Pavlov's cockroaches

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Any adult who has ever attended the final of a school science competition knows it can be a humbling experience.

The young prodigies at these events seem to be operating light years beyond our own experience of school science. Bewildering displays of laser technology and computer models leave an older genration hankering for a more innocent era of Bunsen burners and cornflake packets.

But it seems the low-tech approach to science is not dead yet. Step forward "cockroach boy", aka Tristan Williams from New Mexico in the United States, whose winning entry in his home state's science competition suggests all may not be lost.

After reading that US customs drug-sniffer dogs cost $2,000 (pound;1,250) to train, Trisan remembered reading about a cockroach that could not only sniff but also hiss. Why not get the cockroaches to hiss when they sniffed drugs?

He ordered some hissing cockroaches by mail order, bought a strong-smelling felt-tip pen, and then embarked on a classic Pavlovian experiment - prodding a cockroach to make it hiss while at the same time giving it a sniff of the pen. After a few dozen repetitions the more brainy cockroaches had caught on, and were hissing merely at the smell of the pen. Total cost? $30. Not sure we fancy having our luggage rummaged by hissing cockroaches, though.

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