Every day is a school day.

An Intelligence Of Corvids: The Ratchet Effect

4 minute read

The Ratchet Effect

Besides the mind-blowing insight that crows can work out vending machines, my obsession with these creatures lead to the discovery that New Caledonian crows are the only animals on the planet —besides humans— to have demonstrated The Ratchet Effect. This pretty much tops the lot, for me. You know how way back when we realised we could make tools to hunt with? And then over generations we improved upon those tools? One minute we invented the wheel, the next we’ve got entire virtual worlds to invent wheels in, like some kind of ironic meta joke at our own expense.

Sure enough, Jane Goodall amazed the world by showing that chimpanzees are able to make and use tools — fashioning twigs to tease out grubs from crevices and using the right density of rock to smash open nuts. Now it seems this capability isn’t unique to primates. Crows, as shown in the puzzle tasks above, have been observed in the wild using twigs in much the same way. New Caledonian crows have gone a step further. These remarkable animals have been seen to fashion hooks from twigs (something chimpanzees have yet to figure out), even doing so spontaneously from unnatural material —a piece of wire— whilst in captivity. What’s unique about this is that the crow in question, Betty, did this on her first encounter with the wire.

“Since she had no other crows to model, no training with pliant objects, and very limited prior experience with wire, they [the researchers] see her actions as novel and purposeful.” — Robert Winkler, National Geographic.

And it’s not just that crows can create a variety of tools, it’s that they improve upon them over time which is remarkable. The fact that juveniles learn from their parents by closely following and watching them, “and are ‘allowed’ to use the tools of their parents”, as noted by Dr Gavin Hunt, may go some way to explaining how crows improve the tools over time — this social learning allows the juvenile crows to learn from their parents’ mistakes.

“The males’ tool-folding confirms that New Caledonian crows have a disposition to routinise and lateralise complex sequences of manipulatory actions. Such a disposition may facilitate the evolution of cumulative technology because it can act to standardise the reproduction of a technological innovation.” — G R Hunt, Innovative Pandanus Tool Folding By New Caledonian Crows.

Although chimpanzees, and a variety of primates and monkeys, have been observed using tools, none so far have been know to improve upon these tools over time. Despite social learning, picking up habits by watching members of the group, chimpanzees appear to lack the innovation to go beyond tool use. The fact that a descendent of the dinosaur is the only animal besides us to have been observed ‘ratcheting up’ tool use is, well, immensely exciting.

An Intelligence Of Corvids: Puzzle Solving And Causal Relationships

4 minute read

Puzzle Solving And Causal Relationships

If fishing and wheeler dealing wasn’t impressive enough, crows are also masters at solving puzzles. Corvid expert Alex Taylor, of the University of Auckland, designed what has been described as “the most difficult puzzle New Caledonian crows have ever faced” for his birds to figure out. This eight-step puzzle, involving various tools, offers a food reward if solved, and Chris Packham —aka “the hotness of the natural world”— can hardly believe what he sees.

Is your mind blown? If it’s not at least a little bit on fire, let this set you ablaze: crows can also figure out how to use a vending machine. In Joshua Klein’s TED talk, he asks people to rethink their approach to “pests” —hence the earlier note— and shows how innovative crows are via a custom-made peanut vending machine. Suck it, squirrels. No, but really — crows can vend.

And what of fables? Aesop definitely knew a thing or two,and pretty much nailed it with his story of the crow and the pitcher. In a study lead by Sarah Jelbert, crows were able to complete four out of six tasks involving water displacement in order to obtain an out-of-reach floating treat. The conclusion of the research is that crows have an “understanding of the causal properties of volume displacement, rivalling that of 5-7 year old children.” Srsly. They understand volume displacement.

These incredible feats demonstrate a capacity to understand cause and effect, which takes quite a bit of brain power. Causal reasoning was previously believed to be unique to humans, since research to prove this in other animals has been patchy at best. When it comes to corvids, it seems they’re undoubtably canny.

