0 comments on “Language is Powerful”

Language is Powerful

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

With the election of Donald Trump in November came a torrent of think pieces, op-eds, podcasts, Facebook posts, and tweets. Everyone had something to say and someone to blame. It was Hillary’s fault, it was the Left’s¬†fault, it was Putin’s¬†fault, it was the media’s fault. In trying to understand the election, I was left feeling a bit lost.

How could this happen? How could the American people elect someone like Trump? His policies make no sense, he bragged about sexual assault, he has no political experience. Every day was a new scandal, and yet – he is now the President. I still struggle to understand, but I think some of the most interesting Trump pieces I saw over the past year both came from Evan Puschak (aka the Nerdwriter) and they both analyzed the way Trump uses language.

 

Word choice matters. Language is powerful.

This isn’t a new idea – George Orwell knew it when he wrote Politics and the English Language¬†– but Puschak’s videos¬†got me thinking: what does science have to say about the influence of language on thought?

So I did a bit of digging and this is what I came up with.

There was a popular theory in the 1940s called Whorfianism (proposed by¬†Benjamin Lee Whorf) that the vocabulary available to people shaped their thoughts. This was supported by ‘facts’ like the oft-quoted (but false) statement that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow.

The strong form of Whorfianism, that you can only think about things that you have words for, has been refuted. You can think about individual colours, smells, and feelings without having specific words for them. If it were true that thoughts had to have words, we would have a hard time coming up with new words (like glam-ma and YouTuber, two of December 2016’s Oxford English Dictionary additions).

Because of the total academic discrediting of Whorfianism, it became difficult to get funding to do any research linking languages with cognitive processes. In the last couple of decades, however, a weaker form of Whorfianism has arisen and gained some traction.

While language doesn’t determine thinking, it seems to be able to¬†influence it. I’ll leave some links to studies and articles with plenty of examples below, but my favourite is an Australian aboriginal language called Guugu Yimithirr.

In this language, directions like right and left are always replaced by cardinal directions (North/East/South/West), even on small scales. Facing north, a Guugu Yimithirr-speaking woman might lift her eastern hand to pick up an object north of her, before turning to the southwest to switch it to her southeast hand. People who grow up speaking this language must always and instantly be aware of the cardinal directions. The language has created a training regimen that results in an almost supernatural ability to determine direction.

So while language doesn’t necessarily limit thought, it (along with culture and a dozen other factors), does¬†shape¬†it.

With this weaker form of Whorfianism in mind, I wonder whether the emotive language that Trump has been using to such great effect might alter political discourse. If everyone starts playing his game, will language slowly shift be more emotional? Will we become more tuned to the emotional context of language as a result?

Probably not, but it’s interesting to think about.

And here are those links I promised:

American Linguistic Society – Does the language I speak influence the way I think?

Scientific American – Does language shape the way we think?

New York Times – Does your language shape the way you think?

Buzzfeed – The Inuit don’t have 100 words for snow, so why does the myth persist?

Lera Boraditsky¬†–¬†How the languages we speak shape the ways we think

Steven Pinker – What our language habits reveal

Wikipedia – Linguistic relativity, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language and thought

Lead image by Gary Skidmore

0 comments on “S is for Simple Rules”

S is for Simple Rules

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

Consider the following: schooling fish, roundabouts, segregation, and human consciousness are all examples of the same fundamental property of the world.  It may seem crazy to suggest that roundabouts may be interesting in some sense, but bear with me.

The property in question, and this week’s topic, is emergence. ¬†In each case individual entities, by following simple rules, can create complex patterns of behaviour. ¬†What makes these patterns special is that they can’t be predicted based on the simple rules alone.

Swarms

If you’ve ever seen a murmuration of starlings, you have probably found yourself wondering how that many birds (upwards of 100,000) can all fly so quickly in such close proximity without hitting each other. ¬†For those of you uninterested in ornithology (the study of birds), there are also plenty of examples of swarms in entomology (the study of insects) and ichthyology (the study of fish), and even¬†chiropterology (study of bats).

Image by SteveD
Image by SteveD

In each case, the animals are unaware (and frankly, uncaring) of the beautiful shapes their swarms make. ¬†They aren’t even trying to swarm. ¬†They are trying to survive and their instinct tells them to follow a few simple rules. ¬†Since the advent of computers, scientists have been trying to find out what those rules are.

