November 22, 2016
Our most beloved works of fiction hide well-trodden narratives. And most fictions is based on far fewer storylines than you might have imagined. To come to this conclusion, big data scientists have worked with colleagues from natural language processing to analyse the narrative in more than a thousand works of fiction. By deconstructing some of the magic of narrative in fiction books, they have also confirmed that there are six different, common ways of telling a story that can be found time and time again in popular stories. They were inspired by the work of US fiction author Kurt Vonnegut, who originally proposed the similarity of emotional story lines in a Masters’s thesis rejected by the University of Chicago. These findings have just been published in EPJ Data Science by Andrew Reagan from the University of Vermont, USA, and colleagues.
July 16, 2016
Nearly 80 percent of drivers expressed significant anger, aggression or road rage behind the wheel at least once in the past year, according to a new study released today by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The most alarming findings suggest that approximately eight million U.S. drivers engaged in extreme examples of road rage, including purposefully ramming another vehicle or getting out of the car to confront another driver.
“Inconsiderate driving, bad traffic and the daily stresses of life can transform minor frustrations into dangerous road rage,” said Jurek Grabowski, Director of Research for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Far too many drivers are losing themselves in the heat of the moment and lashing out in ways that could turn deadly.” Read more
July 8, 2016
Galaxies come in three main shapes – elliptical, spiral (such as the Milky Way) and irregular. They can be massive or small. To add to this mix, galaxies can also be blue or red. Blue galaxies are still actively forming stars. Red ones mostly are not currently forming stars, and are considered passive.
The processes that cause galaxies to “quench,” that is, cease star formation, are not well understood, however, and constitute an outstanding problem in the study of the evolution of galaxies. Now, using a large sample of around 70,000 galaxies, a team of researchers led by University of California, Riverside astronomers Behnam Darvish and Bahram Mobasher may have an explanation for why galaxies stop creating stars. Read more
July 27, 2015
The movies of Alfred Hitchcock have made palms sweat and pulses race for more than 65 years. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have now learned how the Master of Suspense affects audiences’ brains. Their study measured brain activity while people watched clips from Hitchcock and other suspenseful films. During high suspense moments, the brain narrows what people see and focuses their attention on the story. During less suspenseful moments of the film clips, viewers devote more attention to their surroundings.
“Many people have a feeling that we get lost in the story while watching a good movie and that the theater disappears around us,” said Matt Bezdek, the Georgia Tech postdoctoral psychology researcher who led the study. “Now we have brain evidence to support the idea that people are figuratively transported into the narrative. ”
In the study, participants lay in an MRI machine and watched scenes from 10 suspenseful movies, including Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” as well as “Alien” and “Misery.” As the movies played in the center of the screen, a flashing checker board pattern appeared around the edges.
The researchers discovered an ebb and flow of brain activity in the calcarine sulcus: the first brain area to receive and process most visual information.
When the suspense grew, brain activity in the peripheral visual processing areas of the calcarine sulcus decreased and activity in the central processing areas increased. For example, during the famous “North by Northwest” scene, the brain narrowed its visual focus as the airplane bore down on Cary Grant. When he hid in the cornfield and suspense decreased, the neural activity reversed course and attention broadened.
Essentially, when suspense is the greatest, our brains shift activity in the calcarine sulcus to increase processing of critical information and ignore the visual content that doesn’t matter.
“It’s a neural signature of tunnel vision,” said Georgia Tech’s Eric Schumacher, an associate professor in the School of Psychology. “During the most suspenseful moments, participants focused on the movie and subconsciously ignored the checker boards. The brain narrowed the participants’ attention, steering them to the center of the screen and into the story.”
The checker board pattern was used because neurons in the calcarine sulcus are typically attracted to that type of movement. By presenting the checker boards at all times, the researchers tested the idea that suspense temporarily suppresses the neuron’s usual response.
The calcarine sulcus wasn’t the only part of the brain sensitive to changes in suspense. The same was true for areas involved in higher-order visual areas involved in grouping objects together based on their color and how they’re moving.
The study is set to be published in the journal Neuroscience. What is the consequence of increasing processing during moments of high suspense? The researchers have additional research suggesting that it also leads to increased memory of story-related information.