“There’s a widely used experiment called the trap-tube task. An animal uses a stick to push or pull a food reward out of a transparent tube, avoiding a small well in the center of the tube where the food would become stuck. Oddly, great apes were more successful when they could pull, rather than push, the food from the tube. Either orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos have a very limited understanding of causality, or the task isn’t really measuring what it’s supposed to measure. The second explanation is more likely, especially since there are cases where human adults understand that sort of causality and still somehow manage to fail some versions of the task.” — Jason G Goldman, animals.i09.

Given the lack of conclusive evidence for the understanding of causal relationships in primates, it seems as though crows may (for now) have one up on our distant relatives. The story’s far from over, though. There are more crow facts to come.

An Intelligence Of Corvids: Delayed Gratification

7 minute read


So, you already know that crows and ravens have a bad rep. When they’re not signalling something ominous in Hollywood films (yawn) they’re hanging out with witches or plucking out the eyes of the dead. Delicious. This slight on their character has not only been immortalised in collective pronouns, a murder and an unkindness respectively, but in countless pieces of literature.

As with many things, the Nordics had a more insightful outlook. In their mythology the Raven symbolizes wisdom. Specifically, the stories tells of two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who traverse the globe on a daily quest for knowledge, returning each evening to whisper observations in Odin’s ear. Pretty bad style.

We humans tend to dislike omnivores and canny animals. Creatures that have keenly adapted to our concrete forestry —pigeons, foxes, spiders, cockroaches, rats— are, rather than being commended for their versatility, dubbed “pests”. Etymologically speaking, we consider them a baneful epidemic, an unwholesome contagion. Without getting too doomsday, it’s more than likely that these animals will have the adaptability to out-survive us. You’ve all heard the one about the cockroach and the post-nuclear scenario.


So what of crows and ravens? Several things. I can’t be sure if it’s a bit of Baader-Meihof at play, but it seems it’s only been in recent years that we’ve realised corvids are compelling contenders in the realm of intelligence. Sure, dolphins, elephants and more, have shown deep intellect, but not many are as fascinating the corvid. It’s not just their level of intelligence that is astonishing but the fact this wide-ranging acumen comes from something so other. Birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, and so perhaps it’s that distinctly human failing —arrogance— that kept our focus on primates as being the ones second only to ourselves.

Enough of that. Here’s the good bit.

Delayed Gratification

You’ve heard of the Stanford “marshmallow test”, right? In this experiment, children were presented with the choice of one marshmallow immediately or, if they were able to wait, two marshmallows after around 15 minutes. This test was replicated in a variety of ways after the initial experiment and two main findings were unearthed: age is a factor in the ability to defer gratification, and those that performed well did better later in life. Four-year-olds were least able to control their urges, whereas at five years old children were able to distract themselves by covering their eyes or hiding under the desk. At 8–13 years old, children were then able to “employ abstract versus arousing thoughts in order to distract their minds“.

Most animals, by and large, are unable to delay gratification. This isn’t surprising—animals perceive time in a different way to us. Understanding a favourable future, affected by actions in the present, requires the imagination of various outcomes, a “mind’s eye”. For most creatures “now or never” is just a permanent state—life is harsh and survival depends on immediacy. Incredibly, crows and ravens possess such an imagination. Just as five-year-olds would hide under the desk or stroke the marshmallow, longing to devour it but openly showing restraint, crows are able to hold off—apparently by picking up the item and putting it back, perhaps going through the motions of caching until the waiting period is up. Check out this adorable footage of a crow holding back for reward. (It fails the first test then succeeds the second.)

In Friederike Hillemann‘s study Waiting for better, not for more: corvids respond to quality in two delay maintenance tasks, crows were tasked with determining either the quality or quantity of a food reward, after which they had to decide whether or not to wait for the “better” reward. It turns out crows can delay gratification just fine, although only if the reward is of a higher quality. The birds “exchanged more often when the potential reward was highly preferred, the initial item was of low quality, and when the relative value of the reward was clearly distinct from the initial item.” Essentially, sausage was worth waiting for if beans were the initial offering.

