Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cows, and Cows Again

When I was eleven or so, I read Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Many things about the book puzzled me, but one in particular bothered me a lot. No, not the substantive issues (slavery, the frontier as personal freedom, etc.). It was the cows. In Chapter 11, Huck dresses up as a girl and calls on a random woman to try to get information about Jim. The woman sees through his disguise, and then Huck tells her another story, part of which is that he's a country boy. She asks him some questions, one of which is this:

"If fifteen cows is browsing on a hillside, how many of them eats with their heads pointed in the same direction?"
"The whole fifteen, mum."
"Well, I reckon you have lived in the country. I thought maybe you was trying to hocus me again."

For years after, I studied cows in fields. They did not all eat with their heads pointed in the same direction. I was confused. Now, mumbly-mumbly decades later, science has taken up my confusion. A team of German and Czech scientists studied satellite photos of 8,510 cows standing in pastures around the world. They found that two-thirds had aligned their bodies in a north-south direction. Since this is more than would indicate chance, the scientists speculate that the magnetic poles have something to do with the bovine alignment.

Even so, Twain got it wrong. Only ten of those fifteen cows should have "had their heads pointed in the same direction." In fact, it might be fewer, since some animals in north-south alignment might have their rumps pointed at the other pole of the Earth. Now, I ask you -- if you can't trust great writers, who can you trust?


Mary Robinette Kowal said...

Maybe the fact that it's a hillside instead of a flat pasture is the clue?

Anonymous said...

I was about to mention the same possibility as Mary. Perhaps if the hillside has a significant slope the cows prefer to face up the hill, for instance?

Also, could the number of cows matter? Maybe once you get to fifteen cows they start with their herd behavior, moving as a group across a grazing area?

Oh, and hello Nancy. Long time lurker, first time posting. I really enjoyed "Beginnings, Middles and Ends". I may never actually write/publish myself, yet I still find that such illuminating books on writing actually enrich my reading experience. I noticed two others on the other day so I ordered those too. Thanks.

Nancy Kress said...

Thank YOU, Dellaster. I hope the writing books are of use to you.

I hadn't thought about these permutations of slope and cow numbers. And I'm sure Mike Flynn will eventually weigh in with some observation on statistics as well. Sometimes a cow isn't just a cow (apologies to Freud).

Are you enjoying your award, Mary? For those who didn't know, at Worldcon Mary Kowal won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer!

Mary Robinette Kowal said...

The award is fun, but the puppets don't appreciate it.

A quick survey of stock photos online show cows on a hill tending to face downhill. BUT this might be a self-selecting result because a photographer might find photos with cows looking in the same direction to be more pleasing.

Ann said...

That was interesting about cows. I told my husband that after oil peaks and we are traveling by wagon again we need to get a cow to replace OnStar.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

But they studied contemporary cows, Nancy. How do we know that when Huck Finn was written that the cows didn't graze differently than they do today?

S. F. Murphy

José Iriarte said...

"Now, I ask you -- if you can't trust great writers, who can you trust?"

You can trust mediocre writers. I'll always steer you right.

dellastar, listen to talk radio much? :-D

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Mary Kowal!

Joe Iriarte: not particularly. Did something about talk radio come up in a search of "dellastar"? ;)

I think I was also about eleven or twelve when I first read Huck Finn and that passage. I vaguely remember thinking that, oh well, I wasn't a country boy. There were plenty of cow pastures around my house -- I believe I looked through my bedroom window at the one across the street to see if the cows were facing one way. They weren't. But they also weren't on the hillside further away and there were only about a half dozen.

Apparently growing up semi-rural doesn't count towards being a real country boy.

Walt said...

Maybe cows don't like sun in their eyes.

g d townshende said...

If they've a preference for facing north/south, then I think they're magnetically charged. Who knew a cow could be a compass?

When I lived in England, I recall hearing an old wives' tale that you can predict the weather according to a cow's behaviour, that they tend to lie down when it's raining/going to rain, and stand when it's not. I never really did any 'scientific' sort of study to find out how true it is, though.

Gloeschi said...

It might have to do with sunlight. If you, as a cow (or horse) have the sun in your back, you cast your own shadow over the spot you are trying to eat from. If you face the sun, that doesn't happen. On a cloudy day, of course, it might not matter, so animals would face different directions.