The Song of the Lyre Bird

I’ve wanted to post this little clip for some time, just because it’s so marvellous.

I wonder what you felt as you watched it?  What went through your mind? Amusement? Fascination?  I’ll tell you how it was for me when I first saw it.  I marvelled.

Seeing the extraordinary behaviour of this incredible creature filled me with a sense of wonder. But I also began to wonder in another sense too. How did the Lyre Bird evolve its bizarre strategy? How does it learn to be such an accurate mimic? How does it produce such a fascinating variety of sounds? How can there be an evolutionary advantage in luring a potential mate to the sound of foresters and a chainsaw?

The Lyre Bird deploys its resources in such an elaborate and expensive way that you might be inclined to mock it, if all it does is draw females to “look at its plumes”.  I can think of quite a few blokes who adopt not-too-dissimilar strategies, if truth be told. But if you could ask a Lyre Bird it would probably answer that it does this because that’s what it does. The song defines the bird. That’s its nature.

I was moved to post the clip in response to a characteristically snide and ill-informed piece by Simon Jenkins in yesterday’s Guardian. Jenkins indulges in an anti-science rant every now and again. Sometimes he has a point, in fact. But yesterday’s article was just puerile. Perhaps he had a bad experience of science at school and never got over it.

I suppose I can understand why some people are cynical about scientists stepping into the public eye to proselytise about science. After all, it’s also quite easy to come up with examples of  scientists who have made mistakes. Sadly, there are also cases of outright dishonesty. Science is no good because scientists are fallible. But scientists are people, no better and no worse than the rest. To err is human and all that.  We shouldn’t expect scientists to be superhuman any more than we should believe the occasional megalomaniac who says they are.

To many people fundamental physics is a just a load of incomprehensible gibberish, the Large Hadron Collider a monstrous waste of money, and astronomy of no greater value to the world than astrology. Any scientist trying to communicate science to the public must be trying to hoodwink them, to rob them of the schools and hospitals that their taxes should be building and sacrifice their hard-earned income on the altar of yet another phoney religion.

And now the BBC is participating in this con-trick by actually broadcasting popular programmes about science that have generated huge and appreciative audiences. Simon Jenkins obviously feels threatened by it. He’s probably not alone.

I don’t  have anything like the public profile of the target of Jenkins’ vitriol, Lord Rees, but I try to do my share of science communication. I give public lectures from time to time and write popular articles, whenever I’m asked. I also answer science questions by email from the general public, and some of the pieces I post on here receive a reasonably wide distribution too.

Why do I (and most of my colleagues) do all this sort of stuff? Is it because we’re after your money?  Actually, no it isn’t. Not directly, anyway.

I do all this stuff because, after 25 years as a scientist, I still have a sense of wonder about the universe. I want to share that as much as I can with others. Moreover,  I’ve been lucky enough to find a career that allows me to get paid for indulging my scientific curiosity and I’m fully aware that it’s Joe Public that pays for me to do it. I’m happy they do so, and happier still that people will turn up on a rainy night to hear me talk about cosmology or astrophysics. I do this because I love doing science, and want other people to love it  too.

Scientists are wont to play the utilitarian card when asked about why the public should fund fundamental research. Lord Rees did this in his Reith Lectures, in fact. Physics has given us countless spin-offs – TV sets, digital computers,  the internet, you name it – that have created wealth for UK plc out of all proportion to the modest investment it has received. If you think the British government spends too much on science, then perhaps you could try to find the excessive sum on this picture.

Yes, the LHC is expensive but the cost was shared by a large number of countries and was spread over a long time. The financial burden to the UK now amounts to the cost of a cup of coffee per year for each taxpayer in the country. I’d compare this wonderful exercise in friendly international cooperation with the billions we’re about to waste on the Trident nuclear weapons programme which is being built on the assumption that international relations must involve mutual hatred.

This is the sort of argument that gets politicians interested, but scientists must be wary of it. If particle physics is good because it has spin-offs that can be applied in, e.g. medicine, then why not just give the money to medical research?

I’m not often put in situations where I have to answer questions like why we should spend money on astronomy or particle physics but, when I am, I always feel uncomfortable wheeling out the economic impact argument. Not because I don’t believe it’s true, but because I don’t think it’s the real reason for doing science. I know the following argument won’t cut any ice in the Treasury, but it’s what I really think as a scientist (and a human being).

What makes humans different from other animals? What defines us? I don’t know what the full answer to that is, or even if it has a single answer, but I’d say one of the things that we do is ask questions and try to answer them. Science isn’t the only way we do this. There are many complementary modes of enquiry of which the scientific method is just one. Generally speaking, though, we’re curious creatures.

I think the state should support science but I also think it should support the fine arts, literature, humanities and the rest, for their own sake. Because they’re things we do. They  make us human. Without them we’re just like any other animal that consumes and reproduces.

So the real reason why the government should support science is the song of the Lyre Bird.  No, I don’t mean as an elaborate mating ritual. I don’t think physics will help you pull the birds. What I mean is that even in this materialistic, money-obsessed world we still haven’t lost the  need to wonder, for the joy it brings and for the way it stimulates our minds; science doesn’t inhibit wonder, as Jenkins argues,  it sparks it.

Now, anyone want to see my plumes?