Hillenmann isn’t the only researcher to have looked into this. In a study by , , , , Corvids can decide if a future exchange is worth waiting for, it’s noted that corvids “are capable of controlling their immediate impulse to eat in order to gain a more preferred item in near future (waiting not only for seconds but also for minutes), with a maximal waiting time of up to 5 minutes.” Given that crows are renowned food-hoarders, and so “time-dependant calculations bear high ecological relevance”, it’s not surprising that they rock the test.

Before you pfft these tests with “yeah, but that’s all in a lab”, dive the shiz into this: crows can fish. This remarkable discovery was made by Oren Hassen, who wonderfully documents it on his website here. His story tells of spotting crows dipping bread into water, which has been observed before—a canny trick to soften it for consumption—only these hooded crows weren’t after more palatable bread. They were delaying the immediate food option for a later, better one. The crows were catching fish with the bread. Check out this amazing footage. (You can see the crow dipping bread and eating it, then dropping the largest piece in and catching a fish.)

According to Hilleman, “crows and ravens performed comparably to primates and children tested in [similar] tasks”. One difference worth noting (between our feathered friends and primates) is their differentiation between quality and quantity, which “may be unique to birds”. Carrying lots of food for a bird can be “disadvantageous in flight”, whereas we can easily handle carrying a heavier load. As such, birds aren’t so willing to hold off for more, only for better. I mean, quality not quantity, right? Sounds a little more refined to me.

TL;DR: Crows bait fish. Mic drop.

An Intelligence Of Corvids: Raven Keepers And Vocalisations

5 minute read

Don’t judge a bird by its literary references: that’s the moral of this story. Curious? Good. It’s a sign of intelligence and corvids are, amongst many other things, curious birds — in all senses of the phrasing. Here’s a curiosity for you: Legend has it that if the ravens should ever leave the Tower of London, the kingdom would fall. According to the stories, it was Charles II who first decreed that at least six ravens be housed in the tower, under protection, so as to avoid this ill future. And so, the role of Master Keeper of the ravens of the Tower of London was born.

Despite clipping their wings (of which I’m not a fan) past ravens have managed to shirk their duties; the last known sighting of Raven Grog was in 1981, outside an East End pub named the Rose and Punchbowl. That’s not all: ravens can also be relieved of their post for poor conduct. Raven George was dismissed in 1986 after having developed “an unhealthy taste for TV aerials”. — But this isn’t the curiosity; there’s more.


London’s not the only place to house royal ravens. Enter: Knaresborough, Yorkshire. What began as a project to inspire local children’s interest in the history of the town eventually became an ongoing —and much unsung— tourist attraction for Yorkshire. Janette Ingrain Hustwitt Skelton is Her Majesty’s Keeper of Castle Ravens, Knaresborough, and she has a wonderful collection of corvids. It all started with her book, which notes several historic Knaresborough spots, and the acquisition of a raven thusly named after the book’s main character, Ravenelf.


Since Igraine was pals with Mr Cope at the Tower of London (the then Master Raven Keeper), she asked his advice regarding how to obtain insurance to showcase Ravenelf at the castle. If she could attract folks to see Ravenelf, should could promote her story and local history. A plan hatched to create the Northern version of the Tower, in celebration of the millennium, and official permission was then granted, along with a royal raven chick. She’s been performing her duties as HRM’s Keeper ever since. Still curious? You can meet these beautiful birds for yourself, as Igraine is often to be found around the castle grounds, accompanied by her feathered friends. Fly her an email if you want to check her schedule and she’ll get back to you promptly.


I was fortunate enough to spend a good few hours with them (a dream come true for this corvid fanatic) and even caught some footage of Ravenelf singing and talking. Talking? Indeed. Ravens are the world’s largest song bird and have the capacity for incredible mimicry. Check out Ravenelf’s delightful Yorkshire accent below. With Mother Shipton’s Cave and the petrifying well nearby, as well as the gorgeous natural scenery, a visit to see Igraine and the ravens of Knaresborough is most totally worthwhile.

