Around the world, humans communicate with each other using nearly 7,000 distinct languages. But despite how different languages like English and Chinese are for example, we all use the same basic anatomy to talk. Our lips, tongues and the bones inside our mouths allow humans to make the noises of language.
Now researchers have found that differences in the shape of the roof of the mouth influence how we pronounce vowel sounds. And the team says that these minute variations in sound get amplified as language learning passes from generation to generation. The findings mean that anatomy influences the sounds of speech and in so doing, the evolution of language.
“Even small variations in the shape of our vocal tract may affect the way we speak, and this may even be amplified — across generations — to the level of differences between dialects and languages,” study author Dan Dediu, a linguistics expert in France at Lumière University Lyon 2, said in a media release. “Thus, biology matters!”
To find out how the shape of the mouth influences language production, Dediu and his team recruited more than 100 people from a handful of broad ethnolinguistic groups: North Indian, South Indian, Chinese and European and North American of European descent. Then the scientists took MRI scans of the participants’ hard palate, the bony roof of the mouth.
The team used the scans in computer models and trained an agent with machine learning to produce five vowel sounds common across languages: the “e” sound in “beet,” the “a” sound in “bat,” the “u” sound in “boot,” the “ah” sound in “hot,” and the “uh” sound in “sofa. To model how language evolves over time, the researchers had a second generation try to learn the sounds from the first one. Then they repeated this process for 50 generations.
The analysis revealed the shape of the roof of the mouth affects how people pronounce vowel sounds, but only to a slight degree. Yet all the vowel sounds changed across generations. Over 50 generations, the transmission of sounds amplified the slight differences of the hard palate the team reported Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
The discovery suggests that, “besides culture and environment, quantitative biological variation can be amplified, also influencing language,” the researchers write.
Nanyang Technological University linguistics expert and co-author of the study Scott Moisik concludes in the press release: “While we are all humans and fundamentally the same, we are also unique individuals, and one can really hear it”.
Earth is the only place in the universe where we know life exists. But with billions of other star systems out there, it might not be the best place for life. In a new study, astronomers modeled the potential for life on other watery planets and found some conditions that can create oceans maximized for habitability.
The model suggests that watery planets with dense atmospheres, continents, and long days — slowly rotating planets that is — were most conducive to life. These conditions stimulate ocean circulation, which brings nutrients from the depths to the surface where it’s available for biologic activity.
“[The research] shows us that conditions on some exoplanets with favorable ocean circulation patterns could be better suited to support life that is more abundant or more active than life on Earth,” Stephanie Olson, a University of Chicago researcher who lead the new study, said in a media release.Read More
The tangy smell of the sea may seem like nothing more than salt in the air, but in fact it comes courtesy of a specific chemical. And dimethyl sulfide, or simply DMS, not only defines that airy aroma, but it also helps cool the climate. In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Microbiology, researchers say they’ve discovered vast new sources of this gas: millions of bacteria in coastal sediments. The findings suggest models that predict the influence of DMS, including its climate effects, may be underestimating its impact.Read More
The solar system is a crowded place. Earth may be the only planet with humans on it, but many worlds are home to robots — rovers and landers and orbiters, gathering data for astronomers. Asteroid (162173) Ryugu joined them last summer, and has been playing host to the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2. The mission has already collected lots of great data.
Now, according to a report Thursday in Science, we have some more information on the diamond-shaped Ryugu. Hayabusa2’s Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) lander, which touched down last October, snapped several pics along the way. An international team of scientists analyzed them to gain new insights into the ancient world, helping them understand its violent past and even learning a little about the ancient solar system.
MASCOT’s descent onto Ryugu was surprisingly low tech: Hayabusa2, already in orbit, simply “let go” of the lander and let it fall to the surface. The hardy device, packed with a camera (named MASCam) and other instruments, tumbled down slowly, freefalling about 134 feet for roughly 6 minutes before landing with a thud. It bounced another 56 feet before finally coming to a rest.
This was all on purpose. The German Aerospace Center designed MASCOT for the rough journey, and it snapped photos the whole way. The lander also carried a spinning weight which could re-orient and even move the tiny craft, allowing it to gather data from various locations. And thanks to the tried and true methods of flash photography, the machine could even snap pics in the dark. After more than 17 hours, and a few more hops, MASCOT’s batteries died out and this part of the mission was complete.
Now, researchers have combined and analyzed the photos — along with data from Hayabusa2 — to carefully reconstruct MASCOT’s journey above and along the surface of Ryugu, allowing them to put close-up photos of the asteroid’s surface in context.
“The MASCam images acquired during descent and bouncing reveal a surface covered with rocks and boulders of different lithologies” or characteristics, the authors write. “Rocks appear either bright, with smooth faces and sharp edges, or dark, with a cauliflower-like, crumbly surface.” The distribution of both was pretty much even over all the areas MASCam captured.
