Tuesday, January 12, 2010 10:54 AM
When sopranos sing high notes in operas, they can be really hard to understand. To get the power they need to reach the operatic heights, the singers are forced to adjust their vocal tracts, which can make certain words extremely difficult to pronounce. In 2004, scientists tested opera singers and found a way to get that problem by pairing specific vowels with high notes, giving singers power and intelligibility.
More than 100 years earlier, Richard Wagner seemed to understand this concept without the help of science. According to Seed, scientists have found a statistically significant correlation between the vowels Wagner wrote for high notes and the ones scientists identified as preferable for singing. Wagner’s skills developed over time, too, suggesting that he had a scientific understanding of the way voices work that even he wouldn’t have been able to communicate. According to Seed:
Just as Jackson Pollock incorporated fractals into his splatter paintings, Wagner seems to have used vowel-pitch matching in his operas—a concept that scientists wouldn’t formally explain for well over a century.
To hear Wagner's scientific understanding in action, watch a clip from Die Walküre below:
Image by bmann, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, November 09, 2009 3:06 PM
In just four years, everyone on earth may be an author. When books were the dominant form of publishing, a small minority of the world’s population had their words published. Now, Twitter, Facebook, and social networking sites are making authors into the majority. From the year 1400 to 2000, according to in Seed, the number of published authors rose by tenfold every century. For the past decade, authorship has grown by tenfold every year. Eventually, the authors predict that everyone on earth will be published.
Near-universal authorship is changing society, Pelli and Bigelow write. People are “trading privacy for influence,” and businesses and governments are being forced to adapt to the power that individuals now wield. People who fret about illiteracy throughout the world may soon extend their concern to people who can’t publish.
That concern is misguided, Albert Jay Nock writes for the American Conservative. Universal literacy creates near-universal mediocrity in literature, according to Nock. Teaching the world to read creates a market for schlock that forces worthwhile literature out of the market. In the article, which is fittingly behind a paywall, Nock writies:
The average literate person being devoid of reflective power but capable of sensation, his literacy creates a demand for a large volume of printed matter addressed to sensation; and this form of literature, being the worst in circulation, fixes the value of all the rest and tends to drive it out.
Nock laments mass literacy for the bad writing it creates. He should prepare for mass authorship.
Source: Seed, American Conservative (subscription required)
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UPDATE: We tried to reach Albert Jay Nock for a comment, but found the conversation a trifle one-sided. Indeed, Nock has been dead for more than half a century. We regret the error.
Saturday, August 22, 2009 11:49 AM
There are two types of people in the world: people who are automatically honest and those who aren’t. An article in Seed magazine explains that researchers are using brain scans to determine which parts of the brain are involved when people lie. For some people, the decision to tell the truth takes no extra brain activity. For others, “both deciding to lie and deciding to tell the truth required extra activity in the areas of the brain associated with critical thinking and self-control.” The article refers to these two types of people as automatically “honest” and “dishonest,” but does not make any estimates of what percentage of people belong to which category.
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Friday, June 12, 2009 3:48 PM
Cooking food is the defining activity that makes us human, according to Harvard biological anthropologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham. In an interview with Seed, Wrangham says that cooking food makes it easier to digest calories, which may have led to our evolutionary dominance over other species. It has also created a system of ownership, where food is saved and owned, rather than eaten straight off the vine like monkeys.
This ownership society also led to our societal system of marriage, according to Wrangham, where dominant males do “manly” things, like hunt, pillage, and talk politics, while relying on females to cook the dinner. Marriage, Wrangham says, is essentially a “protection racket in which the woman is required to feed a man because of the threat of having her food taken by other men.”
No word from Wrangham on why cooking is such a male-dominated profession.
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Monday, May 18, 2009 3:22 PM
What is the point of babies? They’re almost entirely dependent on other people for survival, so much so that they appear to be an evolutionary hindrance, rather than a benefit. Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby, thinks she may have found the answer. In an interview with Seed magazine, Gopnik explains that “children are like the R&D department of the human species.”
There may be a tradeoff in the human mind between learning something and applying it, according to Gopnik. Adults are better able to apply knowledge, but babies are better suited for learning and imaging.
Watching children play in imaginary worlds, many scientists have assumed that babies are not as intelligent as adults. In fact, “Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities,” according to Gopnik. “It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both.”
Image by Mia Mae, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, March 02, 2009 10:38 AM
With 40 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages in danger of extinction, the recording of endangered languages is becoming ever more important to linguistic research. Anthony Kaufman previews for Seed the documentary The Linguists, which examines the global issue of language endangerment and loss. This PBS documentary features researchers K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, who are on a mission to locate speakers of rare languages and record them. Harrison and Anderson are amassing an online dictionary of remote languages, which includes sound files of native speakers. Interestingly, Anderson also cites technology like Youtube, text messaging, and chat rooms as increasingly popular ways for communities to share and thereby preserve endangered languages.
