Another Language Another Time

Language has such a powerful effect, it can influence the way in which we experience time, according to a new study.

Professor Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist from Lancaster University and Professor Emanuel Bylund, a linguist from Stellenbosch University and Stockholm University, have discovered that people who speak two languages fluently think about time differently depending on the language context in which they are estimating the duration of events.

The finding, reported in the ‘Journal of Experimental Psychology: General‘, published by the American Psychological Association, reports the first evidence of cognitive flexibility in people who speak two languages.

Bilinguals go back and forth between their languages rapidly and often, unconsciously, a phenomenon called code-switching.

But different languages also embody different worldviews, different ways of organising the world around us. And time is a case in point. For example, Swedish and English speakers prefer to mark the duration of events by referring to physical distances, e.g. a short break, a long wedding, etc. The passage of time is perceived as distance travelled.

But Greek and Spanish speakers tend to mark time by referring to physical quantities, e.g. a small break, a big wedding. The passage of time is perceived as growing volume.

The study found that bilinguals seemed to flexibly utilise both ways of marking duration, depending on the language context. This alters how they experience the passage of time.

In the study, Professor Bylund and Professor Athanasopoulos asked Spanish-Swedish bilinguals to estimate how much time had passed while watching either a line growing across a screen or a container being filled.

At the same time, participants were prompted with either the word ‘duración’ (the Spanish word for duration) or ‘tid’ (the Swedish word for duration).

When watching containers filling up and prompted by the Spanish prompt word, bilinguals based their time estimates of how full the containers were, perceiving time as volume. They were unaffected by the lines growing on screens.

Conversely, when given the Swedish prompt word, bilinguals suddenly switched their behaviour, with their time estimates becoming influenced by the distance the lines had travelled, but not by how much the containers had filled.

“By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before,” says Professor Athanasopoulos. “The fact that bilinguals go between these different ways of estimating time effortlessly and unconsciously fits in with a growing body of evidence demonstrating the ease with which language can creep into our most basic senses, including our emotions, our visual perception, and now it turns out, our sense of time.

“But it also shows that bilinguals are more flexible thinkers, and there is evidence to suggest that mentally going back and forth between different languages on a daily basis confers advantages on the ability to learn and multi-task, and even long term benefits for mental well-being.”

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D Light

Results from a clinical review published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association find nearly 1 billion people worldwide may have deficient or insufficient levels of vitamin D due to chronic disease and inadequate sun exposure related to sunscreen use.

The study also found that 95 percent of African American adults may have vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency. Vitamin D variations among races are attributed to differences in skin pigmentation.

“People are spending less time outside and, when they do go out, they’re typically wearing sunscreen, which essentially nullifies the body’s ability to produce vitamin D,” said Kim Pfotenhauer, DO, assistant professor at Touro University and a researcher on this study. “While we want people to protect themselves against skin cancer, there are healthy, moderate levels of unprotected sun exposure that can be very helpful in boosting vitamin D.”

Dr. Pfotenhauer also said chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes and those related to malabsorption, including kidney disease, Crohn’s and celiac disease greatly inhibit the body’s ability to metabolize vitamin D from food sources.

Considered a hormone rather than a vitamin, vitamin D is produced when skin is exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D receptors are found in virtually every cell in the human body. As a result, it plays a wide role in the body’s functions, including cell growth modulation, neuromuscular and immune function and inflammation reduction.

Symptoms for insufficient or deficient vitamin D include muscle weakness and bone fractures. People exhibiting these symptoms or who have chronic diseases known to decrease vitamin D, should have their levels checked and if found to be low, discuss treatment options. However, universal screening is likely neither necessary nor prudent absent significant symptoms or chronic disease.

Increasing and maintaining healthy vitamin D levels can be as easy as spending 5-30 minutes in midday sun twice per week. The appropriate time depends on a person’s geographic location and skin pigmentation; lighter skin synthesizes more vitamin D than darker skin. It is important to forgo sunscreen during these sessions because SPF 15 or greater decreases vitamin D3 production by 99 percent.

“You don’t need to go sunbathing at the beach to get the benefits,” said Dr. Pfotenhauer. “A simple walk with arms and legs exposed is enough for most people.”

Food sources such as milk, breakfast cereals and Portobello mushrooms are also fortified with vitamin D. Dr. Pfotenhauer said supplements are a good option, as they are effective and pose few risks, provided they are taken as directed and a physician is consulted beforehand.

Research is ongoing to determine whether vitamin D deficiency has a role in multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disorders, infections, respiratory disease, cardiometabolic disease, cancer and fracture risk.

