December 14, 2004

The poor octopus.

There's a Q&A column in the Science section of the NYT, and today's question is "How smart is the octopus, and how do we know?" Did someone write in with that question? I find it hard to believe someone was wondering about that and decided to write to the NYT for an answer. Maybe Q&A format just gives a spiffy look to the presentation of a stray little fact the paper wants to pass along.
In a 1992 study in Italy, Dr. Graziano Fiorito and Dr. Pietro Scotto found that when specimens of the common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, were rewarded with food for grabbing red balls rather than white balls, and punished with a mild shock when they chose the white balls, "untrained" octopuses that were allowed to observe them would then imitate their choices.

What strange things scientists decide to do!

But, wait, there's more about the octopus in the Science section. Here we learn of William Beebe, who became famous in the 1920s for studying the ocean in a bathysphere. A mark of his fame is that "[h]e even made an offstage appearance in the play 'The Man Who Came to Dinner.' (He sends its irascible protagonist an octopus.)" For some reason this article is called "Fame, Fortune and Nature, With an Irascible Octopus." The octopus was irascible? The sentence said the protagonist of the play was irascible. Or was sending the protagonist an octopus a way of saying, you're irascible, like an octopus? I don't know. I haven't read the play, but it seems the headline writer goofed. Still, the notion of an "irascible octopus" got me to read the article.

The poor octopus, experimented upon with electric shocks and slurred as "irascible"!

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