Bird Fact Friday – Do birds have a prefrontal cortex?

From page 26 of Bird Brain:

In the mammalian brain, the prefrontal cortex is a center of intelligence—it has a role in personality, self-awareness, problem-solving, and in executive functions such as planning, flexibility, and working memory. In birds, scientists have determined through studies of behavior, neural connectivity, and neurochemistry that the caudolateral part of the nidopallium (NCL) is the avian equivalent of the prefrontal cortex. Even pigeons are known to achieve executive functions traditionally attributed to the prefrontal cortex, including working memory, planning, flexible thinking, and attending to objects of interest.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Announcing Britain’s Birds

BirdsWe’re thrilled to announce the release of Britain’s Birds, an essential addition to any birder’s collection.  This user-friendly guide for beginner and experienced birders includes comprehensive coverage of every bird recorded in Britain and Ireland, distribution maps and migration routes, as well as a wealth of tips for identifying birds in the wild. To learn more about the book, listen to a podcast the authors recorded with Talking Naturally, and watch the trailer for a glimpse of the beautiful full color interior. Put together by a group of life-long birders, the book is comprehensive, practical, and full of color images of every plumage you are likely to see in the UK.

 

 

 

The team behind Britain’s Birds:

Rob Hume, a freelance writer and editor for 35 years and editor of RSPB publications from 1983 to 2009, was Chairman of the British Birds Rarities Committee, and has led wildlife holidays in the UK, Europe and Africa. Robert Still, co-founder and publishing director of WILDGuides, is an ecologist and widely travelled naturalist. Andy Swash has been involved professionally in nature conservation since 1977 and is managing director of WILDGuides. A renowned photographer, he leads photographic tours worldwide, and has devised, co-authored and edited many books. Hugh Harrop founded the ecotourism business Shetland Wildlife and is one of Shetland’s top birders and naturalists. His award-winning photographs have been published throughout Europe and North America. David Tipling, one of the world’s most widely published wildlife photographers, is author or commissioned photographer for many books and writes regularly for leading wildlife and photographic magazines.

Bird Fact Friday – What do we know about the bird brain?

From page 22 of Bird Brain:

Despite more than 100 years of study, we know very little about the structure and function of the avian brain. There are approximately 10,000 species of birds, all with different brain architectures. What we do know about the avian brain is restricted to a few species: the pigeon, the domestic chick, and a few songbirds. None of these species figure in the list of world’s smartest birds. With more research, we will gain a deeper understanding of avian intelligence.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Digital Keyword: Culture

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Culture is a keyword among keywords for Raymond Williams, who contributed to the founding of cultural studies in the 1960s and 1970s. It is among the most common ways to talk about how we talk. In the essay below, one of Williams’ most careful readers, Ted Striphas, offers a sensitive update to Williams and a wide-ranging intellectual history, describing how culture has coevolved with the digital turn since the end of World War II. No longer an antithesis to technology, culture has recently interpenetrated with the computational (e.g., digital humanities, culturomics, and big-data-driven cultural studies).

In fascinating conversation with Fred Turner’s prototype and Limor Shifman’s meme, in what sense do aspects of modern-day digital culture challenge and confirm Striphas’ observation about the dynamism and adaptability of culture—or, in Williams’ famous phrase, “one of two or three most complicated words in the English language?”

Ted Striphas: Culture

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

A closer look at Zika

RoossinckThroughout Latin America and the Caribbean, Zika has been a reality for months, and now the continental United States is beginning to feel the impact. Given the potential for devastating birth defects, concern about rampant spread of the disease has been significant in recent months. Many experts now say Zika probably won’t spread in Rio this month, and transmission in the U.S. is likely to be offset by mosquito control. And yet, much remains unknown about the disease.

In Virus by Marilyn J. Roossinck, forthcoming later this month, the Zika virus is described as a linear, single component, single-stranded RNA of about 11,000 nucleotides, encoding ten proteins via a polyprotein. It is in the flaviviridae family and the flavivirus genus and tends to proliferate in tropical and subtropical climates south of the equator. Transmitted via mosquitos, it finds hosts in humans and other primates. Associated diseases include a mild fever and rash, with possible links to microcephaly and Guillain Barre syndrome. We do not yet have a vaccine.

Zika was first discovered in a Rhesus monkey and in mosquitos during routine surveillance of the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947 and 1948. The first human case of Zika was described in 1952, and over the course of the next few decades cases were seen in parts of central Africa, and later in Asia. Zika reached Brazil in 2015.

In the image below, Zika virus particles are in infected cells, viewed via transmission electron microscopy. The structured virus particles are colored in blue. Like other related viruses, the membrane proteins form a geometric structure.