“Science has been trying to find a one-to-one correspondence between vitamin D levels and specific diseases,” said Dr. Pfotenhauer. “Given vitamin D’s ubiquitous role in the body, I believe sufficient vitamin D is more about overall health. Our job as osteopathic physicians is to recognise those patients that need to be tested and treat them accordingly.”

Currently, insufficiency is defined as between 21 and 30 ng/ml and deficiency is considered below 20ng/ml by the Endocrine Society.

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Rock Collecting

An international group that includes an University of Kansas researcher, has discovered a brownish piece of split limestone in a site in Croatia that suggests Neanderthals 130,000 years ago collected the rock that stands out among all other items in the cave.

“If we were walking and picked up this rock, we would have taken it home,” said David Frayer, a professor emeritus of anthropology who was part of the study. “It is an interesting rock.”

The finding is important he said, because it adds to other recent evidence that Neanderthals were capable on their own, of incorporating symbolic objects into their culture. The rock was collected more than 100 years ago from the Krapina Neanderthal site, which has items preserved in the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb, where in recent years the research team has re-examined them.

The group’s findings on the collected rock at Krapina were published recently in the French journal Comptes Rendus Palevol. Davorka Radovčić, curator at the Croatian Natural History Museum, was the study’s lead author, and Frayer is the corresponding author.

The same research group in a widely recognized 2015 study published a PLOS ONE article about a set of eagle talons from the same Neanderthal site that included cut marks and were fashioned into a piece of jewelry.

“People have often defined Neanderthals as being devoid of any kind of aesthetic feelings, and yet we know that at this site they collected eagle talons and they collected this rock. At other sites, researchers have found they collected shells and used pigments on shells,” Frayer said. “There’s a little bit of evidence out there to suggest that they weren’t the big, dumb creatures that everybody thinks they were.”

Similar to the Neanderthal jewelry discovery at Krapina, Frayer credits Radovčić’s keen eye in examining all items found at that the site, originally excavated between 1899-1905 and found to contain Neanderthal bones.

The cave at the Krapina site was sandstone, so the split limestone rock stuck out as not deriving from the cave, Frayer said. None of the more than 1,000 lithic items collected from Krapina resemble the rock, but the original archaeologists apparently did nothing more with the rock other than to collect it.

Frayer said the limestone rock which is roughly five inches long, four inches high and about a half-inch thick, did not have any striking platforms or other areas of preparation on the rock’s edge, so the research team assumed it was not broken apart.

“The fact that it wasn’t modified, to us, it meant that it was brought there for a purpose other than being used as a tool,” Frayer said.

There was a small triangular flake that fits with the rock, but the break appeared to be fresh and likely happened well after the specimen was deposited into the sediments of the Krapina site. Perhaps it occurred during transport or storage after the excavation around 1900, he said.

The look of the rock also caught the researchers’ eye as many inclusions or black lines on it stood out from the brown limestone. Perhaps that is what made the Neanderthal want to collect it in the first place.

“It looked like it is important,” Frayer said. “We went back through all the collected items to make sure there weren’t other rocks like it. It just sat there for 100 years like most of the other stuff from the site. The original archaeologists had described stone tools, but didn’t pay any attention to this one.”

They suspect a Neanderthal collected the rock from a site a few kilometres north of the Krapina site where there were known outcrops of biopelmicritic grey limestone. Either the Neanderthal found it there or the Krapinica stream transported it closer to the site.

The discovery of the rock collection is likely minor compared with other discoveries, such as more modern humans 25,000 years ago making cave paintings in France. However, Frayer said it added to a body of evidence that Neanderthals were capable of assigning symbolic significance to objects and went to the effort of collecting them.

The discovery could also provide more clues as to how modern humans developed these traits, he said.

“It adds to the number of other recent studies about Neanderthals doing things that are thought to be unique to modern Homo sapiens,” Frayer said. “We contend they had a curiosity and symbolic-like capacities typical of modern humans.”

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Hair Properties

In a new study, researchers at the University of California San Diego investigate why hair is incredibly strong and resistant to breaking. The findings could lead to the development of new materials for body armour and help cosmetic manufacturers create better hair care products.

Hair has a strength to weight ratio comparable to steel. It can be stretched up to one and a half times its original length before breaking. “We wanted to understand the mechanism behind this extraordinary property,” said Yang (Daniel) Yu, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student at UC San Diego and the first author of the study.

“Nature creates a variety of interesting materials and architectures in very ingenious ways. We’re interested in understanding the correlation between the structure and the properties of biological materials to develop synthetic materials and designs based on nature that have better performance than existing ones,” said Marc Meyers, a professor of mechanical engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and the lead author of the study.

