Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A splash of colour

Readers will know how fond we are of toddler art. I last reported on four-year-old Marla Olmstead's paintings, which formed the basis of a 2007 documentary. Now we hear that a two-year-old Australian girl's paintings have been exhibited in a Melbourne gallery. Aelita Andre, the artist in question, produced the works when she was 22 months. The gallery owner was surprised when he heard the truth, but decided to go on with the show anyway. Aelita even has her own website, and apparently a nifty touch with HTML. You can visit her, and see the works in close-up, here.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sticky people

An infant feeding from a bottleImage via Wikipedia

The primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is interviewed in the New York Times about her new book on cooperative parenting. Babies call out social responses in us, and are themselves amazingly responsive to those reactions. Coupled with humans' neoteny, or extended period of immaturity, that means that human mothers rely on sharing out the work of parenting to conspecifics who are not family. In Hrdy's view, many features of our social cognition evolved in response to the pressures of being cooperative breeders. If you're going to hand your baby over to your neighbour, you need to be sure what she is thinking.

That's why babies are cute, the evolutionary psychologist would say. It's not enough for there to be trust on the part of the mother; there needs to be some inherent attraction in the idea of taking over someone else's childcare. The system wouldn't work unless babies called out the right social responses. Watch any social gathering in which a newborn is being handed around, and you'll see the frenzy for yourself. Many would have suspected it anyway, and here is a new scientific perspective on the phenomenon: infants are the glue that holds society together.

(Click on the carousel at the bottom right to see more about Hrdy's book.)
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Monday, March 16, 2009

You are here

The Vela Pulsar, a neutron star corpse left fr...Image via Wikipedia


'How do stars explode?'

It is early on a Monday morning. The alarm clock has beeped once. I'm not even going to think about getting up until it has done it again.

'I don't know.' But I should know. 'We'll look it up later.'

There's a pause. Isaac, five, is supposed to be having a sleepy cuddle with both of us. But his curiosity knows no Monday-morning lethargy.

'What happens to all the gravity out in space?'

'Um... I don't know.'

'Why do they have cameras out in space to take pictures of the planets? Is it to see if the planets are OK?'

The Hubble Space Telescope: a kind of safety camera for our orbiting rocks. I can't think of any way to improve on that interpretation, so I say yes.



'Will you get up with me now?'

Readers will know that Isaac is quite the philosopher. Having reached the limits of my knowledge about death, God and whether a cheetah can run faster than a car, he is turning his thoughts to the cosmos. And I'm learning how little I know. In the International Year of Astronomy, that would seem to be timely problem to fix. I wouldn't mind starting with Christopher Potter's voyage around the cosmos, 'You are Here' (see the carousel, bottom right, for a link). You can read a Guardian interview with Potter here.

As with many who have mused on the stars, Potter's fascination began in childhood. As I describe in my own book, understanding where you fit in to the universe is just part of children's general project of making sense of where they are in time and space. But the research I describe in Chapter 13 ('The Young Doctor Who') also suggests that knowledge about cosmology might progress relatively independently of other kinds of knowledge, such as biology or physics. Turning to the heavens may not necessarily be a sign that a child is fully conversant with the rules of life on earth. Knowledgeable he may be about the moons of Jupiter and the death of stars, but Isaac still gets hopelessly confused about whether he can go round to play with his friend Elina in Australia. As Potter might agree, you can be a poet of the heavens while still treading clumsily on the earth.
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