R.I.P., Alex the African Grey Parrot

Alex, perhaps the best-known parrot in recent history, has died at the age of 31. The cause of death is still being determined (suspected to be aspergillosis, a fungal infection), and is expected to be announced sometime today at a press conference.

Alex was the subject of ongoing research by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. The name is "Alex" is actually an acronym for "Avian Learning EXperiment," and he was noted for his apparent ability to communicate using spoken English, responding to questions and displaying an awareness of quantities (including zero), colors, and a variety of specific objects. Here's more on his abilities from Wikipedia:

Alex had a vocabulary of around 100 words as of 2000, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and is asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. If asked the difference between two objects, he also answered that, but if there is no difference between the objects, he said "none." When he was tired of being tested, he will say "I'm gonna go away," and if the researcher displays annoyance, Alex tried to defuse it with the phrase, "I'm sorry." If he said "Wanna banana", but was offered a nut instead, he stared in silence, asked for the banana again, or took the nut and threw it at the researcher. When asked how many objects of a particular color or a particular material are on a tray, he gave the correct answer approximately 80% of the time.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that Alex is "speaking English" in the same way a human would. More from Wikipedia: "However, according to Dr. Pepperberg herself, Alex was not using human language, but rather used 'complex two-way communication.' This means that Alex was able to translate a concept as he understood it into a form comprehensible to humans by using his knowledge of English." Linguist Noam Chomsky argued that Alex's apparent communication skills were merely the result of operant conditioning.

In any case, Alex was a remarkable bird, and will be missed. You can read his obituary, visit a Yahoo Group dedicated to his memory, or check out The Alex Foundation.

For more general information on Alex, start with this 1999 New York Times article about him, or watch video of Alex from Scientific American Frontiers -- scroll down to the "Entertaining Parrots" segment unless you want to watch the whole episode.

UPDATE: A press release has been posted by The Alex Foundation -- no cause of death determined by the necropsy. The New York Times has a great story summarizing Alex's life and Pepperberg's work with him.

The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

Why Are Glaciers Blue?

The bright azure blue sported by many glaciers is one of nature's most stunning hues. But how does it happen, when the snow we see is usually white? As Joe Hanson of It's Okay to Be Smart explains in the video below, the snow and ice we see mostly looks white, cloudy, or clear because all of the visible light striking its surface is reflected back to us. But glaciers have a totally different structure—their many layers of tightly compressed snow means light has to travel much further, and is scattered many times throughout the depths. As the light bounces around, the light at the red and yellow end of the spectrum gets absorbed thanks to the vibrations of the water molecules inside the ice, leaving only blue and green light behind. For the details of exactly why that happens, check out Hanson's trip to Alaska's beautiful (and endangered) Mendenhall Glacier below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]


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