One of the most famous computational models of swarming behaviour was proposed by Craig Reynolds in 1986.  In his Boids program, simulated birds had to follow three rules:

  1. Separation:¬†Don’t crash (steer away from nearby boids).
  2. Alignment: Get with the program (steer towards the average heading of nearby boids)
  3. Cohesion:¬†Don’t get lost (steer towards the average location of nearby boids)

This model is actually a really good model for the behaviour we observe in birds and fish.  Recent studies have also shown this alignment rule is especially important for bats.

Locusts, on the other hand, seem to have a much simpler set of rules.  Locusts just want to avoid getting their backsides eaten.  When approached from behind, locusts will tend to fly forward for fear of cannibalism.  This creates an overall tendency to move forward and can lead to giant swarms.

Image by CSIRO
Image by CSIRO

Roundabouts

If you’ve ever been to Swindon (and, from what I hear, you’re not missing much if you haven’t), you might have come across quite possibly the most offensive piece of civil engineering in the UK.

That's right.  A giant roundabout.  Image in the public domain
That’s right. A giant roundabout. Image in the public domain

As a North American, I cringe at the thought of even a tiny roundabout but Swindonians apparently hate everything that is good in this world.

They built the Magic Roundabout. ¬†A terrifying series of 6 small roundabouts encircling a larger roundabout that goes the other way. ¬†If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

The more confusing part, however, is that hundreds of thousands of cars pass through it unscathed.  While there is certainly a lot of anxiety about it, there have been only 14 major accidents in 25 years.

Hell for North Americans.  Image from the BBC
Hell for North Americans. Image from the BBC

The vast majority of people pass through fine, despite there being 5 different entry and exit points and many conflict points (places where streams of traffic cross).  This happens because of a few simple rules:

  1. Follow the lines
  2. Give way to cars coming from the right
  3. Drive to where you want to go
  4. Don’t crash

Apparently it’s actually an effective way to move cars through an intersection, but my North American sensibilities just can’t handle it.

For more information on this piece of crazy road engineering, visit this explanatory page and watch this video.

Segregation

Choosing¬†who you associate with based on a singular trait has been known to lead to a lot of issues in the past. ¬†As a dog person, I’ve lost a lot of friends to cats (and their parasites). ¬†Despite my friendly demeanour and my ability to put up with a fairly large proportion of cat-lovers in my immediate vicinity, at a certain point I start to feel uncomfortable and want more fellow dog-lovers.

Tensions flare.  Image by Peretz Partensky
Tensions flare. Image by Peretz Partensky

In 1971, Thomas Schelling set out to model this behaviour and came out with a somewhat surprising and scary result. ¬†Even when people are fine with being in the minority, if they are dissatisfied when surrounded by a large majority of “others”, they will tend towards segregation. ¬†The model followed a few simple¬†rules:

  1. If you are surrounded by a certain percentage (e.g. 30%) of similar people, you are satisfied
  2. If you are surrounded by a certain percentage of different people (e.g. 70%), you are dissatisfied
  3. If you are dissatisfied, move to somewhere where you are satisfied.

Within a few rounds, there is very little diversity left as people¬†tend to move towards those who are similar. ¬†This, despite the fact that no individual is saying they outright dislike the other group or couldn’t live with members of the¬†other group. ¬†This model helps to explain why segregation is so hard to eliminate.

Interestingly, this tendency towards segregation can be reversed if a maximum of similar people rule is added:

4. If you are surrounded by a certain percentage of similar people (e.g. 90%) you are dissatisfied

Again, complex patterns and simple rules.

To learn more about the model, go here.

Conciousness

There are approximately 100 billion neurons in an adult human brain.  These neurons are connected in intricate ways to create an estimated 100 trillion connections.

Now that's a lot of connections!  Image from Wikimedia
Now that’s an impressive set of connections! Image from Wikimedia

Somehow (and to be honest we’re not really sure how yet), these connections lead to all of our brains’ activities from thought to imagination and¬†memory. ¬†The abilities of the system (the brain) couldn’t possibly be known from the rules that neurons abide by. ¬†All that a neuron does is pass on its signal according to a set of rules. ¬†We still don’t know what those rules are.

We do know that when a neuron is activated (whether by electrical or chemical stimulation), it activates other neurons.  The precise number and location of these other neurons is still a big mystery in neuroscience, but it must be activating both nearby neurons and neurons on the other side of the brain.  This dual activation of long- and short-distance connections is what creates the sustained patterns we observe in fMRI scans.