Zika

Zika, p. 95

Virus by Marilyn Roossinck takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the history and current research on known viruses from around the world.

Marilyn J. Roossinck is professor of virus ecology in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University. She lives in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

Bird Fact Friday – Why do birds have a reputation for lack of intelligence?

We have officially concluded our Firefly Fact Friday feature. Thanks to everyone who commented on and shared the series! This week, we’re bringing back Bird Fact Friday with a fun tidbit from one of our newest titles in Birds & Natural History. Check this space every week for a new fact from Bird Brain by Nathan Emery.

From page 17 of Bird Brain:

Nathan Emery argues that birds are not as dimwitted as has been previously thought—in fact, many of them exhibit remarkable intelligence. This ill-founded assumption can be traced back to a comparative anatomist of the 19th century by the name of Ludwig Edinger. In an encyclopedia of animal brains, Edinger posited that bird brains are composed largely of the striatum, the part of the brain responsible for instinctual or species-typical behavior, with little or no areas responsible for thinking, such as the cortex. He believed that if the bird brain evolved from the striatum, then birds should not be capable of thought. Edinger’s ideas held sway well into the twentieth century despite studies on bird intelligence that contradicted his hypothesis.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Digital Keyword: “Algorithm”

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Tarleton Gillespie demystifies the many uses of the recent keyword algorithm, on loan from Arabic. It is at once a trick of the trade for software programmers, a synecdoche standing in for entire informational systems and their stakeholders in popular discourse, a talisman used by those stakeholders for evoking cultural authority and avoiding blame (e.g., to blame “Facebook’s algorithm” can implicitly shift responsibility away from the company that designed it), and shorthand for the broader sociocultural shift toward, as Gillespie argues, “the insertion of procedure into human knowledge and social experience.”

In rich conversation with Ted Striphas’ essay on culture and Stephanie Ricker Schulte’s essay on personalization, Gillespie clarifies and multiplies the ways the current media environment extends a larger bureaucratic revolution central to modernity.

Tarleton Gillespie: Algorithm

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Sara Lewis: Why we must keep the fires of the magical firefly burning

Once upon a time, fireflies were abundant throughout Japan. For more than 1,000 years, these glowing harbingers of summer shone brilliantly through the fabric of Japanese culture, which celebrated them in poetry and art. During the late 1800s, hundreds of city dwellers journeyed to the countryside to view their dazzling displays. In 1902, Lafcadio Hearn, the acclaimed English-language author and interpreter of Japanese culture, described this summertime spectacle:

Myriads of fireflies dart from either bank, to meet and cling above the water. At moments they so swarm together as to form what appears to the eye like a luminous cloud, or like a great ball of sparks.

Sometimes, when many fireflies gathered together, they all glowed slowly on then off again in unison, as if the air itself was breathing. Yet within just a few decades, these beloved insects would be nearly extinguished from the Japanese countryside.

Best-known among Japan’s 50 different firefly species is the Genji firefly, Luciola cruciata. With its fast-flowing rivers and streams, Japan provides ideal habitats for this firefly, whose life cycle is intimately tied to water. Females lay their eggs along mossy riverbanks, and newly hatched larvae crawl down into the water. As juveniles, these aquatic fireflies spend several months underwater, feasting on freshwater snails. Eventually, the young fireflies crawl back onto land, before metamorphosing into the familiar adults. As forerunners of early summer, Genji fireflies’ lime-green lights float silently over the water, mysterious and otherworldly.

Why did they fade away into glowing ghosts? Although Japanese fireflies faced many hazards, perhaps the most destructive was overharvesting, followed by habitat degradation.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), the popular summer pastime of firefly-watching segued into commercial firefly harvesting. Live fireflies were in vogue, and people were willing to pay good money to enjoy their luminous beauty closer to home. Setting up shop in prime firefly locations, firefly wholesalers hired dozens of local firefly hunters. A single skilled hunter could bag up to 3,000 wild fireflies per night, working sunset to sunrise. In the morning, shop owners carefully packaged up the night’s catch and dispatched cages full of live fireflies to clients in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, where the insects were released into hotel, restaurant and private gardens so that city dwellers might enjoy their brightly glowing show.

Japanese fireflies, harvested for their beauty, were being loved to death. As the demand for live fireflies grew, wild populations began to decline. Apparently no one cared that, once harvested, adult fireflies survived only a week or two; when they died, they were just replaced with freshly harvested new ones. And apparently no one cared that firefly hunters indiscriminately harvested not just the males, but also the precious egg-laying females, thereby extinguishing the only hope fireflies had to replenish their own populations. At the same time, rapid industrialisation and urban development led to the degradation of the fireflies’ natural habitat, as industrial effluent, agricultural runoff and household sewage flowed freely into rivers. River pollution curtailed the survival of the aquatic juveniles, and killed off their snail prey.