In a study published online in the journal Materials Science and Engineering C, researchers examined at the nanoscale level how a strand of human hair behaves when it is deformed, or stretched. The team found that hair behaves differently depending on how fast or slow it is stretched. The faster hair is stretched, the stronger it is. “Think of a highly viscous substance like honey,” Meyers explained. “If you deform it fast it becomes stiff, but if you deform it slowly it readily pours.”

Hair consists of two main parts, the cortex which is made up of parallel fibrils and the matrix, which has an amorphous (random) structure. The matrix is sensitive to the speed at which hair is deformed, while the cortex is not. The combination of these two components Yu explained, is what gives hair the ability to withstand high stress and strain.

And as hair is stretched, its structure changes in a particular way. At the nanoscale, the cortex fibrils in hair are each made up of thousands of coiled spiral-shaped chains of molecules called alpha helix chains. As hair is deformed, the alpha helix chains uncoil and become pleated sheet structures known as beta sheets. This structural change allows hair to handle up a large amount deformation without breaking.

This structural transformation is partially reversible. When hair is stretched under a small amount of strain, it can recover its original shape. Stretch it further, the structural transformation becomes irreversible. “This is the first time evidence for this transformation has been discovered,” Yu said.

“Hair is such a common material with many fascinating properties,” said Bin Wang, a UC San Diego PhD alumna and co-author on the paper. Wang is now at the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology in China continuing research on hair.

The team also conducted stretching tests on hair at different humidity levels and temperatures. At higher humidity levels, hair can withstand up to 70 to 80 percent deformation before breaking. Water essentially “softens” hair,  it enters the matrix and breaks the sulfur bonds connecting the filaments inside a strand of hair. Researchers also found that hair starts to undergo permanent damage at 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit). Beyond this temperature, hair breaks faster at lower stress and strain.

“Since I was a child I always wondered why hair is so strong. Now I know why,” said Wen Yang, a former postdoctoral researcher in Meyers’ research group and co-author on the paper.

The team is currently conducting further studies on the effects of water on the properties of human hair. Moving forward, the team is investigating the detailed mechanism of how washing hair causes it to return to its original shape.

Full paper: “Structure and mechanical behaviour of human hair.” Authors of the study are: Yang Yu, Wen Yang, Bin Wang and Marc André Meyers, all of UC San Diego.

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Spindletop

In 1901, a drilling derrick at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas produced an enormous gusher of crude oil, coating the landscape for hundreds of feet and signalling the advent of the American oil industry. The geyser was discovered at a depth of over 1,000 feet, flowed at an initial rate of approximately 100,000 barrels a day and took nine days to cap. Following the discovery, petroleum, which until that time had been used in the U.S. primarily as a lubricant and in kerosene for lamps, would become the main fuel source for new inventions such as cars and airplanes; coal-powered forms of transportation including ships and trains would also convert to the liquid fuel.

Crude oil, which became the world’s first trillion-dollar industry, is a natural mix of hundreds of different hydrocarbon compounds trapped in underground rock. The hydrocarbons were formed millions of years ago when tiny aquatic plants and animals died and settled on the bottoms of ancient waterways, creating a thick layer of organic material. Sediment later covered this material, putting heat and pressure on it and transforming it into the petroleum that comes out of the ground today.

In the early 1890s, Texas businessman and amateur geologist Patillo Higgins became convinced there was a large pool of oil under a salt-dome formation south of Beaumont. He and several partners established the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company and made several unsuccessful drilling attempts before Higgins left the company. In 1899, Higgins leased a tract of land at Spindletop to mining engineer Anthony Lucas. The Lucas gusher blew on January 10, 1901 and ushered in the liquid fuel age. Unfortunately for Higgins, he’d lost his ownership stake by that point.

Beaumont became a “black gold” boomtown, its population tripling in three months. The town filled up with oil workers, investors, merchants and con men (leading some people to dub it “Swindletop”). Within a year, there were more than 285 actives wells at Spindletop and an estimated 500 oil and land companies operating in the area, including some that are major players today: Humble (now Exxon), the Texas Company (Texaco) and Magnolia Petroleum Company (Mobil).

Spindletop experienced a second boom starting in the mid-1920s when more oil was discovered at deeper depths. In the 1950s, Spindletop was mined for sulphur. Today, only a few oil wells still operate in the area.

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Bug Evolution

The growth of bacteria can be stimulated by antibiotics, scientists at the University of Exeter have discovered.