December 10, 2014
UT Southwestern Medical Center microbiologists have identified key bacteria in the gut whose resources are hijacked to spread harmful foodborne E. coli infections and other intestinal illnesses.
Though many E. coli bacteria are harmless and critical to gut health, some E. coli species are harmful and can be spread through contaminated food and water, causing diarrhea and other intestinal illnesses. Among them is enterohemorrhagic E. coli or EHEC, one of the most common foodborne pathogens linked with outbreaks featured in the news, including the multistate outbreaks tied to raw sprouts and ground beef in 2014.
The UT Southwestern team discovered that EHEC uses a common gut bacterium called Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron to worsen EHEC infection. B. thetaiotaomicron is a predominant species in the gut’s microbiota, which consists of tens of trillions of microorganisms used to digest food, produce vitamins, and provide a barrier against harmful microorganisms.
“EHEC has learned to how to steal scarce resources that are made by other species in the microbiota for its own survival in the gut,” said lead author Dr. Meredith Curtis, Postdoctoral Researcher at UT Southwestern.
The research team found that B. thetaiotaomicron causes changes in the environment that promote EHEC infection, in part by enhancing EHEC colonization, according to the paper, appearing in the journal Cell Host Microbe.
“We usually think of our microbiota as a resistance barrier for pathogen colonization, but some crafty pathogens have learned how to capitalize on this role,” said Dr. Vanessa Sperandio, Professor ofMicrobiology and Biochemistry at UT Southwestern and senior author.
EHEC senses changes in sugar concentrations brought about by B. thetaiotaomicron and uses this information to turn on virulence genes that help the infection colonize the gut, thwart recognition and killing by the host immune system, and obtain enough nutrients to survive. The group observed a similar pattern when mice were infected with their equivalent of EHEC, the gut bacterium Citrobacter rodentium. Mice whose gut microbiota consisted solely of B. thetaiotaomicron were more susceptible to infection than those that had no gut microbiota. Once again, the research group saw that B. thetaiotaomicron caused changes in the environment that promoted C. rodentium infection.
“This study opens up the door to understand how different microbiota composition among hosts may impact the course and outcome of an infection,” said Dr. Sperandio, whose lab studies how bacteria recognize the host and how this recognition might be exploited to interfere with bacterial infections. “We are testing the idea that differential gastrointestinal microbiota compositions play an important role in determining why, in an EHEC outbreak, some people only have mild diarrhea, others have bloody diarrhea and some progress to hemolytic uremic syndrome, even though all are infected with the same strain of the pathogen.”
The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets food poisoning; 128,000 are hospitalized;, and 3,000 die of their food-borne disease. EHEC, which also caused a widespread outbreak in Europe in 2011, can lead to bloody diarrhea, hemorrhagic colitis, and hemolytic uremic syndrome, which in turn can lead to kidney disease and failure. EHEC is among the top five pathogens contributing to domestically acquired foodborne illnesses resulting in hospitalization, according to the CDC. Outbreaks in 2014 were reported in California, Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Montana, Utah, and Washington.
July 25, 2014
Music fans and critics know that the music of the Beatles underwent a dramatic transformation in just a few years, but until now there hasn’t been a scientific way to measure the progression. That could change now that computer scientists at Lawrence Technological University have developed an artificial intelligence algorithm that can analyze and compare musical styles, enabling research into the musical progression of the Beatles.
Assistant Professor Lior Shamir and graduate student Joe George had previously developed audio analysis technology to study the vocal communication of whales, and they expanded the algorithm to analyze the albums of the Beatles and other well-known bands such as Queen, U2, ABBA and Tears for Fears. The study, published in the August issue of the journal Pattern Recognition Letters, demonstrates scientifically that the structure of the Beatles music changes progressively from one album to the next.
The algorithm works by first converting each song to a spectrogram – a visual representation of the audio content. That turns an audio analysis task into an image analysis problem, which is solved by applying comprehensive algorithms that turn each music spectrogram into a set of almost 3,000 numeric descriptors reflecting visual aspects such as textures, shapes and the statistical distribution of the pixels. Pattern recognition and statistical methods are then used to detect and quantify the similarities between different pieces of music.
