May 23, 2013
Last September, a team of archaeologists in the UK made a remarkable find: under a city council parking lot in Leicester, they found the remains of King Richard III. The king ruled England for just two years (from 1483 until 1485) before his violent war-time death.
In February, after comparing DNA taken from the skeleton to surviving descendants of the king and testing its age, the group officially confirmed the identity of the body. Since then, forensic analysis indicated that the king was killed by traumatic sword blows to the head—perhaps with enough force to drive his crown into his skull.
Now, the first academic paper to be published on the discovery provides more unnerving details on the circumstances of Richard III’s death. In a study to be published tomorrow in the journal Antiquity, the University of Leicester team writes that the king’s body looks like it was buried in a hurry, crammed into a hastily-prepared grave that was too small for him. Further, he was left in a strange, slightly folded position, perhaps even with its hands tied together.
Instead of a carefully-dug grave with straight walls, as was customary during the era, Richard III’s has sloping walls, with a larger size at the surface than at the bottom, as the team determined by comparing the layered patterns in the dirt abutting the grave with the unordered soil filling it and surrounding the king’s remains.
What’s more, the king’s head was left leaning against one corner of the grave, indicating that a gravedigger stood in the hole to receive his body and didn’t bother rearranging him at the center after putting him down on the ground, and there’s no evidence that a coffin or even a death shroud was used. Given the historical context of Richard III’s death, none of this is a huge surprise, although the apparent lack of care surrounding the burial of this king might exceed even what historians had previously expected.
Richard III was killed at age 32 during the Battle of Bosworth Field, close to the end of the infamously violent War of the Roses period—a 30-plus year battle for power between supporters of competing branches of the royal family for control of the throne. After he was defeated and killed in battle by the forces of rival Henry Tudor (who would become King Henry VII), the new king reportedly kept the burial location intentionally secret—he feared it would otherwise become a rallying location for his enemies—and knowledge of Richard III’s grave was lost over time.
Now we know that Richard III’s body was brought to the nearby city of Leicester, passed along to Franciscan friars and buried at what was then Grey Friars church “without any pomp or solemn funeral,” according to the contemporary historian Polydore Vergil. (Legend holds that his body was stripped naked, transported on the back of a horse and mocked by passers-by during the entire journey.) Eventually, the church was dismantled, and the site was paved over.
Apart from analyzing the unusual characteristics of the king’s grave, the new paper also provides the first peer-reviewed forensic details about his remains. As the archaeologists had previously mentioned in public statements, the body matches the physical details of Richard III as described in historical sources: a curved spine, due to childhood scoliosis, and slim features. In addition to the fierce blows to his head, there were a total of 10 wounds discovered on his body, including stabs in his buttocks and back that the researchers believe were probably made after he’d already been killed, because of their location and the fact that they couldn’t have been made while he was still wearing armor.
So, did Richard III die in violent humiliation? The new findings seem to support this idea. At the very least, he was buried in a manner that certainly didn’t befit a king. But now, a number of groups and localities are suddenly interested in giving him a proper burial. The cities of Leicester and York are dueling over the right to preserve his remains and attract the tourists that will flock to see the king who was buried in a parking lot. We can only hope this new battle doesn’t last for another 30 years.
May 10, 2013
It’s hard to appreciate just how quickly and thoroughly Twitter has taken over the world. Just seven years ago, in 2006, it was an idea sketched out on a pad of paper. Now, the service is used by an estimated 554 million users—a number that amounts to nearly 8 percent of the all humans on the planet—and an estimated 170 billion tweets have been sent, with that number climbing by roughly 58 million every single day.
All these tweets provide an invaluable source of news, entertainment, conversation and connection between people. But for scientists, they’re also valuable as something rather different: raw data.
Because Twitter features an open API (which allows for tweets to be downloaded as raw, analyzable data) and many tweets are geotagged, researchers can use billions of these tweets and analyze them by location to learn more about the geography of humans across the planet. Last fall, as part of the Global Twitter Heartbeat, a University of Illinois team analyzed the language and location of over a billion tweets from across the U.S. to create sophisticated maps of things like positive and negative emotions expressed during Hurricane Sandy, or support for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney during the Presidential election.
As Joshua Keating noted on Foreign Policy‘s War of Ideas blog, members of the same group, led by Kalev Leetaru, have recently gone one step further. As published in a new study earlier this week in the online journal First Monday, they analyzed the locations and languages of 46,672,798 tweets posted between October 23 and November 30 of last year to create a stunning portrait of human activity around the planet, shown at the top of the post. They made use of the Twitter decahose, a data stream that captures a random 10 percent of all tweets worldwide at any given time (which totaled 1,535,929,521 for the time period), and simply focused on the tweets with associated geographic data.