The EPSRC-funded researchers exposed E.coli bacteria to eight rounds of antibiotic treatment over four days and found the bug, which can cause severe stomach pain, diarrhea and kidney failure in humans, had increased antibiotic resistance with each treatment.

This had been expected, but researchers were surprised to find mutated E.coli reproduced faster than before encountering the drugs and formed populations that were three times larger because of the mutations.

This was only seen in bacteria exposed to antibiotics and when researchers took the drug away, the evolutionary changes were not undone and the new-found abilities remained.

“Our research suggests there could be added benefits for E.coli bacteria when they evolve resistance to clinical levels of antibiotics,” said lead author Professor Robert Beardmore, of the University of Exeter.

“It’s often said that Darwinian evolution is slow, but nothing could be further from the truth, particularly when bacteria are exposed to antibiotics.

“Bacteria have a remarkable ability to rearrange their DNA and this can stop drugs working, sometimes in a matter of days.

“While rapid DNA change can be dangerous to a human cell, to a bacterium like E.coli it can have multiple benefits, provided they hit on the right changes.”

The researchers tested the effects of the antibiotic doxycycline on E.coli as part of a study of DNA changes brought about by antibiotics.

The E.coli “uber-bug” that subsequently evolved was safely frozen at -80C and the scientists used genetic sequencing to find out which DNA changes were responsible for its unusual evolution.

Some changes are well known and have been seen in clinical patients, like E.coli producing more antibiotic pumps that bacteria exploit to push antibiotics out of the cell.

Another change saw the loss of DNA that is known to describe a dormant virus.

“Our best guess is that losing viral DNA stops the E.coli destroying itself, so we see more bacterial cells growing once the increase in pump DNA allows them to resist the antibiotic in the first place,” said Dr Carlos Reding, who was part of the study.

“This creates an evolutionary force for change on two regions of the E.coli genome.

“Normally, self-destruction can help bacteria colonise surfaces through the production of biofilms. You see biofilms in a dirty sink when you look down the plughole.

“But our study used liquid conditions, a bit like the bloodstream, so the E.coli could give up on its biofilm lifestyle in favour of increasing cell production.”

Dr Mark Hewlett, also of the University of Exeter, added: “It is said by some that drug resistance evolution doesn’t take place at high dosages but our paper shows that it can and that bacteria can change in ways that would not be beneficial for the treatment of certain types of infection.

“This shows it’s important to use the right antibiotic on patients as soon as possible so we don’t see adaptations like these in the clinic.”

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Just A Throw Away

Throwing is one of the most complex actions humans perform. Even tossing a crumpled piece of paper into a waste basket two feet away requires a series of complex neurological and mechanical calculations. Should you toss overhand or underhand? How fast should you throw? At what angle should you hold your arm?

Applied mathematicians at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) decided to use mathematical models to figure out the best strategies to throw something at a target.

“There are many different ways to get an object to a target,” said L. Mahadevan, the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, Physics and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at SEAS and senior author of the study. “How do you choose? Our hypothesis was that you choose based on a strategy that minimises the error at the target while giving yourself the greatest room for error at the release.”

The team found that while underhand throws are best for reaching a target close by and above the shoulder, overhand throws are more accurate for targets below the shoulder, like a waste paper basket and are more forgiving to errors over long distances.

The research is published in Royal Society Open Science.

As all pitchers, quarterbacks and bowlers know, once an object is released, the thrower loses control over where it goes. Mahadevan and M. Venkadesan of Yale University, analysed the parabolic trajectories of thrown objects to understand how release errors affect the accuracy of the throw.

“We asked, how do errors introduced in the release of the thrown object propagate at the location of the target, as a function of the distance, orientation and height of the target,” said Mahadevan, who is also a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

The researchers also modelled the trade-off between speed and accuracy when throwing an object.

The team found that regardless of the target location, the most accurate throw is slightly faster than the minimum speed needed to reach the target. The faster the throw, the less likely it is to be accurate, which explains why even the best pitchers still throw a lot of balls. The researchers found that at both high speeds and longer distances, the overarm throw beats the underhand throw in accuracy.

The findings shed light on how humans evolved to throw, said Mahadevan. After all, the ability to hit a target with a thrown object was key to human evolution. Without claws or sharp teeth, humans’ ability to throw a stone or spear was a primary method of hunting for food.

“This research demonstrates the theoretically best way to throw. But most of us are not born throwers of anything. We learn how to throw through trial and error,” said Mahadevan. “Now, we have a mathematical framework to think about how learning about the physical world requires interacting with the world. We can’t think about tasks unless we think about the way in which we interact with the physicality of the environment.”

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