By the early 1920s, people took notice of the fact that firefly populations around Japan were thinning out. In response, the Japanese government in 1924 established the first National Natural Monument, providing legal protection for the Genji firefly habitat. Local communities undertook municipal projects to clean up their rivers, while commercial harvesting of wild fireflies was regulated, then banned altogether. Numerous private citizens attempted to raise the aquatic fireflies in captivity, using trial and error to coddle them through each life stage. Once these artificial breeding programmes determined how to rear large numbers of firefly larvae, they were reintroduced into rivers to bolster dwindling natural populations. While Japanese fireflies have never been restored to their former glory days, a predictably sad saga was transformed into a conservation success story by an impressive combination of national, local and private efforts. Now, Genji fireflies have become a symbol of national pride and Japanese environmentalism.

So what lessons can the United States take from this Japanese tale?

For nearly half a century, fireflies in the US were also harvested – this time, though, it was for their chemicals. Beginning around 1960, what’s now the Sigma-Aldrich chemical company of St Louis in Missouri extracted light-producing chemicals from fireflies that had been harvested from wild populations. Sigma enlisted thousands of collectors, across 25 Midwestern and Eastern states, to collect and process more than 3 million fireflies every summer. After extracting the firefly chemicals, the company marketed bioluminescence kits that were widely used in medical research and food-safety testing.

Fortunately for fireflies, in 1985 scientists developed synthetic versions of these chemicals that are both cheaper and more reliable, obviating the need to harvest wild fireflies. Yet near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a mysterious gentleman named Dwight Sullivan was, even as recently as 2014, still paying collectors who harvested more than 40,000 wild fireflies that summer.

North America has more than 120 different firefly species. Some are abundant and widespread; others are rare, with restricted distributions. Surely we have plenty of fireflies! I suppose the Japanese thought so, too. And US fireflies are also threatened by habitat degradation, as well as by light pollution and pesticide use.

The first lesson is that fireflies are not an inexhaustible resource. We need to ban their commercial harvesting as an unjustifiable activity that exploits our shared natural heritage.

The second lesson is the need for habitat protection, specifically where species of particular cultural, ecological or economic interest live. Worldwide, that includes not just the Genji fireflies of Japan, but also the congregating mangrove fireflies of Thailand and Malaysia, and the winter fireflies of Taiwan. Right now, firefly ecotourism for two distinctive US species is escalating: the unique Blue Ghost fireflies (Phausis reticulata) found in DuPont State Forest in North Carolina, among other places, and the synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Japan has now designated 10 national monuments around the country that legally protect firefly habitats. In both Thailand and Malaysia, firefly sanctuaries have recently been established along mangrove rivers to safeguard prime sites for firefly ecotourism. In Taiwan, two firefly species enjoy legal habitat protection. In 2014, China set up a firefly preserve outside of Nanjing. Yet in the US, fireflies have no special protection.

If other countries can do it, why can’t the US – proactively setting aside just a few places where fireflies now thrive? Working with local, state and national conservation organisations, we can start by establishing firefly sanctuaries and management plans for existing ecotourist sites. We could also identify and protect biodiversity hotspots known to support many different firefly species.

We all dream about the kind of world that we want our children to inherit. Now is the time to work together to preserve for future generations these brilliant emissaries of nature’s magic.

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

Sara Lewis is a professor of biology at Tufts University. Her latest book is Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies (2016). She lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Firefly Fact Friday – How fireflies are beautiful—and useful

Just in time for Firefly Fact Friday, a new adapted excerpt from Silent Sparks over at Ideas.Ted.com tells us how fireflies can actually be beneficial to the health of humans:

Firefly light isn’t just useful to fireflies. Before electricity, of course, firefly light had many uses. I’ve heard oldsters around the world tell stories about gathering fireflies to use at night for reading, for biking and for walking along forest paths. But scientific discoveries about the chemistry behind firefly bioluminescence have paved the way for even wider practical applications. Fireflies’ light-producing talent has provided invaluable tools for improving public health, for facilitating innovative research, and for advancing medical knowledge.

Lewis goes on to describe how the food industry has long used fireflies’ light reaction to detect food contamination, and have also helped scientists develop new forms of noninvasive imaging to see what’s happening inside living organisms.