Tell It Like It Is

So, how about the science behind the speech? It’s not just the ability to almost perfectly mimic people talking (amongst various other complex environmental sounds) that indicates their intellect but the complexity and range of their vocalisations. Although understudied, it’s been noted that ravens have a huge variety of calls that change according to context — there are alarm calls, chase calls, flight calls, and more. It’s even rumoured they’ll mimic wolves to attract them to carcasses they need help getting into.

Scientists have placed their vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context. The most commonly heard is the classic gurgling croak, rising in pitch and seeming to come from the back of the throat. It’s much deeper and more musical than a crow’s simple, scratchy caw. —

The world is full of curiosities, and staying curious pays off. More corvid facts to come.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: 5 Types Of Brain Bias That Will Mess With Your Mind

The Confirmation Bias Effect

We tend to favour evidence that backs up ideas we already believe in.

You know that turbo shout session you had with *insert person* at *insert place* at *insert time*, after which you furiously whipped out the internet to find any article that backed you up? Yep, I’m perpetually there. Opinions make us. Our beliefs, inextricably shaped by those we spend time with, define who we believe we are. They give us meaning, so it’s no wonder we’re so precious about them. It makes sense that we prefer the company of people whose opinions match our own; although an echo chamber of agreement doesn’t always make for the most stimulating debate, it’s likely a good source of comfort to find out that your fellow Facebookers just aren’t into getting piggy with it, Cameron style. (Alright, that was easy. And no one was cool with it.) Porcine profanation aside, birds of a feather flock together, so that makes it easy to feel righteous. Even when actively trying to research against belief, we overlook evidence that challenges our opinion in favour of that which backs it up, and that’s Confirmation Bias.

The Illusory Correlation also comes into play here — we perceive relationships between variables that demonstrate no such thing, especially to support our argument. If you find yourself auto-knee-jerking in the face of confrontation — to, say, that Morrisey is actually, really just an inexcusable twat— there’s a chance you’re ignoring the facts. (This could be delusion too, but let’s leave it there. Maybe you’ve no strong feelings about him either way.)  Confirmation Bias leads us to favour data which backs up prior beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence. An offshoot of this that goes even deeper is the proposition of identity-protective cognition — that we cannot trust our own opinions, especially since our brains are biased towards protecting those opinions. Think gun control, conspiracy theories, and climate change — compelling data seems only to result in heels —not heads— being driven further into the ground, especially since those topics are highly politically charged.

The Barnum Effect

Generalisms become prophetical and profound.

An offshoot of Confirmation Bias, so named after the infamous hoaxer, Barnum. Here we have something a little more specific: people will give high accuracy to descriptions of their personality that they believe to be tailored to themselves, only those “personality traits” are general enough to be applicable to anyone. It’s the Cosmopolitan quiz equivalent of “yeeesss, I’d love an omelette right about now!” (Alright, maybe that was a stretch, but it’s one of the best Simpsons quotes.) You only hear what you want to hear, and you only read what you want to read between the lines.

Take horoscopes: the premonitions with each piece of ‘wisdom’ aren’t written obliquely by accident. Because people want to believe in the advice received, they’ll track back in their minds favourably to make it so, only taking into account where the story fits. In the same way that our brains are programmed to recognise faces, and therefore people see Jesus on pieces of toast, so we are programmed to find favourable evidence towards our own beliefs. It is the very definition of wishful thinking, but consider this: even Charlie Brooker won’t lay claim to being a fortune teller. Maybe it was a sixth sense.

The Backfire Effect

Even in the face of hard evidence, especially so, we won’t change our minds.

Remember identity-protective cognition? This is pretty similar. Given that the press presents most information in a 50/50 argument in order to strive towards objectivity (much to the irritation of those concerned with Global Warming), we tend to pick the side we err towards — just as with confirmation bias. And, yes, for a lot of media it’s barely the facade of being objective. This ambiguous way of delivering information means that we’re well trained to think in polar opposites — it’s either right or it’s wrong — which isn’t easy to escape or useful in finding truth. (Let’s ignore the philosophy of what ‘truth’ really is, for now.) It stands that with many debates there are grey areas, so  misplaced objectivity is good to bear in mind. TL;DR: Just because a person disagrees with you, don’t assume they’re wrong. Especially when you consider the following.

When confronted with solid evidence that counters strongly held beliefs, the overwhelming reaction is to get defensive. This is known as the “backfire effect”, as studied by researchers at Dartmouth who found that “citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions” in the face of evidence from an omniscient source — a single person. For example, if you argue against someone who believes that cannabis cures cancer, and offer data to support that, chances are “big pharma” will get the blame. The classic response of, “well, I’ve not read enough about it” (read: “I am not going to change stance based on what you’ve said”), can be quite a conversation stopper and a means to hold position — the very definition of shutting it down. Sound familiar? You’re probably treading on toes too. If that’s the case, bringing up The Backfire Effect won’t be helpful, but you can at least feel vindicated. It’s either that or sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “lalala” to graciously make your point.

The Not Invented Here Syndrome

We tend to be more critical of someone else’s ideas than our own.

This goes beyond the shut down to a new level of “why don’t we just do what you wanna do?”. Even though everyone knows the tenet, “two minds are better than one”, when one’s ideas are criticised, it’s a hard pill to swallow. Not to get all sonder-philosophical, it’s easy to get why it feels unreasonable to ignore your own wealth of data — anecdotal or otherwise. Empathetic or not, the main character syndrome is real. Sure, this one’s more philosophy than syndrome, but we’ve all been there: someone rudely foot-mashed over your very legitimate idea to replace currency with interpretive dance styled solely on Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tubeman, and they did it rather unceremoniously with the remnants of slug on their Crocs.

The reaction is pretty automatic — you assume they are entirely incorrect. Whether you consider it an inherent form of tribalism, like being unwilling to adopt a foreign culture; a pride, jealousy, and ownership issue; or simply rejection based on a lack of understanding, we’ve all had moments of NIH. “Let’s not reinvent the wheel”, they said. But radial tires made it over eventually, yo. Although it’s hard not to apply a harsher standard to everyone else’s ideas over your own, it doesn’t hurt to have a quiet word… with yourself. Humility is pretty rad and dismissing change for the sake of holding on to your own ideas is not the best way to grow. You’re not Neo (she says to herself). No need to be a luddite. No need to be conservative. The more vantage points, the better the view.

The Gambler’s Fallacy

We misunderstand the maths.

Oh, you thought you had the odds, but it’s a dicey bet. (Sorry.) We’ve all done it, and it’s on account of our inability — perhaps genetic — to understand the complex maths of chance. We put extra weight on previous outcomes, as if they’ll affect future ones, because it just feels right. Consider this: you’ve just thrown 4 heads in a row. It feels as though that means it’s less likely you’ll throw another. But each throw is still 50% chance of either outcome: the past coin toss does not effect the future outcome of a fair coin toss. Why? Because the slim chances of that happening only existed before you tossed the coin — before your five coin tosses, it was indeed a 1/32 probability. Geddit? Each individual time you throw the coin, there’s still a 50/50 of heads or tails.

We’re hardwired to see patterns —we find meaning from nothing to evidence our beliefs— so it seems instinctive to assume previous coin tosses must have effect. Even though most of us don’t truly understand the concept of random, we even demanded that iTunes shuffle mode be made less random to make it feel more random — true randomness meant that two songs from the same album could well crop up next to each other, just as the same song can be repeated over and over. What we really wanted was to hear each song on a playlist shuffled completely and played once, maybe twice thrown in there to throw us, and so it was changed. Spotify had the same problem. Seeing patterns helped us become so ruddy clever, but also built in a few flaws along the way. TL;DR: Gambling is addictive.

Want more? Cool. Coming next: The Ambiguity Effect, Neglecting Probability, Negativity Bias, and what ever else I can lay my eyes on.

iPhone Macro: Ghost Ants And Fire Ants In Thailand

Whilst maxing the relaxing by the pool, most folks would be sipping a margarita and soaking up the vitamin D. Not gonna lie —obviously I did a bit of that— but with three kinds of ant crawling around me in Koh Samed, there was kind of no option but to photograph them. #geeksgonewild (This should be a thing. Should it? Yes.) I only managed to photograph two of those with my macro kit (see here for how to make your own) but it was pretty amazing to catch a fire ant picking up a grain of sugar with its mandibles. Right? Who wouldn’t love that in between a massage and a cocktail?

After investigation, by which I mean about three or so hours of Googling, my bet is that the ants I didn’t photograph were Paratrechina longicornis —the most common of the Thai ants— and these gals are found across much of the world. They’re called the “Longhorn crazy ant”, since instead of following straight lines they move erratically; this is how I can be sure it was them. They looked absolutely senseless, a little bit like a visual representation of random, but I’ll take a mildly educated guess that they know what they’re doing. (And they’re probably miles away from being anywhere near random.) They were insanely fast, too, which makes me wonder what their speed of scent is. Anyway — I don’t have pictures of them, so I’ll sack this chat right off.

ghost ants

How about these little ones?! The Tapinoma melanocephalum has got to be the smallest ant I’ve ever seen. They’re so weeny it’s easy to assume they’re something else —except for the fact they’re grouped together like ants and constantly at the sugar. (Around 1.5mm, to be not-so-exact.) Similar to the LCA, they’re one of the most widely distributed ant species in the world and it’s believed that one day they’ll be found in every major city across the globe. Whilst they don’t sting, and their bite isn’t too painful, they can be more than simply a household pest — in Brazil, “Moreira et al. (2005) found at least 14 different types of bacteria on T. melanocephalum workers collected in the hospitals, including antibiotic resistant strains”. Yikes. I realise the picture with the remains of a sugar packet isn’t great, but it gives a bit of perspective.

Fire Ants

Fire ants—now these are some insects. Typically, if you get hurt by an ant it’s because it bit you. Solenopsis geminata can bite you, but that’s of little consequence. If it does bite, it’s most likely getting purchase to come in for the sting, which involves injecting you with a toxic alkaloid venom. No surprises here: the painful sting feels like it burns. You know how black pepper tastes spicy hot? That’s because it has piperine in it — which shares a structural motif with piperidine, the toxin in solenopsin. Isn’t life amazing? I’m going to think of ant venom next time I s&p my scrambled eggs. Luckily, my ant-bothering didn’t result in any stings or bites, but I did get some sweet footage of a few workers collecting the wing of a dead insect. Check it:

There’s a chance that these guys are actually weaver ants, but after some (purely internet-based) research, I’ve reasoned that they’re not—partly because of the colouring of their abdomens, but also partly because my friend got stung a few times and confirmed the burn. Once bitten, twice shy — once stung, stung again many times and having a real bad time. At least, that was the case for my poor mate.

Interesting fact: Because I know you read this like a hawk hungry for ant facts, you’ll remember I called them “gals” earlier. That’s because, generally with ant colonies, there is only the queen (the fertile female from whom all life is brought forth) and the workers and drones (all infertile under-wimmins). The queen will only create males when there’s a need to start new colonies, so males are generally in short supply. And there is no need to insert any kind of “up-the-women” joke here, because they’re ants and the comparison is stupid. It would also be heinously obvious.

Punctuation Is Rad: The Semicolon Edition


When you talk out loud, things like breath, intonation, volume, and facial expression all give lightening-speed hints that convey the meaning behind what is being said. Obviously, on the page we rely on punctuation to make sense of the content being shared. (It’s no surprise that punctuation marks evolved into “emoticons”, since it’s hard to decipher tone and intention behind plain text. Adding “:)” is an easy way of cultivating friendly vibes.)

