Tag Archives: Science

The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages

Last May, Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia, a doctoral candidate at the Max
Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in the Dutch city of Nijmegen,
flew to Malta for a week to learn Maltese. He had a hefty grammar book
in his backpack, but he didn’t plan to open it unless he had to. “We’ll
do this as I would in the Amazon,” he told me, referring to his
fieldwork as a linguist. Our plan was for me to observe how he went
about learning a new language, starting with “hello” and “thank you.”

is a twenty-seven-year-old Peruvian with a baby face and spiky dark
hair. A friend had given him a new pair of earrings, which he wore on
Malta with funky tank tops and a chain necklace. He looked like any
other laid-back young tourist, except for the intense focus—all senses
cocked—with which he takes in a new environment. Linguistics is a
formidably cerebral discipline. At a conference in Nijmegen that had
preceded our trip to Malta, there were papers on “the anatomical
similarities in the phonatory apparati of humans and harbor seals” and
“hippocampal-dependent declarative memory,” along with a
neuropsychological analysis of speech and sound processing in the brains
of beatboxers. Rojas-Berscia’s Ph.D. research, with the Shawi people of
the Peruvian rain forest, doesn’t involve fMRI data or computer
modelling, but it is still arcane to a layperson. “I’m developing a
theory of language change called the Flux Approach,” he explained one
evening, at a country inn outside the city, over the delicious pannenkoeken
(pancakes) that are a local specialty. “A flux is a dynamism that
involves a social fact and an impact, either functionally or formally,
in linguistic competence.”

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Posted by on August 13, 2019 in Reportages


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Do Animals Have Feelings?

Amid the human crush of Old Delhi, on the edge of a medieval bazaar, a red structure with cages on its roof rises three stories above the labyrinth of neon-lit stalls and narrow alleyways, its top floor emblazoned with two words: birds hospital.

On a hot day last spring, I removed my shoes at the hospital’s entrance and walked up to the second-floor lobby, where a clerk in his late 20s was processing patients. An older woman placed a shoebox before him and lifted off its lid, revealing a bloody white parakeet, the victim of a cat attack. The man in front of me in line held, in a small cage, a dove that had collided with a glass tower in the financial district. A girl no older than 7 came in behind me clutching, in her bare hands, a white hen with a slumped neck.

The hospital’s main ward is a narrow, 40-foot-long room with cages stacked four high along the walls and fans on the ceiling, their blades covered with grates, lest they ensnare a flapping wing. I strolled the room’s length, conducting a rough census. Many of the cages looked empty at first, but leaning closer, I’d find a bird, usually a pigeon, sitting back in the gloom.

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Posted by on August 13, 2019 in Reportages


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Can CBD Really Do All That?

When Catherine Jacobson first heard about the promise of cannabis, she was at wits’ end. Her 3-year-old son, Ben, had suffered from epileptic seizures since he was 3 months old, a result of a brain malformation called polymicrogyria. Over the years, Jacobson and her husband, Aaron, have tried giving him at least 16 different drugs, but none provided lasting relief. They lived with the grim prognosis that their son — whose cognitive abilities never advanced beyond those of a 1-year-old — would likely continue to endure seizures until the cumulative brain injuries led to his death.

In early 2012, when Jacobson learned about cannabis at a conference organized by the Epilepsy Therapy Project, she felt a flicker of hope. The meeting, in downtown San Francisco, was unlike others she had attended, which were usually geared toward lab scientists and not directly focused on helping patients. This gathering aimed to get new treatments into patients’ hands as quickly as possible. Attendees weren’t just scientists and people from the pharmaceutical industry. They also included, on one day of the event, families of patients with epilepsy.


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Posted by on August 9, 2019 in North America, Reportages


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Why Didn’t Chernobyl Kill All the Plants?

Chernobyl has become a byword for catastrophe. The 1986 nuclear disaster, recently brought back into the public eye by the hugely popular TV show of the same name, caused thousands of cancers, turned a once populous area into a ghost city, and resulted in the setting up of an exclusion zone 2600km² in size.

But Chernobyl’s exclusion zone isn’t devoid of life. Wolves, boars and bears have returned to the lush forests surrounding the old nuclear plant. And when it comes to vegetation, all but the most vulnerable and exposed plant life never died in the first place, and even in the most radioactive areas of the zone, vegetation was recovering within three years.

Humans and other mammals and birds would have been killed many times over by the radiation that plants in the most contaminated areas received. So why is plant life so resilient to radiation and nuclear disaster?