Human Connectome Project
The¬†Human Connectome Project, kind of like the Human Genome Project before it, is setting out to map all of the brain’s 100 trillion connections to better understand how it works. ¬†Image by Xavier Gigandet et al.

While I don’t mean to suggest that everything in life can be boiled down to simple rules, I think it’s pretty incredible the patterns¬†that emerge from individual actors all playing their parts.

0 comments on “Rising Ape announced at Green Man Festival”

Rising Ape announced at Green Man Festival

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, other Unidentified Life Forms of every gender dimension. The Rising Ape Space Agency is gearing up for its second trip to the Red Planet, this time with our friends at the legendary Einstein’s Garden of Green Man Festival, 20-23 August!

It‚Äôs your first day on Martian Colony #1, and definitely not a field in the gorgeous Brecon Beacons. As you wipe the hyper-sleep from your eyes, you stare around the landing module and see your teammates. You remember the last thing that the Rising Ape Space Agency Mission Control said before you left: ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs going to be some strange people waiting for you when you land. We sent them up first but they may have gone rogue. They‚Äôre probably going to try and make you do a ridiculous Mars-themed competition. Just go with it. Humour their dust-addled minds.” You blink and take your first steps on the Red Planet. ‘First to wake up! 10 points!’ a voice shouts from nearby. Your life on Mars has begun…

Life on Mars event

So come down to the Festival Habitat Module, or ‘Solar Stage’, on Saturday 21st August with the rest of your plucky team. You‚Äôll need to prove yourselves up to the task of settling Mars on a gameshow for the whole crowd that’s so out of this world, it’s made it to the next!

Fresh off the rocket is our newest recruit and resident Mars expert, Ashley Dove-Jay, a space engineer (best job title ever!). Ash‚Äôs work is wide-ranging. In the last year he has developed radiation mitigation strategies for astronauts in deep-space with Inspiration Mars; advised senior NASA figures on strategies for protecting civilisation from the effects of a solar super-storm; written several papers for his Ph.D. regarding the development of future ‚Äėgreen‚Äô aircraft morphing wing technologies; and has conducted a solo-hiking expedition through the high-arctic archipelago of Svalbard, conducting biological research on floral pollinators. Phew, we hope he has some energy left by August.

He has also commanded a two-week long simulated Mars mission in Utah.  This experience should stand him in good stead for what lies in store after joining our new Life on Mars!

More details to follow…

Einstein’s Garden is an essential, cherished part of Green Man Festival, where you can explore the far flung reaches of your imagination with over 100 jaw-dropping performances, from live comedy, music and theatre to walks, talks and interactive installations ‚Äď all set across three sustainably powered stages.

Nestled among the leafy arbors and fragrant rosebeds at the heart of the beautiful Green Man site, Einstein’s Garden is the perfect place to cultivate your curiosity and indulge your creative passions. You won’t find anything quite like it at any other UK festival!

Read more¬†about the Einstein’s Garden lineup.¬†Buy tickets for Green Man Festival.

Follow them @EinsteinsGarden and @GreenManFest

0 comments on “I is for Island Evolution”

I is for Island Evolution

By Jonathan Farrow from The Thoughtful Pharaoh

Unbeknownst to the rest of us, a debate has been raging in the world of biogeography.¬†¬†The debate stems from a simple observation made by a young Canadian scientist in 1964: island animals are weird. ¬†Sometimes they’re way bigger than normal, like the Tenerife Giant Rat, and other times they are way smaller than normal, like the Elephas falconeri, a tiny species of elephant.

A Rodent of Unusual Size, the (now extinct) Tenerife Giant Rat.  Image by Wikimedia user M0rph
A Rodent Of Unusual Size, the (now extinct) Tenerife Giant Rat. It reached sizes of up to 1.14m  Image by Wikimedia user M0rph
Elephas_skeleton
An itty-bitty extinct elephant thought to have weighed only 200kg. Image by Ninjatacoshell at the North American Musueum of Ancient Life

J.B. Foster published a short, two-page paper in the April 1964 edition of Nature positing that rodents get bigger and lapidomorphs (rabbits), carnivores, and artiodactyls (deer/goats) get smaller on islands.  This, he thought, was because small animals found the isolation of islands to be liberating.  They no longer had to worry about predators and could grow to fill their new space.  Larger animals, however, might be restricted by the relative paucity of resources on islands and would have immense evolutionary pressure to become smaller.

