Move the chess piece. Slam the stop clock. Move the chess piece. Slam the stop clock. Lots of us have watched a game of speed chess (sometimes called ''blitz chess'') in awe.
How do master chess players, with only five minutes each to make 40 moves, make so many right ones? Or should that be: How do they avoid making so many wrong moves?
An answer comes from Michigan State University psychology professor Bruce Burns, who recently analyzed the results of 13 speed-chess tournaments conducted over 13 years.
Apparently what the really good players do when they don't have the time to look five or six moves ahead -- something they can do in normal chess tournaments where games can last for hours -- is rely on their intuition. The masters simply sense, maybe based on experience, what a good move might be and then make it.
While this seems fairly obvious, the statistical analysis Prof. Burns has done suggests that even when they aren't playing speed chess, four-fifths of a master player's winning ways may be based on his or her capacity to recognize good moves intuitively. The intuitions are so accurate that simply comparing the general chess rankings of two expert blitz players can tell you who is going to win almost all the time.
But the research has also turned up an odd fact. When lesser players compete against one another, ranking doesn't make it very clear who will win. This suggests that neither player is particularly intuitive when it comes to picking the right moves. It also raises the question as to whether intuition is innate, or whether there is a psychological moment when sufficient experience turns amateurish chess players turn into gut-instinct masters.
In the news
Nature apparently doesn't much respect endangered species. A lethal but natural strain of soil bacteria has attacked the kakapo parrots that live on a couple of islands off the coast of New Zealand. Three of the 86 parrots have been killed, forcing authorities to give antibiotics to the remaining birds.
Trying to avoid a planetary big bang, the European Space Agency is giving priority to the Don Quixote mission, a proposed study of ways to deflect or blow up an asteroid headed toward Earth. The mission would be to crash a spacecraft into the asteroid to see how the impact alters the asteroid's structure and direction.
Think of it as anti-hibernation. Migrating white crown sparrows apparently sleep only a third as much as usual as they move between Alaska and Southern California. But during much of the time they are dozing, they enter into deep REM sleep. Scientists learned this not by looking at the migrating birds, but by studying the hard-wired behaviours of their caged relatives.
Ever hurt your fingers trying to scoop out servings from solid bricks of ice cream? A U.S. company has come up with a scoop whose Teflon-coated head is heated to 25 Celsius, supposedly enough to make the EZ Scoop slice through anything Haagen Daz has come up with.
On the Web
A murmuration of starlings. A clowder of cats. An intrusion of cockroaches.
Ah, is there anything more delightful than animal collectives? Most of them reflect an older time when English-language biology was more flowery and evocative.
At www.anapsid.org/beastly.html, there is a collection of not just several hundred plurals, but also of sounds made by animals and the names given to their young. When it comes to sounds, think a linnet's chuckle and a hummingbird's jug-lug. As to the young, consider eel elvers and jellyfish ephyras.
But it is the plurals that resound. A rumpus of baboons. A quiver of cobras. Hmm, wonder what the terms would be for some familiar occupations? A consultation of doctors? A libel of journalists?