In popular music, albums are widely considered milestones in the stylistic development of music artists, and these collections of songs provide a convenient unit for establishing measurements to quantify a band’s progression.
LTU’s study analyzed 11 songs from each of the 13 Beatles studio albums released in Great Britain, and quantified the similarities between each song and all the others in the study. The results for the individual songs were then used to compare the similarities between the albums.
The automatic placement of the albums by the algorithm was in agreement with the chronological order of the recording of each album, starting with the Beatles’ first album, “Please, Please Me,” and followed by the subsequent early albums, “With the Beatles,” “Beatles for Sale” and “A Hard Day’s Night.”
The automatic association of these albums demonstrated that the computer algorithm determined that the songs on the first album, “Please, Please Me,” were most like the group of songs on the second album, “With the Beatles,” and least like the songs on the last album recorded, “Abbey Road.”
The algorithm then placed the albums “Help!,” and “Rubber Soul,” followed by “Revolver,” “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “The Beatles” (The White Album).
“Let It Be” was the last album released by the Beatles, but the algorithm correctly identified those songs as having been recorded earlier than the songs on “Abbey Road.”
“People who are not Beatles fans normally can’t tell that ‘Help!’ was recorded before ‘Rubber Soul,’ but the algorithm can,” Shamir said. “This experiment demonstrates that artificial intelligence can identify the changes and progression in musical styles by ‘listening’ to popular music albums in a completely new way.”
The computer algorithm was able to deduce the chronological order of the albums of the other groups in the study by analyzing the audio data alone – with one notable exception. Strong similarities were identified between two Tears for Fears albums released 15 years apart. That makes sense because “Seeds of Love,” released in 1989, was the last album before the band’s breakup, and “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending,” released in 2004, was recorded after the band reunited. Those two albums had less in common with two solo albums released by Roland Orzabal, the group’s principal songwriter, after the band split up in 1991.
In the case of “Queen,” the computer not only sorted the albums by their chronological order, but also distinguished between albums before and after the album “Hot Space,” which represented a major shift in Queen’s musical style.
In this era of big data, such algorithms can assist in searching, browsing, and organizing large music databases, as well as identifying music that matches an individual listener’s musical preferences.
In the case of the Beatles, Shamir believes this type of research will have historical significance. “The baby boomers loved the music of the Beatles, I love the Beatles, and now my daughters and their friends love the Beatles. Their music will live on for a very long time,” Shamir said. “It is worthwhile to study what makes their music so distinctive, and computer science and big data can help.”
March 26, 2014
The popular TV series “CSI” is fiction, but every day, real-life investigators and forensic scientists collect and analyze evidence to determine what happened at crime scenes. In a study published in the ACS journal Analytical Chemistry, scientists say they have developed a more rapid and accurate method that could allow crime scene investigators to tell what kind of ammunition was shot from a gun based on the residue it left behind.
Igor K. Lednev and Justin Bueno point out that when someone fires a gun, burnt particles from the bullet spray out of the weapon onto a shooter’s hand, clothes, furniture and other surfaces nearby. The presence or absence of that residue says whether a gun was discharged and – based on its location on clothing and other surfaces – who and what was near the weapon when it was fired. But current analysis methods can only re-create a crime scene story in hazy detail. The most widely used technique today specializes in detecting the heavy metals that some ammunition contains. Newer bullets, however, aren’t necessarily made with heavy metals, making analyses much more difficult. Also, existing methods require expensive equipment and a lot of time, luxuries law enforcement can’t afford. To bring real-life CSI closer to what’s hyped on TV, Lednev’s team set out to find a new way to trace the ammunition used in a crime.
They developed a novel approach to improve gunshot residue “fingerprinting” that can rapidly detect a wider range of particles than existing methods. “Therefore the ability to detect these chemicals may indicate that a specific ammunition brand was discharged (or was not) during a shooting incident,” the researchers state, adding that their work could also have applications in the fields of homeland security and counter-terrorism.
The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 161,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.
American Chemical Society
November 11, 2013
The amount of gun violence shown in PG-13 films has more than tripled since 1985, the year the rating was introduced.