This led to Foster’s Rule, also known as the Island Rule. ¬†It states that in general, big animals get small on islands and small animals get big. ¬†They also do so very quickly (in evolutionary terms). ¬†For instance, red deer on Jersey, an island in the English Channel, were shown to have shrunk to to 1/6th their original size in only 6000 years.

There’s a problem, though. ¬†Like pretty much every rule in biology, there are lots of exceptions. ¬†Sometimes small animals get smaller (like Brookesia micra, the world’s tiniest chameleon) and relatively big animals get bigger (like Haast’s eagles).

So cute, right!?  Image by Frank Glaw, Jörn Köhler, Ted M. Townsend, Miguel Vences
You’ve heard of angels on the head of pin, but what about chameleons on the head of a match. So cute, right!? Image by Frank Glaw, J√∂rn K√∂hler, Ted M. Townsend, Miguel Vences
The giant, moa-hunting Haast's Eagle of New Zealand.  Almost as scary as terror birds.
The giant, moa-hunting Haast’s Eagle of New Zealand. Almost as scary as terror birds. ¬†Image by John Megahan

A 2011¬†article by a joint Israeli-Italian-British team of researchers calls the whole theory into question, showing that the smallest species in any given group is no more likely to be from an island than would be expected by chance. Size extremes, they say, exist everywhere. ¬†Islands don’t have some sort of monopoly. ¬†They do concede that large mammals tend to get smaller, but they think the idea that small animals get bigger only seems like common sense because they are easier to notice.

A British paper from 2008 throws even more confusion into the mix, showing that depending on the kinds of statistical tests you use, you can show that the island rule either exists or doesn’t. ¬†They suggest that the island rule should be looked at¬†in “taxonomically restricted studies” – biologist-speak for “case-by-case basis”. ¬†That seems to kind of defeat the purpose of a nice heuristic, though.

One thing we know for sure is that islands isolate organisms.  This isolation means that evolution can work differently for the island population and might lead to all sorts of interesting changes.  This type of evolutionary change is also called allopatric speciation and is responsible for the variation that Darwin saw in Galapagos finches.  Whether islands always create a particular kind of change is still up for discussion, but nobody can doubt that when organisms of unusual size appear, they deserve attention.

Darwin's famous finches.  He observed that some beaks were better suited for cracking seeds and others for tearing fruit.
Darwin’s famous finches. ¬†Image from The Voyage of the Beagle
0 comments on “C is for Cat Feces”

C is for Cat Feces

By Jonathan Farrow from The Thoughtful Pharaoh

I’ve never been a cat person, myself. ¬†They just seem a bit too contemptuous as a species.

Cats, aside from being aloof, clawed, and kind of mean, also form a necessary part in the life cycle of a single-celled protozoan called¬†Toxoplasma gondii. ¬†This sneaky parasite can only reproduce in¬†feline intestines¬†but also finds its way into the tissues of pretty much all warm-blooded mammals. ¬†Its reach seems almost limitless and extends to more than half of the world’s bears, birds, cattle, cats, domestic chickens, deer, dogs, domestic geese, goats, mice, pigs, rabbits, rats, sea otters, sheep, and humans. ¬†And those are only the populations that were studied. ¬†Ever heard the expression that glitter is the herpes of the craft world because it gets everywhere? ¬†More accurately, glitter is the T. gondii of the craft world.

The life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii.  Humans are on the left side of this diagram along with the rodents and small birds.  Image from
The life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii. Humans, along with the rest of Noah’s menagerie,¬†would be on the left side of this diagram. Felines, aka devilspawn, are on the right. ¬†Image from Wikipedia

I call it sneaky because T. gondii¬†has been shown to alter the behaviour of its rodent¬†hosts in order to make it more likely to be ingested. ¬†The physical mechanism for this is still under investigation and largely unknown but¬†there are¬†two interesting experiments¬†worth noting. ¬†The first found that¬†rodents infected with T. gondii are more active and more excited about new places, making them¬†more likely to be noticed¬†(and eaten) by cats. ¬†The second purports that rodent brain chemistry is altered so that the unfortunate rats¬†finds the scent of cat pee sexually attractive. ¬†The scientific paper which explains this second theory is even titled “Fatal attraction in rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii”.

