Why would anyone want to make a career out of studying the 25,000 different melodies of a tiny bird called the Bengalese finch? You might assume that the answer would rank high in the lists of heroic irrelevance. But you would be wrong.
Pet-owners who believe the animals which share their lives can "speak" through their barks or miaows are fooling themselves, scientists believe. The vocalisations of cats and dogs are innate and unlearned. But birds learn a song by listening to other birds and copying – much as a human baby learns. So studying how individual brain cells control birdsong could provide insights into the complex neural networks involved in human speech.
It will be a long way off, for bird syntax – even that of the most complex of songbirds, like the Bengalese finch – is much simpler than that of human speech. But it is a start on the road of discovery. How long it will be before even the most advanced science has the faintest inkling of the sense behind the syntax is another matter. We may never, for example, be able to work out the thought processes that lie behind the statement of an institution like the world football authority, Fifa. But scientists at Cern have for the first time trapped anti-matter. So perhaps there is even hope for, one day, comprehending Sepp Blatter.