In fact, the most popular PG-13 movies of 2011 and 2012 showed significantly more gun violence than R-rated movies of the same time period, a new study reveals.
“It’s shocking how gun use has skyrocketed in movies that are often marketed directly at the teen audience,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.
“You have to wonder why we are seeing this surge in gun violence in PG-13 movies, when it isn’t appearing in G, PG and R-rated films.”
Bushman conducted the research with Patrick Jamieson, Ilana Weitz and Daniel Romer of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The study was published online Nov. 11, 2013, in the journal Pediatrics.
Bushman said the results are concerning because other research has revealed the presence of a “weapons effect”: People who simply see a gun, or even a picture of a gun, are more aggressive toward others.
“Based on what researchers have found, it is not good for teens to be viewing this much gun violence in films,” he said.
PG movies suggest that “some material may not be suitable for children,” according to the Motion Picture Association of America, which creates the ratings. PG-13 movies carry a sterner warning: “Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.” The MPAA says a PG-13 movie “may go beyond the PG rating” in violence “but does not reach the restricted R cateogry.”
PG-13 movies are also the most popular among viewers – 13 of the top 25 films in release during 2012 carried that rating, including seven of the top 10, according to the MPAA.
“By the standards of the MPAA, PG-13 movies shouldn’t have as much violence as R-rated movies, but they clearly do. It appears sex scenes are more likely to result in an R rating than scenes of violence,” Bushman said.
The researchers studied a database of 915 films that were drawn from the 30 top-grossing films for each year from 1950 to 2012. Researchers identified violent sequences performed by each character for each five-minute segment of the films.
They also noted whether each violent sequence since 1985 (the first full year after the PG-13 rating was introduced) included the use of a gun.
Overall, findings showed that the rate of violent sequences nearly quadrupled from 1950 to 2010. Since 1985, 94 percent of the movies studied (367 in total) had one or more five-minute segments that included violence. Overall, the films contained 700 segments with gun violence.
Findings showed that R-rated films averaged about 1.54 segments per hour featuring gun violence, and that number didn’t fluctuate much from 1985 to 2010. Movies rated G and PG averaged 0.41 segments of gun violence per hour, which also hasn’t changed since 1985.
The story is much different for films rated PG-13, Bushman said. In 1985, PG-13 movies essentially didn’t have any scenes of gun violence, but the number rose steadily until about 2005, when it began escalating even faster.
By 2010, PG-13 films averaged as many sequences featuring gun violence per hour as R-rated films. In 2011 and 2012, PG-13 movies actually had more gun violence than R-rated movies.
“The trend of increasing gun violence in PG-13 movies is disturbing because of what we know about the weapons effect and because those are the films kids are most attracted to,” Bushman said.
The weapons effect was first shown in 1967, in a study by psychologists that showed participants who were provoked until angry acted more aggressively toward others when there was a gun on a table in front of them.
Since then, more than 50 other studies have replicated the weapons effect, even among people who weren’t angry.
“Seeing these violent gun scenes in movies may be strengthening the weapons effect among young people,” Bushman said.
“In addition, these movies essentially provide young people scripts for how to use guns in real life, as we have seen in copycat killings. It is a bad situation.”
Data from the study were collected as part of The Coding of Media and Health Project at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Funding for this study came from the APPC and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Contact: Brad Bushman, (614) 688-8779; Bushman.firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.email@example.com
October 5, 2013
The left and right hemispheres of Albert Einstein’s brain were unusually well connected to each other and may have contributed to his brilliance, according to a new study conducted in part by Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk.
“This study, more than any other to date, really gets at the ‘inside’ of Einstein’s brain,” Falk said. “It provides new information that helps make sense of what is known about the surface of Einstein’s brain.”
The study, “The Corpus Callosum of Albert Einstein’s Brain: Another Clue to His High Intelligence,” was published in the journal Brain. Lead author Weiwei Men of East China Normal University’s Department of Physics developed a new technique to conduct the study, which is the first to detail Einstein’s corpus callosum, the brain’s largest bundle of fibers that connects the two cerebral hemispheres and facilitates interhemispheric communication.
“This technique should be of interest to other researchers who study the brain’s all-important internal connectivity,” Falk said.
Men’s technique measures and color-codes the varying thicknesses of subdivisions of the corpus callosum along its length, where nerves cross from one side of the brain to the other. These thicknesses indicate the number of nerves that cross and therefore how “connected” the two sides of the brain are in particular regions, which facilitate different functions depending on where the fibers cross along the length. For example, movement of the hands is represented toward the front and mental arithmetic along the back.
In particular, this new technique permitted registration and comparison of Einstein’s measurements with those of two samples – one of 15 elderly men and one of 52 men Einstein’s age in 1905. During his so-called “miracle year” at 26 years old, Einstein published four articles that contributed substantially to the foundation of modern physics and changed the world’s views about space, time, mass and energy.
The research team’s findings show that Einstein had more extensive connections between certain parts of his cerebral hemispheres compared to both younger and older control groups.
The research of Einstein’s corpus callosum was initiated by Men, who requested the high-resolution photographs that Falk and other researchers published in 2012 of the inside surfaces of the two halves of Einstein’s brain. In addition to Men, the current research team included Falk, who served as second author; Tao Sun of the Washington University School of Medicine; and, from East China Normal University’s Department of Physics, Weibo Chen, Jianqi Li, Dazhi Yin, Lili Zang and Mingxia Fan.
September 30, 2013
Who would not want to live a long and healthy life? A freely available food supplement could help in this respect, scientists from ETH Zurich have demonstrated in roundworms. Vitamin B3 – also known as niacin – and its metabolite nicotinamide in the worms’ diet caused them to live for about one tenth longer than usual.
As an international team of researchers headed by Michael Ristow, a professor of energy metabolism, has now experimentally demonstrated, niacin and nicotinamide take effect by promoting formation of so-called free radicals. “In roundworms, these reactive oxygen species prolong life,” says Ristow.
“No scientific evidence for usefulness of antioxidants”
This might seem surprising as reactive oxygen species are generally considered to be unhealthy. Ristow’s view also contradicts the textbook opinion championed by many other scientists. Reactive oxygen species are known to damage somatic cells, a condition referred to as oxidative stress. Particular substances, so-called antioxidants, which are also found in fruit, vegetables and certain vegetable oils, are capable of neutralising these free radicals. Many scientists believe that antioxidants are beneficial to health.
“The claim that intake of antioxidants, especially in tablet form, promotes any aspect of human health lacks scientific support,” says Ristow. He does not dispute that fruit and vegetables are healthy. However, this may rather be caused by other compounds contained therein, such as so-called polyphenols. “Fruit and vegetables are healthy, despite the fact that they contain antioxidants,” says the ETH-Zurich professor. Based on the current and many previous findings he is convinced that small amounts of reactive oxygen species and the oxidative stress they trigger have a health-promoting impact. “Cells can cope well with oxidative stress and neutralise it,” says Ristow.
Substance mimics endurance sport
In earlier studies on humans, Ristow demonstrated that the health-enhancing effect of endurance sports is mediated via an increased formation of reactive oxygen species – and that antioxidants abolish this effect. Based on the present study, he concludes that niacin brings about a similar metabolic condition to exercise. “Niacin tricks the body into believing that it is exercising – even when this is not the case,” says Ristow. Such compounds are known as “exercise mimetics”.
The researchers conducted their experiments on the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans. This worm, which is merely one millimetre in length, can be easily maintained and has a lifespan of only a month, making it the ideal model organism for ageing research.
Also relevant for humans
The results of the study may also be of relevance for humans, says Ristow. After all, the metabolic pathway initiated by niacin is very similar in roundworms and higher organisms. Whether niacin has similar effects on the life expectancy of mice is the subject of Ristow’s current research. Previous studies also suggest a health-enhancing effect of niacin in humans with elevated blood cholesterol levels.
Niacin and nicotinamide have been approved as dietary supplements for decades. Ristow could easily envisage the substances being used broadly for therapeutic purposes in the future. A whole series of foods naturally contain niacin, including meat, liver, fish, peanuts, mushrooms, rice and wheat bran. Whether nutritional uptake is sufficient for a health-enhancing or lifespan-extending effect, however, remains to be demonstrated, says Ristow.