Anyway, since these are not just a winky face, here’s how to use a semicolon with some finesse. Link two independent clauses, especially when there’s a <3 connection <3 between them, and they’re also great for clearing up confusion in your lists!

  • Using a semicolon isn’t hard; I once saw a party gorilla do it.
  • I‘ve got ice, because I like cold drinks; tequila, because I like strong drinks; and lime, because no one wants scurvy.

If commas had been used in place of semicolons, the independent clauses above would be in a comma splice and the list items wouldn’t be clear to the reader. In the case of relating two closely connected independent clauses, it’s helpful to think of the semicolon as stronger than a comma but softer than a full stop; a full stop here would indicate a longer pause (say if read aloud) and therefore the relationship between these sentences would seem more distant… and so we come full circle to saying things out loud.

Using them correctly is pretty easy. Using them incorrectly is also pretty easy, so here’s a quick-list of places you need to keep a tab on your punctuation.

  • After conjunctions (and, but, for, and so on) — commas go after these. E.g. I like the way you move, but I like the way you sit still more.
  • In place of a colon. E.g. There are three ways you could make me happier: breathing more quietly, sitting more sweetly, and moving much less than you do.
  • In between independent clauses that should not have this special connection — these need a full stop. E.g. I really do like the way you move. I’m thinking about moving house. I just moved that rock with my mind, don’t you know.

And there it is.

Did This Peak Your Interest?


Nope, it piqued it.

Homophones —words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning, and sometimes spelling—can be tricky. Your curiosity might have reached its peak, or you took a sneaky peek because you were curious, but when using this phrase, “pique” is the word you’re after. It derives from the 1670s French (if you hadn’t guessed by the spelling) piquer “to prick, sting” (which derives from “pique”, pike in English). The later (softened) meaning became “to stimulate, excite”, which is where the phrase originates.

Did You Know: Blowing On Food Really Does Cool It Down

Some time ago, a friend assured me that blowing on hot food didn’t actually cool it down, in fact, the act of blowing on food was more about preparing one’s mouth for taking in something that might burn. I disagreed, and it and it bothered me enough to go researching and find out for sure. I’ve done the (not-so) hard yards. Here’s the answer.

TL;DR — Yes, blowing on food really does cool it down…

… quite slowly.

There are a couple of things it does: heat transfer from conduction and convection, and evaporative cooling.

Your mouth (and therefore, breath) is much cooler than the hot food you’re about to eat, and this affects the rate of heat transfer. Thermal energy causes molecules to move — the transference of energy from the hot molecules (high energy, the food) to the cold (low energy, the air) cools them until they have the same energy (a constant temperature). Think about ice cream melting on a hot day vs. how long it takes your dinner to cool on a heated plate — both do eventually reach the same temperature but much faster when there’s a bigger energy difference. Without blowing on the hot food, these molecules would stay hotter for longer, since blowing increases the hot-cold difference between the air and food, and so the process is sped up.

Evaporative cooling does the lion’s share in cooling though, especially when the hot food contains a lot of moisture. When your food comes out “piping hot” (steaming), it is literally giving off energy, ergo cooling down. It takes energy for the water molecules in your food to change from liquid to gas and that energy transfers from heat in your food to heat in the vapour/air. Without blowing on your food, that cloud of water vapour over the dish actually then effectively blocks more water from vaporising — the water vapour exerts pressure back on to the dish — and so blowing that away allows more water molecules to evaporate.

Pretty cool.

iPhone Macro: Close-up Film Of An Aphid


An aphid I filmed using an iPhone 5S, modified with a laser pen lens. I was looking to photograph leaves in macro when I found this little stow away.

The rumours are true — aphids are milked by ants for their sugary goodness, and female aphids can choose to clone over reproducing. Winner.

They’re also feisty — they use their back legs to kick predators and even destroy their eggs.

There it is.

(It’s a really easy way to take macro footage/photos. See how I made that here.)

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