The images also showed a marked lack of finer rocks, like dust or sand. Ryugu is pretty much just a collection of rocks and boulders, with nothing smaller currently on the surface.
These findings are telling. The dichotomy of rocks backs up previous ideas that Ryugu had a violent birth. Maybe, the authors suggest, the asteroid is the result of two parent bodies crashing into each other, explaining the two types of rocky materials strewn everywhere. Or, perhaps it formed from one body with drastically different internal temperature and pressure conditions, leading to a “catastrophic disruption and redistribution, also resulting in two types of material.”
Studying the compositions of these rocks also revealed small bright “inclusions,” common in meteorites believed to come from asteroids. Because watery environments tend to destroy inclusions, their presence on Ryugu suggest that this asteroid’s past was likely a drier one.
Finally, there’s that lack of finer materials. Simple friction and other forces in space should result in such smaller particles, so their absence suggests some process is removing them — but the authors aren’t sure what that could be. “The absence of dust is not easily explained,” they write.
Ryugu is a near-Earth asteroid, meaning its orbit takes it near our planet’s vicinity. The better we understand its makeup and what’s happening to its surface, the better prepared we ever are in case one of the thousands of other NEAs ever wander dangerously close. Asteroids are also remarkably well preserved, since there’s not much to erode them out in space. So by studying them, astronomers are also studying what conditions were like in the solar system’s earliest days, when most asteroids formed.
If you don’t have time to sit and read a physical book, is listening to the audio version considered cheating? To some hardcore book nerds, it could be. But new evidence suggests that, to our brains, reading and hearing a story might not be so different.
In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley scanned the brains of nine participants while they read and listened to a series of tales from “The Moth Radio Hour.” After analyzing how each word was processed in the the brain’s cortex, they created maps of the participants’ brains, noting the different areas helped interpret the meaning of each word.Read More
Fast radio bursts are one of the most puzzling phenomena in astrophysics. But a new discovery of eight new sources for them might help scientists figure out what’s causing these intense outbursts of energy coming from distant galaxies.
The newly discovered bursts are from repeating sources, meaning they were observed to burst multiple times. Previously, only two repeating fast radio bursts had been observed. The new observations suggest that repeating bursts are more common than previously thought.Read More
There is a triplet of Earth-sized planet candidates orbiting a star just 12 light-years away, a new study has found. And one appears to be in the habitable zone.
All three candidates are thought to be at least 1.4 to 1.8 times the mass of Earth, and orbit the star every three to 13 days, which would put the entire system well within Mercury’s 88 day orbit of the Sun. The planet orbiting the star every 13 days, dubbed planet d, is most interesting to scientists — it falls within the star’s habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface.
I was 14 years old when I first saw Saturn through a telescope, its rings glowing a vibrant yellow-orange. In that moment, the seemingly two-dimensional landscape of Earth’s surface was irreversibly transformed. From then on, I was hooked on the night sky. I was no longer just a kid from suburban Ohio, I was a resident of a vast cosmos waiting to be explored. Who knew that you could just walk into a backyard and look up, with a modest telescope, and unlock the secrets of the universe?
A few years later, I launched my own magazine about the night sky and, soon after, joined the staff of Astronomy, the sister publication of Discover. It was at the dawning of a new golden age of astronomy, full of scientific breakthroughs, from the discovery of dark energy and how the universe will end, to fresh clues about how life started on Earth – and, just maybe, spread across the universe. Today, SpaceX, Blue Origin and other spaceflight pioneers are drawing a new generation into the fold. These new space innovators could take us to places we’ve only dreamed about.
Since its inception, Astronomy magazine has offered readers a ticket to travel into this world. Now, we’re taking the next step with the launch of Astronomy’s Space & Beyond subscription box. Each box has a unique theme and is carefully curated by our editors to expand your understanding of the cosmos and appreciation for your place in it.
Every three months, we’ll send you a package brimming with beautifully illustrated posters, information, gadgets and collectibles — the coolest space swag there is — as well as exciting ways to expand your mind and increase your enjoyment of the night sky.
Right now, you’re in a unique and amazing time in understanding the cosmos. This new box will tap into its mystery and magic — and you’re guaranteed to have fun. Every Space & Beyond box helps you celebrate astronomy in a new and exciting way. Make the most of your time on this planet. Sign up for our launch list and be the first to know when ordering goes live. Let us continue bringing the magic of the universe into your home.
— David J. Eicher, Editor, Astronomy
The Beta Pictoris system swirls with activity — a dusty disk of debris, comets falling toward the central star, and at least one giant planet. And now, astronomers have uncovered evidence for yet another planetary Goliath, some nine times the mass of Jupiter, lurking within the mysterious system.Read More
The roots of mental illness are still a mystery. But researchers think our mental health is shaped by a combination of factors, like genetics, our developmental environment and our life experiences.
But there’s one factor that scientists say may have gone unnoticed. It appears that where we live, and how polluted it is, can increase our likelihood of developing a mental illness.Read More