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Posted by on August 8, 2019 in Uncategorized


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A Different Kind of Theory of Everything

In 1964,
during a lecture at Cornell University, the physicist Richard Feynman
articulated a profound mystery about the physical world. He told his
listeners to imagine two objects, each gravitationally attracted to the
other. How, he asked, should we predict their movements? Feynman
identified three approaches, each invoking a different belief about the
world. The first approach used Newton’s law of gravity, according to
which the objects exert a pull on each other. The second imagined a
gravitational field extending through space, which the objects distort.
The third applied the principle of least action, which holds that each
object moves by following the path that takes the least energy in the
least time. All three approaches produced the same, correct prediction.
They were three equally useful descriptions of how gravity works.

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Posted by on August 2, 2019 in Reportages



Un pianeta senz’acqua

A Bangalore, cuore della Silicon valley indiana, gli uffici e i complessi residenziali sono cresciuti più rapidamente della rete idrica, tanto che le condutture trasportano appena il 60 per cento del fabbisogno quotidiano di acqua.

La gran parte del restante 40 per cento è prelevata dai pozzi e consegnata alle case e agli uffici da una flotta di autocisterne private che affollano le strade della metropoli, che ha 12 milioni di abitanti.

Il problema è che i pozzi di Bangalore si stanno prosciugando. Nel 2018 uno studio commissionato dal governo ha previsto che la città – come altri centri urbani indiani, a cominciare da New Delhi – potrebbe restare senz’acqua già nel 2020 a causa dell’esaurimento delle falde. Secondo il rapporto, entro il 2030 metà della popolazione dell’India (ovvero circa settecento milioni di persone) potrebbe non avere acqua potabile a sufficienza.

L’acqua sta diventando una risorsa pericolosamente rara in tutto il mondo, e questa situazione alimenta la corsa per assicurarsi una fornitura stabile e i timori per l’aumento delle vittime nei conflitti legati alla carenza idrica.

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Posted by on July 18, 2019 in Reportages


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Man’s stressed friend: how your mental health can affect your dog

If you think your dog looks stressed out, it might be your own stress levels that are affecting your pet pooch.

A study published on Thursday in Nature’s Scientific Reports shows pet dogs may synchronise their stress levels with those of their owners.

More than just being “man’s best friend”, it appears our pet dogs may be mirroring our mental state too, and that can be bad for their health.

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Posted by on July 12, 2019 in Uncategorized


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The Anthropocene epoch: have we entered a new phase of planetary history?

It was February 2000 and the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen was sitting in a meeting room in Cuernavaca, Mexico, stewing quietly. Five years earlier, Crutzen and two colleagues had been awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for proving that the ozone layer, which shields the planet from ultraviolet light, was thinning at the poles because of rising concentrations of industrial gas. Now he was attending a meeting of scientists who studied the planet’s oceans, land surfaces and atmosphere. As the scientists presented their findings, most of which described dramatic planetary changes, Crutzen shifted in his seat. “You could see he was getting agitated. He wasn’t happy,” Will Steffen, a chemist who organised the meeting, told me recently.

What finally tipped Crutzen over the edge was a presentation by a group of scientists that focused on the Holocene, the geological epoch that began around 11,700 years ago and continues to the present day. After Crutzen heard the word Holocene for the umpteenth time, he lost it. “He stopped everybody and said: ‘Stop saying the Holocene! We’re not in the Holocene any more,’” Steffen recalled. But then Crutzen stalled. The outburst had not been premeditated, but now all eyes were on him. So he blurted out a name for a new epoch. A combination of anthropos, the Greek for “human”, and “-cene”, the suffix used in names of geological epochs, “Anthropocene” at least sounded academic. Steffen made a note.

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Posted by on June 12, 2019 in Reportages


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How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks

Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams.

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Posted by on May 20, 2019 in Uncategorized


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When biodegradable plastic is not biodegradable

The idea of a “biodegradable” plastic suggests a material that would degrade to little or nothing over a period of time, posing less of a hazard to wildlife and the environment. This is the sort of claim often made by plastic manufacturers, yet recent research has revealed supposedly biodegradable plastic bags still intact after three years spent either at sea or buried underground. So un-degraded were these bags that they were still able to hold more than two kilos of shopping.

The study’s authors, Imogen Napper and Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth, tested compostable, biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, and conventional polythene plastic bags in three different natural environments: buried in the ground, outdoors exposed to air and sunlight, and submerged in the sea. Not one of the bags broke down completely in all of the environments tested. In particular, the biodegradable bag survived in soil and sea almost unscathed.

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Posted by on May 14, 2019 in Uncategorized


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