Ancient Greek plays role in new science

Crow
Crow test shows that fable is more than just folklore from a 2009 study Photo: Christopher Bird/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Researcher's at the University of Cambridge have used an ancient fable as part of a scientific experiment .

The experiment is based on Aesop's Fable and scientists say it illustrates how children and crows learn about the world.

In the story by the ancient Greek a thirsty crow drops a stone into a jug of water. Eventually the water levels rise high enough for the crow to drink.

Studies - such as the one pictured above - have shown that crows really do understand Archimedes's principle. Faced with a food reward floating out of reach in a flask, they will select weighty objects over light ones to displace the water and bring the food within reach.

In the new study, scientists compared the ability of human children and jays - a type of crow - to perform similar tasks.

The experiments involved displacing water in tubes to obtain prizes or food rewards.

From age five to seven the children were no better than the jays, completing the tasks after about five tries. From eight years old onwards, they succeeded with their first try.

The results, published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE, show that children and crows go about problem solving in a different way, scientists said.

While the jays had to make sense of the task mechanism during their trial and error attempts, children were more driven by simple cause and effect.

The Aesop's fable paradigm provides an incredibly useful means by which to compare cause-effect learning with understanding of underlying mechanisms, ie folk physics.

We are planning on extending this paradigm to really try to understand what's going on in the heads of adults, children and animals when they deal with problems in the physical world."

– Study leader Lucy Cheke, Cambridge University