As the researchers note, the geographic density of tweets in many regions—especially in the Western world, where computers, mobile devices, and Twitter are all used at peak levels—closely matches rates of electrification and lighting use. As a result, the maps of tweets (such as the detail view of the continental U.S., below) end up looking a lot like satellite images of artificial light at night.
As a test to see how well tweets matched artificial light use, they created the composite map below, in which tweets are shown as red dots and nighttime lighting is shown as blue. Areas where they correspond in frequency (and effectively cancel each other out) are shown as white, and areas where one outweighs the other remain red or blue. Many areas end up looking pretty white, with some key exceptions: Iran and China, where Twitter is banned, are noticeably blue, while many countries with relatively low electrification rates (but where Twitter is still popular) appear as red.
The project got even more interesting when the researchers used an automated system to break down tweets by language. The most common language in Twitter is English, which is represented in 38.25 percent of all Tweets. After that came Japanese (11.84 percent), Spanish (11.37 percent), Indonesian (8.84 percent), Norwegian (7.74 percent) and Portugese (5.58 percent).
The team constructed a map of all tweets written in the 26 most popular languages, with each represented by a different color, below:
While most countries’ tweets are dominated by their official languages, many are revealed to include tweets in a variety of other languages. Look closely enough, and you’ll see a rainbow of colors subtly popping out from the grey dots (English tweets) that blanket the U.S.:
Among other analyses, the research team even looked at the geography of retweeting and referencing—the average distance between a user and someone he or she retweets, as well as the average distance between that user and someone he or she simply references in a tweet. On average, the distance for a retweet was 1,115 miles and 1,118 for a reference. But, counterintuitively, there was a positive relationship between the number of times a given user retweeted or referenced another user and their distance: Pairs of users with just a handful of interactions, on the whole, were more likely to be closer together (500-600 miles apart) than those with dozens of retweets and references between them.
This indicates that users who live far apart are more likely to use Twitter to interact on a regular basis. One explanation might be that the entities with the most followers—and thus the most references and retweets—are often celebrities, organizations or corporations, users that people are familiar with but don’t actually have a personal relationship with. A global map of retweets between users is below:
The paper went into even more detail on other data associated with tweets: the ratio between mainstream news coverage and number of tweets in a country (Europe and the U.S. get disproportionate media coverage, while Latin America and Indonesia are overlooked), the places Twitter has added the most users recently (the Middle East and Spain) and the places where users have, on average, the most followers (South America and the West Coast).
There are a few caveats to all this data. For one, though the tweets analyzed number in the tens of millions, they are still just 0.3 percent of all tweets sent, so they might not adequately represent all Twitter patterns, especially if users who enable geotagging behave differently than others. Additionally, in the fast-changing world of Twitter, some trends might have already changed significantly since last fall. But as Twitter continues to grow and as more data become available, it stands to reason that this sort of analysis will only become more popular for demographers, computer scientists and other researchers.
April 24, 2013
Who you’re physically attracted to might seem like a frivolous, random preference. In recent years, though, science has told us that our seemingly arbitrary tastes often reflect unconscious choices that are based upon very relevant biological traits.
In general, we find symmetric faces more attractive, likely because they reflect a healthy underlying genome. Women typically prefer men with more distinctively masculine facial features because they indicate high testosterone levels and physical strength, while men prefer women with exaggerated youthful features, possibly because of the evolutionary advantages a male gets when coupling with a younger mate.
Despite all this research into our visual appearances, though, scientists have done relatively little digging into our auditory preferences when it comes to sexual attraction. Why do we find certain peoples’ voices attractive–and why do we sometimes find other types of voices such a turn-off? Specifically, why do women generally prefer men with deep voices, and men prefer women with higher ones?
At least according to a paper published today in PLOS ONE, the explanation is relatively simple: It’s all about body size. Researchers from University College London found that, at least among a sample of 32 participants, high-pitched female voices females were found to be attractive because they indicated the speaker had a small body. Deep male voices, on the other hand, were judged as more attractive because they conveyed that the speaker had a large frame—but were found to be most attractive when tempered by a touch of “breathiness,” suggesting the speaker had a low level of aggression despite his large size.
The group, led by Yi Xu, figured this out by playing recordings of digitally manipulated voices to the participants. The males in the study heard a computer-generated female voice saying phrases such as “I owe you a yo-yo” in which the voice was manipulated with a number of digital alterations in terms of pitch, formant (the particular peaks and valleys in a sound’s frequency spectrum) and other qualities.
