Late Night open thread: Orangutans with iPads, a man without a nose, his pet moose and a clairvoyant dwarf

Hey, it is late night…and I am in the mood for something different, aren’t you?

So, I have two topics to discuss with you on this open thread. First, this news out of Miami Zoo. Orangutans at Miami zoo use iPads to communicate

The 8-year-old twins love their iPad. They draw, play games and expand their vocabulary. Their family’s teenagers also like the hand-held computer tablets, too, but the clan’s elders show no interest.

The orangutans at Miami’s Jungle Island apparently are just like people when it comes to technology. The park is one of several zoos experimenting with computers and apes, letting its six orangutans use an iPad to communicate and as part of a mental stimulus program. Linda Jacobs, who oversees the program, hopes the devices will eventually help bridge the gap between humans and the endangered apes.

“Our young ones pick up on it. They understand it. It’s like, ‘Oh I get this,'” Jacobs said. “Our two older ones, they just are not interested. I think they just figure, ‘I’ve gotten along just fine in this world without this communication-skill here and the iPad, and I don’t need a computer.'”

Jacobs said she began letting the orangutans use iPads last summer, based on the suggestion of someone who had used the devices with dolphins. The software was originally designed for humans with autism and the screen displays pictures of various objects. A trainer then names one of the objects, and the ape presses the corresponding button.

The comparison to humans made me laugh…thinking about a couple old fart orangutans complaining about “kids today.”

In this Feb. 21, 2012 photo, after being told a word, an orangutan points to that object on an IPAd at Jungle Island in Miami. Experts who work with primates have been using sign language and other methods to communicate with apes for years. But with advancements in tablet computer technology, workers at Jungle Island in Miami are using iPads to better communicate with their orangutans. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

I love the idea Zimmerman has for a way to connect the orangutans with the people who come to see them.

When it comes to orangutans, the iPad itself has limitations. First, the relatively small screen causes orangutans to hit the wrong buttons sometimes. Also, the touchscreen won’t register if they try to use their fingernails. Most importantly, the devices are just too fragile to actually hand over to the apes — the trainers must hold them.

“If I gave them the iPad, I could just basically hand them $600 and say, ‘Go have fun,'” Jacobs said. “So until we come up with a better screen or a better case, I’m going to hold onto the iPad.”

If Jacobs gets her way, a more secure interface might not be far off. The long-term plan is to set up a larger, orangutan-proof screen in the holding area, along with another screen outside for guests. They would ask the orangutans questions and the apes could respond.

“It’s really just a matter of getting the technology and equipment here,” Jacobs said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that they could do it and would be marvelous at it, and I think the public would absolutely love it.”

On to the next topic, this time it is about 16th  Century Astronomer Tycho Brahe.  The man is so damn interesting, check it out:

The Galileo Project | Science | Tycho Brahe

Tyge (Latinized as Tycho) Brahe was born on 14 December 1546 in Skane, then in Denmark, now in Sweden. He was the eldest son of Otto Brahe and Beatte Bille, both from families in the high nobility of Denmark. He was brought up by his paternal uncle Jorgen Brahe and became his heir. He attended the universities of Copenhagen and Leipzig, and then traveled through the German region, studying further at the universities of Wittenberg, Rostock, and Basel. During this period his interest in alchemy and astronomy was aroused, and he bought several astronomical instruments. In a duel with another student, in Wittenberg in 1566, Tycho lost part of his nose. For the rest of his life he wore a metal insert over the missing part. He returned to Denmark in 1570.

Tycho Brahe with metal insert over nose

In 1572 Tycho observed the new star in Cassiopeia and published a brief tract about it the following year. In 1574 he gave a course of lectures on astronomy at the University of Copenhagen. He was now convinced that the improvement of astronomy hinged on accurate observations. After another tour of Germany, where he visited astronomers, Tycho accepted an offer from the King Frederick II to fund an observatory. He was given the little island of Hven in the Sont near Copenhagen, and there he built his observatory, Uraniburg, which became the finest observatory in Europe.

He eventually found himself as Imperial Mathematician and Astronomer for the Imperial Court of Emperor Rudolph II.

Tycho’s major works include De Nova et Nullius Aevi Memoria Prius Visa Stella (“On the New and Never Previously Seen Star) (Copenhagen, 1573); De Mundi Aetherei Recentioribus Phaenomenis (“Concerning

Mural Quadrant

the New Phenomena in the Ethereal World) (Uraniburg, 1588); Astronomiae Instauratae Mechanica (“Instruments for the Restored Astronomy”) (Wandsbeck, 1598; English tr. Copenhagen, 1946); Astronomiae Instauratae Progymnasmata (“Introductory Exercises Toward a Restored Astronomy”) (Prague 1602). His observations were not published during his lifetime. Johannes Kepler used them but they remained the property of his heirs. Several copies in manuscript circulated in Europe for many years, and a very faulty version was printed in 1666. At Prague, Tycho hired Johannes Kepler as an assistant to calculate planetary orbits from his observations. Kepler published the Tabulae Rudolphina in 1627. Because of Tycho’s accurate observations and Kepler’s elliptical astronomy, these tables were much more accurate than any previous tables.

Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe’s contributions to astronomy were enormous. He not only designed and built instruments, he also calibrated them and checked their accuracy periodically. He thus revolutionized astronomical instrumentation. He also changed observational practice profoundly. Whereas earlier astronomers had been content to observe the positions of planets and the Moon at certain important points of their orbits (e.g., opposition, quadrature, station), Tycho and his cast of assistants observed these bodies throughout their orbits. As a result, a number of orbital anomalies never before noticed were made explicit by Tycho. Without these complete series of observations of unprecedented accuracy, Kepler could not have discovered that planets move in elliptical orbits. Tycho was also the first astronomer to make corrections for atmospheric refraction. In general, whereas previous astronomers made observations accurate to perhaps 15 arc minutes, those of Tycho were accurate to perhaps 2 arc minutes, and it has been shown that his best observations were accurate to about half an arc minute.

Please read more at The Galileo Project link above.

So this man who lost his nose in a duel over who was a better mathematician had a colorful personality. As this quote about Tycho Brahe construction of his observatory on the island of Hven…

Tycho hired a German architect and built his Uraniborg (castle of the heavens). It was surrounded by a square wall 250 feet on a side. It had an onion dome, like the Kremlin, but an Italianate palace facade. It had rooms for huge precision instruments, fantastic murals, a paper mill and printing press, an alchemist’s furnace, and a prison for tenants who caused problems. In the library, Tycho installed a brass globe five feet in diameter he had made for him in Augsburg. This was a highly polished accurate sphere, and the positions of the stars were engraved on it as they were measured over a twenty-five year period. In Tycho’s study, a quadrant was built into the wall itself, with a mural of Tycho painted on to the wall.

The quadrant was centered on an open window through which the observations were made. Several clocks were used simultaneously to try to time the observations as precisely as possible–an observer and a timekeeper worked together. His very large staff and several sets of equipment permitted four independent measurements of the same thing simultaneously, greatly reducing the possibility of error. The precision of measurements, which had held at ten minutes of arc since Ptolemy, was reduced at Uraniborg to one minute of arc. The observatory was full of gadgets—statues turned by hidden mechanisms, and he had a system of bells he could ring in any room to summon assistants. There was a constant stream of distinguished visitors: princes, savants, courtiers, even King James VI of Scotland. The hard-drinking Tycho threw tremendous feasts for his visitors, at which occasionally silence was ordered to listen to the musings of a dwarf called Jepp, whom Tycho believed had second sight. He also had a tame elk, which died one night stumbling downstairs after too much strong beer (I am not making this up). He had many children, but under Danish custom they were all considered illegitimate, because his wife was a peasant woman.

