An Intimate Portrait of a Scientist: A Review of Alex & Me

Have you heard of Alex, the African Grey parrot who turned the world of animal cognition science on its head?  During his life, this bright bird was featured on several TV shows and in many magazines.  He  became  famous not only for his remarkable abilities - such as determining which objects were more numerous or bigger - but also for his feisty attitude and singular personality.

Alex & Meis the story of how Alex and his human, scientist Irene Pepperberg (also the book's author), fought an uphill battle to survive, gain funding, and be taken seriously. This short, well-written book is wonderful for two reasons.  First, it gives us insight into the very cutting-edge research that Pepperberg and her team were doing to learn about animal cognition.  Second, it tells Irene's own story of trying to gain a foothold in the scientific community as a woman (beginning her career in the 1970s), and as someone with brand-new ideas that could be substantiated by data, but that didn't fit in with the generally-accepted beliefs in biology at the time.  Pepperberg is shown to be a true maverick - someone who pursued her passions despite the resistance she encountered, and whose dedication nudged animal science in a much more honest, less dogmatic, direction.

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(Not really a) spoiler alert: Alex the bird passed away in 2007.  The book begins with this, and with Irene's great sadness at the loss of her research bird and friend.  But this sadness leads her to reflect on how Alex's life and accomplishments enriched her own life, the lives of all the research staff who worked with him, and, ultimately, the knowledge base we have about how birds think.

This is a must-read for anyone with an interest in animal behavior science!  If you are a bird fan, you will also really enjoy this one.  Finally, if you are thinking of going into any of the sciences, this book will give you a close-up view of the tribulations and triumphs of having a great idea but needing the funds to support it.  Pepperberg's story of perseverance is at times humorous and at others poignant.  But ultimately, it is inspiring.

Recommended in particular for gals in 10th-12th grades!