A lesson for rodents:  don't listen to the parasite in your brain.  Cat pee IS NOT ATTRACTIVE! Image from Wikimedia
A lesson for rodents: don’t listen to the parasite in your brain. Cat pee IS NOT ATTRACTIVE!
Image from Wikimedia user Lxowle

So we’re pretty confident that T. gondii can alter the behaviour of rodents, but what does it do to¬†humans?

We’re not sure…

For those with weak immune systems or for the pregnant, a T. gondii infection can cause acute toxoplasmosis, a potentially fatal disease characterised by swelling lymph nodes, sore muscles, and flu-like symptoms. ¬†I wouldn’t worry about that too much because it’s about as lethal as the flu for those with regular immune systems.

For the rest of us, infection with this parasite is largely¬†asymptomatic. ¬†There’s no way to tell whether you’re infected or not without a blood test. ¬†Unless you ask Czech researcher Jaroslav Flegr. ¬†He, along with a growing number of scientists, believes there is enough evidence to show that latent toxoplasmosis makes humans more thrill-seeking. ¬†According to a 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, infected individuals are more likely to get into traffic¬†accidents, score differently on personality tests than un-infected individuals, and infected men are taller on average with more masculine facial features.

Rodent and human brains are not so different, it turns out.

Japanese_litter_box_in_use
Patient Zero. From Wikimedia user Ocdp

If your cat got infected and you happened to get exposed while cleaning out its litter box, chances are that you are infected. ¬†Your cat’s poo is likely changing your personality. ¬†If, like me, you don’t and have never owned a cat, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from infection. ¬†T. gondii is really good at getting into your body and making its way to the central nervous system, where it acts the puppetmaster and, expecting you to be a rodent, makes¬†you excited about¬†new environments. ¬†All this¬†so that you can be eaten and it can reproduce.

Pretty interesting, eh?

0 comments on “Want to adopt a bat with Avon Bat Group?”

Want to adopt a bat with Avon Bat Group?

Microbat Photo by Neal Foster

A BIG thank you to Kiri and Stuart from the Avon Bat Group for coming to Enter the Bat Cave and showing off the beautiful little animals they have in their care. Everyone really enjoyed getting up close and personal with an animal that is so rarely seen by the general public.

Stuart and Kiri with their bats and Bish the bear from Bristol Improv Theatre
Stuart and Kiri with their bats and Bish the Bear from Bristol Improv Theatre

If you are interested in supporting Avon Bat Group, adopting a bat, or just want to know more about your new favourite mammal; you can find more information on their website at www.avonbatgroup.org.uk, or like their facebook page for regular updates. We hope that after all you learnt during the evening, you can really appreciate how important their work is.

Thank you to everyone who came last night, we hope you had a great evening! Keep an eye on the website for more information about our next event and for another of Antony’s excellent infographics about Enter the Bat Cave.

0 comments on “ENTER THE BAT CAVE Ft. Batwoman Heather Nichol”

ENTER THE BAT CAVE Ft. Batwoman Heather Nichol

Plunge into the depths of one of Bristol‚Äôs darkest bat caves ‚Äď a place where the echoes of lost souls linger and haunt the footsteps of all those who enter. Fleeting silhouettes of winged creatures lay claim to these walls, and the stench of guano weighs heavy on the air‚Ķ

OK, so in reality we just turned off all the lights in the Bristol Improv Theatre, and the Rising Ape team forgot to wash, but bear with us for a moment. Rising Ape returns with a night of bat-themed madness. Bring a team and stretch your wings in the quiz. You better know your long ears from your short snouts, your Dracula from your Orlok, and your Slazenger from your Gunn & Moore. But as bat researchers stuck in a terrifying cave, we don’t expect you to just sit there all night. Be prepared to get up close and personal, untangling these creature’s fascinating secrets for yourselves with help from some special guests. To conclude the night’s eerie proceedings, real-life Batwoman Heather Nichol will share her personal journey into the world of bats.

Tickets available at http://improvtheatre.net/calendar/enter-the-bat-cave/

Tickets also available on the door.

Enter the Bat Cave... there is no exit.
Enter the Bat Cave… there is no exit.

More about Heather Nichol: Heather has been involved in bat conservation for the past 5 years. She was first introduced to the world of bats during her undergraduate degree at the University of Leeds, and has since taken part in various conservation projects, including a project that discovered the first know breeding colony of Alcathoe bats in the UK. Heather has just completed a Masters by Research at the University of Bristol studying one of the hot topics in ecology at moment: bat fatalities in wind farms in Britain.