Sources: Seed, PBS, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Friday, February 27, 2009 11:54 AM
With 40 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages in danger of extinction, the recording of endangered languages is becoming ever more important to linguistic research. Anthony Kaufman previews for Seed the documentary The Linguists, which examines the global issue of language endangerment and loss. This PBS documentary prominently features two researchers who locate speakers of rare languages and record them: K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson, of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Harrison and Anderson are amassing an online dictionary of remote languages, which includes sound files of native speakers. Interestingly, Anderson also cites technology like Youtube, text messaging, and chat rooms as increasingly popular ways for communities to share and thereby preserve endangered languages.
Source: Seed, PBS, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Tuesday, February 24, 2009 4:15 PM
Natural history museums have traditionally measured their worth by the breadth of their physical collections. With all the digital projects that archive scientific information, these holdings may seem outdated or superfluous. Carl Zimmer thinks museums still have an important role to play in the future of science research and education, though, and writes for Seed about the importance of maintaining their real-world collections.
Digital projects like the The Encyclopedia of Life, which catalogues the work of natural history museums digitally, are evolving into stiff competition for museums. These digital resources are often less costly to maintain than regular museums, and they can sometimes reach larger audiences.
Zimmer hopes that the existence of resources like EOL won't discourage museums from taking care of their physical collections. He cites a recent case of an set of Neanderthal bones in a German museum: After languishing in storage for 150 years, scientists found them, took DNA samples, and were able to draw new insights about our evolutionary relationship to Neanderthals. Preserving physical museum collections, then, is not just a nod to the past, but a way of claiming “a stake in our future.”
Image courtesy of Christian Guthier, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009 9:40 AM
In his inauguration speech, President Obama promised that America will “restore science to its rightful place.” But what exactly does that mean? Several bloggers and columnists from around the web have weighed in on what the Obama administration can and should do to further scientific discovery and maintain the United States’ position as a leader in research and innovation.
In Seed Magazine, 49 Nobel Laureates wrote a letter outlining their plan for reinvigorating American science. The current economic bailout could represent “a vital investment in America's future,” the authors write, if some of that money goes to scientific projects and research.
Science education should be the focus for Obama
and his new secretary of education, Arne Duncan, according to Bill Allen at the Huffington Post. He calls for the support of both the government and citizens to make “America the country of the scientifically-literate and the mathematically-competent.”
Over at Princeton’s Freedom to Tinker blog, Ed Felton concentrates on the need for developing and strengthening cyber technology and security, as well as a bridge of communication between the government and scientific leaders in order to benefit both sectors.
As for Obama’s promise to use technology to improve health care, Scientific American interviewed Lawrence Baker (a professor of health policy at Stanford), who insists that “The most health care isn't always the best health care. Decisions about value is probably the key.” New developments are only part of the puzzle, using the right technology for the patient is another.
Monday, December 22, 2008 9:58 AM
Synesthesia is the source of near-endless fascination for neuroscientists. It’s “probably the sexiest neurological phenomenon around,” Michael Mays observed on Studio 360 last February. Synesthetic people tend to reflexively blend their senses together, seeing colors in response to music, for example, or link shapes with specific tastes.
A new study, highlighted by the New Scientist, documents the first known cases of an unusual form of synesthesia where textures blend with emotions. For these synesthetes, corduroy may produce confusion, while dry leaves might trigger disgust.
For the study, neuroscientists V.S. Ramachandran and David Brang tested their subjects twice over the span of eight months to confirm that they felt textures in emotionally specific ways. Their associations stayed the same throughout the tests: One woman described the sensation of sandpaper as “telling a white lie” in the first round of tests, and said she felt “guilty” after touching it the second time, “but not a bad guilt.”
The study follows only two subjects, so this particular form of synesthesia is likely rare, but it’s more than a curiosity. Neurologist Richard Cytowic estimates that 1 in 23 people experience some kind of synesthesia.
Ramachandran theorizes that synesthesia may be an evolutionary adaptation that helps people think creatively and metaphorically. He describes synesthetic experience as a spectrum, where nearly everyone has the ability to make some form of synesthetic connections. For example, he sees traces of tactile-emotional synesthetic thought in the widespread use of phrases like “sharp criticism” or a “rough night.” In fact, Ramachandran thinks that studying synesthesia could help explain some key milestones in human evolution, like the development of language.
Image courtesy of Djenan Kozic, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, October 30, 2008 11:13 AM
The field of institutions and public figures endorsing Barack Obama is getting really crowded, and it’s a motley assortment. Some fairly unlikely personalities are in the tank, including Christopher Buckley, Christopher Hitchens and Colin Powell, as well as conservative publications like the Record.