11 Responses to “The Song of the Lyre Bird”

  1. telescoper Says:

    Just after I posted this I found out about an interesting BBC blog post that ends

    The South Bank’s celebration of science is timed to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society – the UK’s national academy of science. The society, founded in the 1660, counts among its historic list of fellows Sir Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys and Stephen Hawking. The argument over what science is for raged then and it rages still. In its Scientific Century document, published in the run-up to this year’s election, the society argued that if the UK does not invest at levels that compare with our competitors then we risk losing our place as one of the world’s leading scientific nations.

    But more than that, the scientists and engineers the society represents are saying that if we lose the ability to wonder at science and the world around us, we will lose a lot more..


  2. The Lyre Bird deploys its resources in such an elaborate and expensive way that you might be inclined to mock it, if all it does is draw females to “look at its plumes”. I can think of quite a few blokes who adopt not-too-dissimilar strategies, if truth be told. But if you could ask a Lyre Bird it would probably answer that it does this because that’s what it does. The song defines the bird.”

    I’m not sure there is such a big difference between attracting mates and defining oneself, neither in the case of the bird nor in the case of the few blokes you know. 🙂

    There are some amazing courtship dances performed by jungle birds which would put John Travolta in his Saturday Night Fever phase to shame. I remember one (sorry, can’t find a video on the web) of a small, colourful bird which did its entire dance while perched on a branch, the moves eerily reminiscent of Michael Jackson.

  3. Although Steven Pinker himself his sceptical, he points out that many of his colleagues think that music evolved in humans as a show-off trait, like the mating dance of a grouse.

  4. telescoper Says:


    You’re thinking of the Mannequin Bird, which is also marvellous, as seen on this clip from QI.


  5. Yes, that’s exactly the film I had in mind. I saw the film in the background sometime on television, though without the panel discussion in the foreground.

  6. Peter,
    Your epilogue brought to mind a passage from Harry Mulisch’s “The Discovery of Heaven”. One of the main characters is an readioastronomer and here he is discussing with a friend about his latest experiment that didn’t go quite as expected:

    “At least you know what becomes of a disillusioned researcher”, he said,
    taking off his coat. He sank onto the sofa with a glass of pink champagne in his hand and told her about the worldwide astronomical debacle, which had cost hundreds of thousands of guilders, perhaps millions. “In fact isn’t it wonderful that it’s possible? Thousands of toddlers’ playrooms could have been built, and if the experiment had succeeded, it would still have been no good to anyone. The fact that that’s still possible, reconciles me a little with mankind. It means that Homo sapiens still hasn’t grown out of his curious childhood. Only when shortsightedness finally takes over and the importance of things is seen as a function of their proximity will things be really going the wrong way…”

    “You mean that people should look farther than their nose is long.”

    “In my case, that’s actually scarcely possible.”

  7. Someone gave me this book for my birthday more than 10 years ago. As such, I made an exception to my usual policy of not reading translations (unless I have no ability at all in the original language and I really, really, really need to read the book). However, Mulisch’s mother tongue is German and he personally approved the translation, so I’m sure it is OK (I didn’t notice any obvious mistakes).

    I think the book could have been better without the “Greek chorus” bits at the beginning and end of each part. However, towards the end the main narrative meshes with the Greek chorus, so that would be difficult. However, that is not until near the end. The bulk of the book (and it is a bulky book, about 800 pages or so IIRC) is quite entertaining. The book takes place mainly in the Netherlands (Harry Mulisch is one of the most famous Dutch authors) and the main characters are an astronomer, a linguist and a musician, with the first two, male, characters in a triangular relationship with the third, female, character. Thus, the basic plot manages to cover 95% of what I am interested in in life. 🙂 At the time, I was myself working as an astronomer in the Netherlands. The book is extremely well researched, no major goofs on the science side and astute readers will recognise thinly veiled references to real astronomers.

    I would say to forget the film, though.

  8. Maybe I should mention why I found the book quite entertaining: It manages to span an arc covering almost all major themes in society since the second world war and at the same time make them seem natural to the storyline. As such, the background is more interesting than the story per se.

    In this sense, I am reminded of the James Bond films. I think, more than any other film, they capture the Zeitgeist best. Want to know what pop music was like in 1968? Look at that year’s James Bond film and listen what the band is playing when Bond meets someone where music is playing. Fashion? Trendy sports (e.g. bungee jumping)? Technical gadgets (e.g. LED watches)? I think the reason for this is that the main thrust of the story is completely different (girls, guns, cars etc) and so the background gets properly described because the filmmakers are not self-conscious about it. Other films which come to mind in this regard are Apollo 13 (I was living in Cape Canaveral at the end of the 1960s, my father working for NASA (my mother had also worked for NASA—in an office next to von Braun’s—until I was born, in Huntsville), and we used to go to the beach and watch Apollo launches; the period accuracy is quite good—not just the cars and the hairdos, but even the little things: in one scene, there is a child’s wind-up clock; I had exactly the same clock back then) and the German film Jenseits der Stille (Beyond Silence), again probably because the story itself is about something completely different.)

  9. […] posted a rather less vitriolic reaction to Jenkins article on Saturday, but trying to respond in rational terms was simply frustrating. […]

  10. I like your less vitriolic version!

  11. […] Anyway I thought I’d use the occasion of Sir David Attenborough’s birthday to post one of my favourite clips from one of his many TV programmes, and the piece I wrote about it a while ago… […]

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