Read the full piece online

Silent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

Digital Keyword: “Participation”

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Christopher Kelty’s broad-minded and brilliant essay on participation is a welcomed participant in the Digital Keywords volume. It both intellectually broadens as well as analytically tightens the contemporary understanding of that classic concept and near constant discussion of it online. Marshaling together insights ranging from Parmenides to Polanyi, Kelty offers insights such as how participation proves a boundary function, excluding at the same time it constitutes community, democracy, and sharing, three towering keywords covered elsewhere in the volume by Rosemary Avance, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, and Nicholas A. John.

If, as Kelty clarifies, to participate is to belong but not always voluntarily, what does it mean to participate in public life?

Christopher Kelty: Participation

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Digital Keyword: “Hacker”

This post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

digital keywords peters jacketGabriella Coleman critiques the stereotype of a hacker as a white male libertarian. In its place, and through a rich history of its varied sources and expressions, she uncovers an underlying hacker commitment to what she calls “craft autonomy,” or the freedom to do technical work that motivates contemporary classes of computing experts. In this, Coleman’s essay engages in productive conversation with Christina Dunbar-Hester’s equally superb essay on geeks, Adam Fish’s mirror, and John Durham Peters’ cloud in the computer classes.

Hackers, among other actors in the technical classes, are not as we may have thought.

Gabriella Coleman: Hacker

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Emperor Nero and the “unteachability of mankind”

the emperor nero barrett jacketAncient Rome has long been a source of fascination and enjoys a significant presence in popular culture, though in film and fiction, the life depicted is often highly romanticized. In their new book The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources, Anthony Barrett, Elaine Fantham, and John Yardley use source material to examine the life of one of Rome’s more notorious and extravagant figures: murderer, tyrant, and likely madman Emperor Nero. The book offers a comprehensive history of Nero’s personal life in the context of historical events that happened during his rule, such as the great fire of Rome. The three authors recently answered some questions on the enduring allure of Rome and in Nero.

There seems to be considerable popular interest in ancient Rome at the moment. Can you explain this?

AB & EF & JY: This is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Interest in antiquity does seem to have waned during the middle ages, but it enjoyed a vigorous revival with the renaissance, beginning on the fifteenth century, and that interest has never died away. That said, we do seem to be particularly fascinated by the ancient world at the moment. It may be that modern life, so utterly dependent on machines and technology, where so many of our daily transactions are conducted through the computer, without human contact, has created a void, and a general attachment to the past, when life seemed so much more interesting and romantic, is one of the things that we use to fill it. Within the general area of antiquity, the Romans have particular appeal, for the West at least, perhaps because their empire represents the first manifestation of a global superpower, governed by people who are in many respects so different from us, yet, in their ambitions and their motivations, are strikingly similar to us. There are in addition two fortuitous factors. One is that the traditional birth of Christ occurred at the time of the birth of the Roman empire. The over-towering place of the Christ story in the thought of the West has by association kept the Roman empire in our consciousness. Also, at a mundane level, Rome just lends itself well to film and television, with its rich use of imagery and symbols to convey the phenomenon of power. As a consequence, some of the most popular cinematic spectacles, from Quo Vadis, to Spartacus, to Ben Hur, to Gladiator have Rome as their setting and inspiration.

There is a general fascination with Roman Emperors, but Nero seems to attract more attention than most. Why do you think that is?

AB & EF & JY: That is a undoubtedly true. Basically, people find villains engrossing. We may admire Mother Teresa or Saint Francis of Assisi, but for most of us the Jack the Rippers and Vlad the Impalers of this world are far more compelling and entertaining characters. Nero has a special reputation for villainy, and a number of factors have come together to foster that reputation. Perhaps first and foremost, he appears in the Christian tradition as the Antichrist, the first emperor to persecute the Christians after their supposed role in the Great Fire. And he is traditionally blamed for the martyrdoms of the two earliest great champions of the Christian cause, Saints Peter and Paul. We also have reasonably detailed accounts of Nero from three ancient authors, Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio, which ensures a rich store of anecdotes. These anecdotes may be of highly dubious validity, but that does not prevent them from being vastly entertaining. Additionally, Nero was not only cruel, other emperors were no less so, but he disgraced himself in Roman eyes by his public performances on the stage and on the racecourse, providing yet another store of irresistible anecdotes. Finally, there is the simple chance fact that a combination of larger-than-life historical events, which have provided themes for generations of writers and artists over the centuries, occurred during his reign: the murder of his mother, the Great Fire of Rome, the rebellion of Boudica, his melodramatic yet tawdry suicide. Caligula, with a similarly villainous reputation, for similar sorts of reasons, comes a close second, but Nero gets the top billing.

