Monday, July 12, 2010

Paul the Psychic Octopus

We’re sad and yet glad that the World Cup is over. Sad because it was fun and exciting and we actually hung out more with friends than we have in months because we were always getting together to watch the game, and sharing it with pals worldwide through Twitter. Although the Netherlands-Spain final was the kind of shitty game that makes people who don’t like soccer continue to not like soccer, it wasn’t representative of the tourney as a whole. Sad because there was so much to see and ponder in “the beautiful game.”
But we’re also glad because things that are fun and exciting are the most fun and exciting when they come and go and leave you wanting more.
Of course, the breakout star of the Cup was not Ronaldo or Kaka or Messi but an unassuming mollusk whose psychic powers amazed the world. Yes, it was Paul The Psychic Octopus whose stunning 8-for-8 predictions have left scientists and sports fans reeling with questions regarding cephalopod intelligence, the possibilities of psychic powers, and tentacled understanding of the passing game and the offsides rule.
Housed in a German zoo, Paul correctly predicted all of the German team’s results — including their losses to Serbia and Spain — and Spain’s win over the Netherlands. His method of communicating his predictions to his keepers was a bit unorthodox — Paul would choose a tasty bit of oyster from one of two boxes, each adorned with the flags of the competing teams in each contest — but it worked. He surpassed the efforts of other would-be animal seers at the same zoo: Petty the pygmy hippo, Leon the porcupine and Anton the tamarin monkey all picked wrong in other games. A South American dolphin named Sayco announced his pick and the headline “Dolphin favors Argentina” but we all know how that turned out. Paul’s biggest rival, Mani the Parakeet, picked the Dutch squad in the final.

No, it was Paul who made headlines this time out — but his terrific run in the World Cup followed a lesser performance in the 2008 European Cup where he incorrectly picked Germany to beat Spain in the final.
So how did Paul do it? Octopi have the largest brain of any mollusk, and the limits of their brain capacity are still being studied — they can learn, use tools and recognize complicated patterns and devise cunning strategies for getting food. But they are color blind, leading skeptics to say Paul’s picks were base on the varying attractiveness of the national flags. Since there were only two choices, most say Paul’s picks are the result of random chance, like flipping a coin. But even octopus experts can’t say with certainty what really happened: