanding jobs on our whole house, with its cedar
shingles, thanks to the ineptitude of the first painter. After that
experience, I might welcome a cement house!

What else can I revisit? I''m always writing about "roots" and I
did see something in the November issue of National Geographic
that could be pertinent. It''s been known for some time that all of
us mammals owe a debt of gratitude to some little rodent-like
creature that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. Our
mammalian roots had gone back about 150 million years.
However, 16 years ago in China, a skull was found that derived
from a tiny little creature about the size of a paper clip. Since
1992, paleontologist Zhe-Xi Luo and his colleagues have been
studying the skull and they now conclude that the critter''s
sizeable brain capacity and the separation of its ears from its jaw
are both mammalian traits. The interesting thing is that tiny little
animal, weighing only a couple grams, was scampering around
under the dinosaurs some 195 million years ago, about 45
millions earlier than our other mammal-type ancestors. This
little guy might just have been our great great.........great
grandfather! Or grandmother.

Allen F. Bortrum