Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Researchers explore whether parrot has concept of zero

By Aussiegirl

I've always been fascinated by those TV documentaries that show a beautiful little parrot choosing among various colored shapes. They seem so intelligent, so I'm not surprised that they just might have managed to develop the concept of zero. For an interesting article that includes a discussion of zero, see here:
History of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system.
(By the way, I learned about the difference between "number" and "numeral": a "number" is the abstract mathematical concept that lies behind a collection of, say, four objects, while a "numeral" is the symbol that refers to the concept, in this case "4".)

Researchers explore whether parrot has concept of zero

A bird may have hit on a concept that eluded mathematicians for centuries—possibly during a temper tantrum.

Researchers are exploring whether a parrot has developed a numerical concept that mathematicians failed to grasp for centuries: zero.

Oddly, it seems he may have achieved the feat during a temper tantrum, the scientists say.

Although zero is an obvious notion to most of us, it wasn’t to people long ago. Scholars say it came into widespread use in the West only in the 1600s; India had it about a millennium earlier.

Yet Alex, a 28-year-old Grey parrot, recently began—unprompted—using the word “none” to describe an absence of quantity, according to researchers at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Alex thus possesses a “zero-like concept,” wrote the scientists.

Years earlier, Alex had been taught another meaning of “none,” as a lack of information, they added. But his feat was to extend the concept to a context involving numbers, during a test of his counting skills. [....]

Zero and none “are not identical,” Pepperberg wrote in a recent email. But since Alex never learned “zero,” the researchers said, it’s impressive that he started using a word he knew to denote something like it: an absence of a quantity.

Also unclear, though, was whether by “none” he meant no colors, no objects or something else. [....]

Chimps and possibly squirrel monkeys show some understanding of zero, but only after training, the researchers said. So Alex’s feat is the first time this has been documented in a bird, “and the first time it occurred spontaneously,” Pepperberg said via email. [....]

As they investigate whether Alex really understands zero, they will also have to untangle the meanings of “none” and “zero.” [....]

Zero was common in the West only from the 1600s on, though similar concepts appeared earlier in fits and starts, according to J.J. O’Connor of the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland.

In pre-zero times, O’Connor wrote in an online essay, some mathematicians tied themselves in knots to solve problems that would have been much easier with a zero. But ancient peoples as a whole probably didn’t think of it because they didn’t need it: “If ancient peoples solved a problem about how many horses a farmer needed,” he wrote, “then the problem was not going to have 0 or –23 as an answer.” [....]

Thus Alex’s apparent insight into zero doesn’t necessarily reflect across-the-board mathematical brilliance. Alex’s abilities might parallel those of children “who have trouble learning language and counting skills,” the researchers wrote.


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