Meanwhile Tycho abused his tenants in an appalling fashion. He made them work and provide goods to which he was not entitled, and threw them in chains if they gave trouble. Unfortunately for Tycho, King Ferdinand died in 1588, of too much drink, as mentioned by Vedel in the funeral oration. The new young king, Christian IV, wrote several letters to Tycho which were unanswered, and Tycho flouted even the high court of justice by holding a tenant and all his family in chains. Finally, measures were taken to reduce Tycho’s income to more reasonable proportions, and as the years went by, Tycho was getting bored on the island, so in 1597, he got together his family, assistants servants, Jepp the dwarf and most of his equipment, and started to move across Europe in search of a suitable new place to set up an observatory. All his instruments could be dismantled and transported, because, he said, “An astronomer must be cosmopolitan, because ignorant statesmen cannot be expected to value their services” (The Sleepwalkers, p 299).

Yes, he kept a tame Elk, who enjoyed beer and a clairvoyant dwarf “under his table.”

He employed a little person called Jepp, who Brahe believed possessed psychic powers. Jepp was his court jester, and spent most dinners under the table.

He wore a copper, silver and gold fake nose, and seemed to be a hot headed big mouth.

There is also speculation that he was murdered.  From a 2010 article in Scientific American. Was Tycho Brahe poisoned? 16th-century astronomer exhumed–again  Tycho Brahe…

…collected some of the best observations of his day for the positions of celestial bodies in the sky, which his successor, Johannes Kepler, would later publish as The Rudolphine Tables. To top it off, Brahe died at age 54 after, as the story goes, he stayed at the table too long without relieving himself during a formal dinner, possibly bursting his bladder in the process.

That last legend may soon be challenged, as Brahe is being disinterred starting November 15 for analysis for the second time since he was buried in Prague in 1601. Testing on hair samples taken from Brahe’s tomb the first time, in 1901, showed an abnormally high mercury content in the astronomer’s body, raising the possibility that he had been poisoned. But Brahe may well have met his fate by less malicious means; for centuries medical practitioners applied mercury as a treatment for maladies such as syphilis. The 1890 biography of Brahe—written before the mercury test—noted that rumors of Brahe’s poisoning swirled after his death. But Dreyer dismissed such “silly” talk as “scarcely worth mentioning.”

The poison angle got a new look in 2004 in the book Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History’s Greatest Scientific Discoveries. Not only was Brahe poisoned, contended Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder, but all signs point to his famed protégé, Johannes Kepler, as the culprit. (Kepler’s motive would have been to get hold of Brahe’s tightly kept treasure of data.) But the astronomical community hardly turned on the esteemed Kepler—in a review of the book, Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth College wrote that the accusation “verges on the preposterous.”

The new exhumation is being led by medieval archaeologist Jens Vellev of Aarhus University in Denmark. Vellev told the Associated Press that he hoped to not only analyze Brahe’s mustache and hair, but also his bones. The group aims to learn more about Brahe’s health and medicinal intake and, just maybe, to find some new information about his untimely demise.

“Perhaps we will be able to come close to an answer,” Vellev told the BBC, “but I don’t think we will get a final answer to that question.”

Here is another article from 2010, this time from the New York Times, give the entire thing a read, here is a taste: Is Tycho Ready for His Close-Up?

It’s “Amadeus” meets “Da Vinci Code” meets “Hamlet,” featuring a deadly struggle for the secret of the universe between Tycho, the swashbuckling Danish nobleman with a gold-and-silver prosthetic nose, and the not-yet-famous Johannes Kepler, his frail, jealous German assistant. The story also includes an international hit man, hired after a Danish prince becomes king and suspects Brahe of sleeping with his mother (and maybe being his father!).

For comic relief, there’s a beer-drinking pet elk wandering around Tycho’s castle, as well as a jester named Jepp, a dwarf who sits under Tycho’s table and is believed to be clairvoyant.

And what about that investigation into Tycho’s death? Did Johannes Kepler Murder Tycho Brahe?

…the 1991 discovery of high levels of mercury present in Brahe’s body in the last few days of his life.  (As mercury is well known to be quite dangerous to humans, the discovery has in turn led to the belief that Brahe’s cause of death can be traced back to the kidneys rather than the bladder.)  For those who believe that Kepler killed Brahe, given the questionable story he offered, his physical proximity in Brahe’s final days, and his actions after Brahe’s death, the discovery of the mercury levels appeared to provide confirmation of a murder and even an indication of the murder weapon.

Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder, authors of Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe and the Murder Behind One of History’s Greatest Scientific Discoveries and promoters of the Kepler-as-murderer theory have suggested that there was a second, heavier and ultimately lethal dose of mercury given by Kepler, who would have had access to Brahe’s laboratory and chemicals.  However, the fact of mercury poisoning is not enough to convict Kepler.  Kepler could have been accidentally poisoned—it does happen, even today.  Brahe did deal with mercury and other chemicals in his experiments, and at the end he may have ingested mercury in the hope that it would cure him of the ailment that befallen him at the banquet.

Finally, there’s an even more thrilling plot proposed by Peter Andersen, who claimed that Brahe’s Swedish cousin, Erik Brahe, at the behest of the Danish king Christian IV.  While Tycho had enjoyed the blessing and support of the previous king of Denmark, who had provided Tycho with the island on which he had built his research institute, his fortunes reversed after the ascension of Christian IV, who had Tycho’s castle seized and destroyed.  This, in turn, prompted Tycho to seek the support of the Holy Roman Emperor at whose banquet he fell ill.  The exact cause behind Christian IV’s blatant hostility is unknown, but a popular rumor of the time was that Brahe had had an affair with Christian’s mother, posing a serious threat to Christian’s legitimacy and security as king. Indeed, Erik Brahe, a most dissolute and disreputable figure, met with Christian IV and other enemies of Tycho shortly before Tycho fell ill, and his presence in Tycho’s home in the final days of his life (especially after only having become familiar with Tycho earlier that year) and some very questionable entries in Erik’s diary around the time point to him as a potential suspect.

While Kepler certainly could have killed Tycho Brahe, it’s also possible that Brahe’s own cousin did the terrible deed. And, of course, it really could have been an accident, prompted by Brahe’s own overly acute sense of decorum.  In the absence of more convincing and definitive evidence, it may never be known if Kepler had a role in his superior’s downfall, or indeed if there was a role to be had at all.

I could not find any other information on the research into Tycho’s mysterious death. Personally I like the ending of this tale. It has everything a screen writer can sink their teeth into…and if anything it keeps the possibility of a sequel in the wings.

Oh yeah, I forgot, this is an open thread…

8 Comments on “Late Night open thread: Orangutans with iPads, a man without a nose, his pet moose and a clairvoyant dwarf”

  1. I had to have some kind of connection to dwarfs in a past life. That is the only explanation I have for my fascination of little people. Well, hope you like the tales of Tycho, what an interesting life he had.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I love this post, JJ. It’s so interesting! I will need to follow some of your links tomorrow. I’m pooped from doing the morning post.

  2. RalphB says:

    This is a hilarious column.

    Kale of Duty

    Why I choose to eat nothing but kale, ever, for the rest of my life.

    In case you’re not aware, kale—a bitter, cabbage-like vegetable often seen being swallowed by Gwyneth Paltrow—is now the only food worth the trouble of digesting. Kale sautéed with red wine vinegar and garlic. Kale salad, soaked in fresh lemon juice with toasted kale shavings and a side of kale. Where I grew up, “loaded nachos” referred to tortilla chips heaped with chili, cheese, sour cream, olives, and guacamole. In most parts of Los Angeles it means kale.

    • bostonboomer says:

      LOL! That is so funny. Personally I like kale in soup sometimes, but I prefer arugula.

    • bostonboomer says:

      DAY 5: Turbulence. I had a nightmare about kale and woke to see I’d soaked my sheets with green sweat. My cat left me.

      DAY 6: I broke down and ate entire chafing dishes of fried okra and sausage links at the Sizzler buffet. But after that I got right back on the wagon!

      OMG, I can’t stop laughing! How am I going to get to sleep?

    • Thanks for that link Ralph, that was hilarious!

  3. northwestrain says:

    Animal behavior research — my favorite reading. One conference I went to there was a presentation about spiders watching TV — and another showing video of ferrets and their ability to count. Then there is that great late African grey parrot Alex and all he was able to teach mere humans.

    California is a strange place — I say this as someone who has lived in California and has college degrees from the great California college system.