There is a popular belief that Nero was mad. Is that your conclusion too?

AB & EF & JY: Defining and identifying madness is a difficult process, and the tag of ‘mad’ is used loosely to cover anything from wacky eccentricity to severe mental illness. Assessing someone’s psychological state is a great challenge; it is striking that experts who testify in court proceedings after lengthy one-on-one interviews and full access to the patient’s clinical history are often met with scepticism, even ridicule. Thus one has to be even more wary about trying to assess the mental state of someone who lived two thousand years ago and whose conduct is known from incomplete records, produced well after the fact by writers who are hostile to their subject and as often as not relish the prospect of telling the lewdest and most outrageous anecdotes they can amass. It would be dangerous to make broad statements about Nero’s mental health. His conduct does seem to be outrageous at times, but we have to remember that he was only sixteen when he was thrust overnight into a position of enormous power, surrounded by fawning toadies willing to applaud his each and every act. It is probably little wonder that he behaved at times like a spoilt teenager.

There is perhaps one troublesome pattern detectable throughout his adult life that does seem to point to something disturbing. Nero seems to have had a tendency to fall under the spell of powerful women, and his ultimate response to their dominance was invariably a violent one, thus he murdered his mother Agrippina and he reputedly kicked to death his wife Poppaea. He also had a supposed proclivity for look-alikes of these powerful women, using courtesans and actresses (essentially powerless females) to impersonate them. The stories might be fabrications, of course, but the fact that they form a repeated pattern gives them an aura of authenticity. Perhaps something of interest there for the psychologists.

Academics who write about ancient history seem to be more interested in the sources than in the actual events. Can you explain this?

AB & EF & JY: No history, of any period, can be a perfectly accurate record of events. The instant we report on the past our reports are contaminated by the social and intellectual baggage that as historians we carry into the discussion. But for the history of much of the world in recent centuries we do have a considerable body of archives and material records that makes possible a fairly reliable reconstruction of past events. As a broad principle the further back we go, the more tenuous the records. This does not always hold true: we have, for instance, fairly detailed accounts of the Rome in the last century BC, but have very sketchy information about the early middle ages from the fifth century AD on. But as a general broad principle, the historian of a period of history separated from our own is going to face enormous difficulties. The records are in most cases lost or fragmentary, and the contemporary accounts make no pretence of the principled search for the truth that we expect of modern historians. Consequently it is often difficult for the students of ancient history to reconstruct even a reliable outline of events, let alone identify broad historical development. It is admittedly the case that for the Julio-Claudian period we are relatively fortunate, and can draw on the accounts of a number of ancient writers. Yet the material that they have preserved is often inconsistent and even contradictory, and at times reaches levels of absurdity that beggar belief. For much of Nero’s reign we would be hard put to say in which city he was present at any given time, in whose company he passed his time, how he spent the large part of his day. As a consequence as historians we have to spend much time and effort in an attempt simply to work out what was happening. The narrative of past events can be a stimulating and exciting one, but first of all we must work out how to put a reliable version of that narrative together.

What is the main thing that Nero can teach us today?

AB & EF & JY: It is always risky to draw close analogies between events that happen in widely separated periods that have different social and political contexts. That said, it is possible to discern some identifiable common themes that seem to run throughout human history. Perhaps the main thing that Nero teaches us, ironically, is what Churchill called the confirmed unteachability of mankind. In AD 37 the Roman world, including its governing classes, embraced with gusto a youthful and almost totally unknown emperor who had no proven talent for government and virtually no experience of it. His qualifications seem to have consisted exclusively of a general affability and good family connections. This youthful emperor was Caligula, and his subsequent reign was a disaster. Less that 20 years later, in AD 54, Rome went through almost the same scenario, when an even younger and even less experienced Nero was enthusiastically greeted as the new emperor, because of those very same personal qualities, family connections and an amiable manner. It is unsurprising that the net result was quite similar, but it does seem surprising, even astonishing, that Romans had not learned at all from their previous experience. But, as Churchill seemed to have perceived, that reason may derive from a basic flaw in our make-up. The concept of ‘never again’ has a brief shelf-life in the store of human experience.

Anthony A. Barrett is professor emeritus of classics at the University of British Columbia. His books include Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome. Elaine Fantham is the Giger Professor of Latin, emerita, at Princeton University. Her books includeRoman Literary Culture: From Plautus to Macrobius. John C. Yardley is professor emeritus of classics at the University of Ottawa. His books include Alexander the Great: Historical Sources in Translation. All three recently collaborated on The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources.