Who thought a paper on the history of words could have so many graphs? Enter “culturomics,” an emerging field that drops data-crunching into the laps of humanities professors. Armed with the scanned corpus of Google books, researchers published in 2011 the first culturomics paper, which examined the changing popularity of words over time. The paper hinted at all sorts of possibilites: tracking the evolution of irregular verbs, mapping a politician’s rise to fame, identifying censorship when a name suddenly drops in popularity, etc.
A group of physicists have taken up culturomics with a new study that models the birth and death of words in three languages: Spanish, Hebrew, and English. At the same time they’re crunching serious math, they also have an eye on history. Here are a few of their in findings:
Them’s Fighting Words
What’s the News: In the long-running debate over the differences between men and women, one mental skill has emerged as being perhaps more biologically rooted than any other: the ability to solve problems involving physical spaces, shapes, or forms. Many studies have concluded that men simply seem to have an inherent advantage in this area. But a new study of two tribes in Northern India is suggesting that the gender gap we see in spatial skills may be partially due to culture rather than raw biology. This finding may affect the way researchers look at gender differences, but it will surely not settle the question, considering that it’s one study of a small group of people living in one limited environment.
What’s the News: Most of us need everyone to stop talking when we perform mental math. But for children trained to do math visually with a “mental abacus,” verbal disturbances roll off their backs, prompting psychologists to posit that unlike the rest of us, they aren’t routing their calculations through words.
What’s the News: Adults and school-age children may understand some basic principles of geometry even without formal math training at all, according to a study published online yesterday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Thirty members of the Mundurucú, an indigenous Amazonian group, could intuitively grasp geometric concepts about angles, lines, and points, the researchers found.
What’s the News: Cool new apps come out every day, but not every app comes with its own car service. Starting in San Francisco, one company lets pedestrians hail a car using their iPhone or Android phone (or any old text-messaging clunker), providing a more expensive, yet faster alternative to cabs. To make this possible, computer scientists had to find a way to make driving routes as efficient as possible, which is actually quite complicated when you’re dealing with a city-ful of car-hailing people. As Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told Wired, “It’s really fun, sexy math.”
How we talk about numbers plays a big role in how we think about numbers—that much is clear. But this week, new research makes the case that language is not a key part of thinking about numbers, but the key part, overriding other influences like cultural ones.
The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by psychologist Elizabet Spaepen focuses on a group of deaf Nicaraguans called the homesigners, who invented their own form of sign language—a form that lacks a numerical vocabulary.
That’s a common trait in many hunter-gatherer societies, where the numbering system is often one-two-three-many. For example, the Munduruku Amazonian people in rural Brazil don’t have any words for exact numbers larger than five. Their neighbors, the Piraha, no exact number words at all. [USA Today]
There are two things that make the homesigners extremely scientifically interesting. One is the fact that they spontaneously invented this language when brought together at a home for the deaf in the 1970s. And the other—the one that’s important for this study—is that they’re not an isolated tribe in which nobody uses numbers. They live within Nicaragua, surrounding by a Spanish-speaking society that’s as number-dependent as any other country. Thus, Spaepen’s team reasoned, if the homesigners struggle to conceptualize larger numbers, the reason would have to be linguistic and not cultural.
A small new study published in Current Biology involved electrical stimulation of the parietal lobe, a part of the brain involved in math learning and understanding. When this area was stimulated, students performed better on a math problem test. Said study leader Cohen Kadosh:
“We’ve shown before that we can induce discalculia [an inability to do math], and now it seems we might be able to make someone better at maths, so we really want to see if we can help people with dyscalculia…. Electrical stimulation is unlikely to turn you into the next Einstein, but if we’re lucky it might be able to help some people to cope better with maths.” [BBC News]
Dyscalculia is a learning disability similar to dyslexia, in which a person has an innate difficulty with learning or understanding math. People with this condition can have trouble with daily arithmetic, telling left from right, and telling time on analog clocks. Some studies estimate up to five percent of the population suffers from dyscalculia, and about 20 percent have less severe troubles with math.
For the experiment, 15 students were hooked up to a transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) machine, which stimulates the brain through the skull with 1 milliamp of electricity, and were given either a positive (right to left) zap to their parietal lobe for 20 minutes, a positive zap for 30 seconds, or a negative (left to right) zap for 20 minutes (five students per group). The current produced a tingling sensation in the scalp, but it didn’t hurt. Then the students were trained to learn the assigned number values of made-up symbols.
About two-fifths of marathon runners “hit the wall” on the big day. That means they completely deplete their body’s stash of readily available energy, which makes them feel wiped out and severely limits their running pace; it sometimes forces people out of the run completely.
Marathoner and biomedical engineer Benjamin Rapoport has been physically and mentally struggling with this phenomenon for years, and had the bright idea to turn it into a research project. He published a mathematical theory in the journal PLoS Computational Biology describing how and why runners hit the wall–and how they can avoid it.
By taking into account the energy it takes to run a marathon, the body’s energy storage capacity and the runner’s power, the researchers were able to accurately calculate how many energy-rich carbohydrates a runner needed to eat before race day and how fast to run to complete all 26.2 miles (42 kilometers). [LiveScience]
Rapoport’s studies of marathoners were prompted by his desire to run in the Boston Marathon in 2005, and his teacher’s desire for him to be in class. In return for missing class, Rapoport was tasked with giving a class lecture on the physiology of the marathoner. That same year, Rapoport himself hit the wall while running the New York Marathon.
The world is not smooth, made of perfect spheres and unbroken lines. Its edges are tattered and torn, ragged yet recognizable. Last week the world lost the man whose mathematics helped to explain those patterns we see all the time in nature.
On Thursday, Benoît Mandelbrot died. His great book The Fractal Geometry of Nature appeared in 1982, and its fascinating notion rests on the idea of a shape becoming more and more complicated the further in one zooms.
“Fractals are easy to explain, it’s like a romanesco cauliflower, which is to say that each small part of it is exactly the same as the entire cauliflower itself,” Catherine Hill, a Gustave Roussy Institute statistician, [says]. “It’s a curve that reproduces itself to infinity. Every time you zoom in further, you find the same curve.” [PC World]
After analyzing light coming from distant quasars, some researchers have asked a physical constant a blunt question: Are you really constant at all? And since the “fine structure constant” that they’re interrogating is important for how physicists understand things like electrons’ behavior in atoms and fusion in stars, other physicists are asking their own question: Are your measurements correct?
The paper, which appeared last month in arXiv, argues that the constant might vary depending on location. This controversial claim is a new twist on a previous controversial claim–made over the past decade by some of the same physicists–which said that the constant varied with time.
Craig Hogan of the University of Chicago and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., acknowledges that “it’s a competent team and a thorough analysis.” But because the work has such profound implications for physics and requires such a high level of precision measurements, “it needs more proof before we’ll believe it.” [Science News]