Spend a few minutes perusing the Wikipedia page listing Obama’s endorsements, and you might visualize a rowdy cocktail party whose guest list includes editors from nearly every major U.S. newspaper (including the Chicago Tribune, marking its first endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate in its 161-year history); hundreds of current and former governors, mayors, and legislators; CEOs, actors, rock stars, and authors; and even the plumbers’ union (presumably Joe the Plumber was not consulted since, well, he’s not a plumber).
The New Yorker provided a characteristically thorough endorsement of Obama. The New York Times argues for the relevance of newspaper endorsements. And there’s a nifty map illustrating the distribution of this year’s newspaper endorsements and comparing it with 2004’s.
Several cast members of HBO's The Wire are stumping for Obama. (Gbenga Akinnagbe, if he’s half as terrifying as the drug lieutenant he played on the series, will make a very compelling canvasser). An absolutely fabulous coterie of fashion designers has pledged allegiance. And ostensibly apolitical publications have weighed in, most recently the science magazine Seed.
Leading the ironic-endorsement pack is onetime McCain campaign advisor Charles Fried, whose decision to back Obama is partially due to McCain’s “choice of Sarah Palin at a time of deep national crisis” (via Talking Points Memo).
All of which begs the question: Who’s in poor old John McCain’s corner? The list of newspapers endorsing him is considerably shorter than Obama’s. There’s Steve Forbes, of course. And then there’s the small faction of Hollywood conservatives (say it ain’t so, Gary Sinise!).
Image courtesy of Philip (Flip) Kromer, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 18, 2008 12:06 PM
Even as a fifth grader, I knew better than to claim that gaming is educational when begging for a Nintendo game system. But video games have evolved exponentially over the past twenty years, becoming more sophisticated and sometimes educational. Today, gaming can teach not just kids, but scientists too.
Writing for Seed, Abbie Morgan looks at five video games, (Spore, Emotiv Systems’ EPOC Headset, Foldit, Immune Attack, and 3D Virtual Creature Evolution) which have each revolutionized and enhanced different areas of science. The games are intriguingly complex, especially the universe-building Spore, the latest offering by The Sims creator Will Wright. Seed has also posted a neat video of a conversation between Wright and astrobiologist Jill Tarter. Considering their applications in modern science, all five games profiled by Morgan could provide young gamers with good ammunition the next time they’re campaigning for more play time from their parents.
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Tuesday, July 22, 2008 1:44 PM
Jean Piaget defined “object permanence” as the awareness that objects still exist even when they are no longer visible. It seems to be mere common sense; it’s what makes peek-a-boo so boring to anyone who can tie a shoe. Infants’ lack of object permanence explains why they sometimes believe that you can't see them when they closes their eyes: out of sight, out of mind.
Or is it “out of mind, out of sight?” Common sense gets scientists only so far, Joshua Roebke points out in a recent article for Seed. The age-old, almost clichéd question of whether or not we create the world just by looking at it is receiving renewed attention from a group of scientists in Vienna. Passé? Maybe. But they’re actually getting somewhere.
Basically the scientists, including Anthony Leggett and Anton Zeilinger, are testing to see if the polarization of light exists before it’s measured. If it does, then reality is real. If not, then the way that humans view the world is called into question. Of course, there are no simple answers yet. To really understand what's going on in the lab, you’ll need to read the article. And even doing so will probably still leave you baffled. Words like “quantum,” “realism,” and “nonlocal hidden variables” are tossed around, seemingly assuming that we all took advanced physics within the last year.
Scientific theories that rub rough elbows with doctrine or dogma will always come full circle back to interpretation and ideology. But unlike controversial theories including the big bang or Darwinian evolution, the "Reality Tests" described in the Seed article aren’t a matter of history. The reality they test is here and now: the color of our couch and the physicality of our sons and daughters that are, well, threatened.
Take that, Piaget.
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Friday, March 14, 2008 4:48 PM
There’s an underwater land rush taking place around the globe. Last year, reports Seed, Russia made claims on a resource-rich section of the Arctic. Other nations have followed suit, pushing to extract resources from the area’s ocean waters. Meanwhile, mining concerns are planning to tap dense mineral deposits in hot-water vents, which are teeming with unknown fauna. And while plans for deep-sea extraction often include efforts to minimize environmental impact, Plenty reports online that scientists don’t understand deep-ocean ecosystems well enough to adequately anticipate problems.
All of this, says Seed, has led to increased internal pressure for the United States to join most of the world’s nations by ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The 1982 treaty puts the mid-ocean under international jurisdiction, ensuring a more careful approach to deep-sea mining. It also gives each country economic rights to its own continental shelf. Since the U.S. shelf is massive, domestic companies now have even more incentive to lobby for the environmentally friendly treaty, which up until now a few senators have blocked in the name of national sovereignty.
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