The specific manipulations either conveyed a smaller body size or a larger one, based upon previous research that matched various voice qualities with different body sizes in humans. When asked to rate the voice’s attractiveness on a 1 to 5 scale, the men preferred the voices that suggested a smaller female. Past a certain point, though, higher voices were judged as no more attractive that slightly deeper ones. Listen to the most and least attractive (both, admittedly creepy) voices below:
The female participants’ voice preferences were similar, but slightly more nuanced. On the whole, they preferred deeper voices, which signaled a large body size, but another trait was also crucial: “breathiness.” The researchers hypothesized that this breathiness effectively takes the edge off a voice, making a man with a presumed large frame seem less aggressive and angry. They also polled the participants on whether they thought the simulated voices sounded angry or happy, and the breathy deep males voices were generally perceived as much happier and less angry than the less breathy (i.e. “pressed”) deep ones. Listen to the most and least attractive male voices below:
Beyond explaining the popularity of Barry White, the researchers say these findings correspond to much of what we know about voice preferences in the rest of the animal kingdom. Birds and other mammals, it turns out, have long been known to advertise their physical characteristics via the sound qualities in their mating calls.
All this points to an obvious question, though: Why would males prefer smaller females, and females prefer larger males in the first place? The researchers don’t attempt to address this question, but this duality reflects the sexual dimorphism present in most animal species. These differences generally result from sexual selection giving incentive to different mating strategies—so in this case, our voice preferences suggest that women benefit, in evolutionary terms, by mating with larger, but less aggressive men, while males benefit from mating with smaller females.
As the same time, what we commonly consider attractive varies dramatically over time and location—for example, dozens of prehistoric “Venus figurines,” discovered all over the world, portray extremely voluptuous female figures. So, if we tested the preferences of all humans throughout history, we might find a less obvious trend. This preference for small-voiced females and big-voiced males, then, might simply be an artifact of our contemporary cultural concepts of “attractiveness,” rather than a deep-seated evolutionary choice after all.
April 16, 2013
After a baby orangutan is born, it’ll spend the first two years of its life completely dependent on its mother—maintaining direct physical contact with her for at least the first four months—and breastfeeding for up to five years in total. During that time, it will likely never meet its father. Polar bears are also born helpless, surviving on their mothers’ milk through the harsh Arctic winter, but polar bear fathers provide no parenting, and have even been known to eat their cubs on occasion if they get the chance.
Both of these facts reflect a pattern common across the animal kingdom: In most species, mothers are inherently much more involved in parenting than fathers, and evolution has driven them to develop parenting instincts that are absent in their male counterparts.
A new experiment, though, suggests that contrary to conventional wisdom, one animal species remains a pretty significant exception to this rule: humans. It’s often believed that nobody can recognize a baby’s cry as accurately as his or her mother, but a study published today in Nature Communications by a team of French scientists led by Erik Gustafsson of the University de Saint-Etienne found that fathers can do it equally well—if they spend as much time with their offspring as mothers do.
The study involved 29 babies from France and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all less than half a year old, along with each of their mothers and 27 of their fathers (2 could not be located for the study). The researchers recorded the cries these infants made while being bathed, and then played them back to their parents (along with the cries of other babies) later on. To this non-parenting bystander, the cries (published along with the paper) generally seem pretty similar—like the one below, they all sound, well, like a quintessential baby’s cry:
In one of those astounding feats of parenthood, though, the parents did way better than chance in identifying which of the seemingly-identical cries belonged to their child from the sound alone. Each parent heard a random sequence of 30 different cries (24 from 8 other babies, and 6 from their own), and on average, they correctly identified 5.4 of their baby’s cries, while making 4.1 false-positives (incorrectly identifying another infant’s cry as their child’s). Although having this skill doesn’t necessarily indicate that a parent provides expert care, it does reflect a remarkably well-attuned connection between parent and infant.
When the researchers split the data along gender lines, they found something interesting. The factor that best predicted which parents were best at identifying their child’s cries was the amount of time the parent spent with their babies, regardless of if they were the mother or father.
Of the 14 fathers who spent an average of 4 or more hours a day with their babies, 13 correctly identified 98% of their total cries (and the outlier still got 90% right). The 29 mothers who spent a comparable amount of time with their children (that is, all the mothers in the study) got the same 98% correct. The remaining 13 fathers who spent less than 4 hours a day with their kids, though, were only able to identify 75% of the cries correctly.
The finding might not seem particularly surprising—of course whichever parents spend the most time with their children will be best at identifying the nuances of his or her pitch—but it cuts against the grain of previous research on this topic, which found that mothers seemed to be naturally better than fathers at identifying their own infants’ cries. (People often make the same assumption, the researchers say—in an informal survey they took of 531 students at the University de Saint-Etienne, 43% felt mothers were better, and the rest thought fathers and mothers were equally good at identifying their baby’s cries, while none felt fathers were.) But previous studies didn’t take into account the amount of time parents typically spent with their children on a daily basis.
The results suggest that experience and learning may be more critical to good parenting than innate skills. Far from being inherently disadvantaged in recognizing their babies’ cries, males who spent lots of time parenting turned out to be just as good as females at the task—so in terms of this particular skill, at least, parenting is less an inherent talent than a one to be practiced and developed. This also implies that whoever is the primary caregivers for a baby—whether grandparents, aunts, uncles or people unrelated to the child—may develop the same ability to distinguish the cries of the child in their care from other children.
Of course, while the findings don’t depict any innate asymmetry in parenting skills between the sexes, they do reveal an enormous asymmetry in the behavior of parents regardless of their continent, predicated on traditional gender roles. Every mother participating in the study spent enough time with their kids to develop the skill tested, while just about half of the fathers did—and two fathers couldn’t even be located to participate in the study in the first place.
Fathers might have the same innate parenting skills as mothers, but only if they make the enormous time investment necessary. This study indicates that it’s usually not the case, and though its sample size was extremely limited, broader data sets show the same. According to the most recent Pew Research data on parenting, the average American mother spends 14 hours per week in child care duties, compared to just 7 hours for the average father—so while men can develop the ability to know their babies just as well as women, most fathers out there probably haven’t so far.
March 28, 2013
In 1968, Andy Warhol—already famous in his own right—further added to his celebrity by creating a lasting cliché: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Prescient as Warhol might have been, it seems we haven’t reached that future quite yet, at least according to science. A new study, published today in the American Sociological Review, finds that true fame lasts a good deal longer than 15 minutes. In an analysis of the celebrity journalism nationwide, researchers found that the most famous (and most often-mentioned) celebrities stick around for decades.
To come to the finding, a number of sociologists each spent a multi-year sabbatical meticulously combing the “Stars: They’re Just Like Us” feature of UsMagazine. Several reportedly declined to return to the field of academia, apparently taking their talents to the analytical departments of the glossy magazine industry full-time.
Just kidding! In all seriousness, the sociologists, led by Eran Shor of McGill University and Arnout van de Rijt of Stony Brook University, used an automated search took a random sample of roughly 100,000 names that appeared in the entertainment sections of 2,200 daily American newspapers published between 2004 and 2009. Their sample didn’t include every single name published, but rather a random selection of names published at all different frequencies—so it wouldn’t be useful for telling you who was the most often-mentioned celebrity overall, but would be illustrative of the sorts of trends that famous (and not-so-famous) names go through over time.
The ten most frequently-mentioned names in their sample: Jamie Foxx, Bill Murray, Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Naomi Watts, Howard Hughes, Phil Spector, John Malkovich, Adrien Brody and Steve Buscemi. All celebrities, they note, were relatively famous before the year 2000, in some cases decades earlier (Howard Hughes rose to fame in the 1920s). All ten names, additionally, are still fairly well-known today.
Overall, 96 percent of the most famous names in the sample (those mentioned more than 100 times over the course of a given year) had already been frequently featured in the news three years earlier, further dispelling the 15 minutes cliché. Furthermore, if a name was mentioned extremely often in its first year of appearing, it stood a greater chance of sticking around for an extended period of time.
There is, however, some truth to 15-minutes idea: Names of lesser fame (those less frequently mentioned to start) exhibit significantly higher amounts of turnover from year to year. The researchers say these names mostly fall into the category of people involved in newsworthy events—such as natural disasters and crimes—rather than people who readers find newsworthy in their own right. As an example, Van de Rijt mentions Chelsey Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who briefly achieved celebrity after successfully executing an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2011, but is now scarcely frequently mentioned in the press.
The list of the most famous names, though, stays relatively similar every year. “The vast majority of coverage goes to names that have already been in the news for several years, and new names rarely penetrate the higher strata of fame,” the researchers write in the study. The bottom of the fame hierarchy is filled with new names annually, but at the top, they write, is “a reshuffling of already familiar names and not rapid replacement of an outgoing cohort by an incoming cohort.”
Apart from the newspaper data, the team also looked at a much smaller sample of celebrity mentions on blogs and TV, and found a similar trend. New media, it seems, follow roughly the same pattern as old outlets—which is why you don’t see much about figures like the “balloon boy” across the web nowadays either.
Frivolous as the work may seem, the researchers say it bears important conclusions about our society. Upward mobility in the celebrity world is extremely scarce. Becoming famous requires some combination of talent and luck that allows a person to break into the elite class of being mentioned over and over by the press. But what is that combination–what makes a person famous? Or is it that the press has created a cycle that allows a person to remain famous, in some cases after his or her career has peaked, or even after his or her death?”
No word yet on whether scientists will someday be able to create a multivariable model to quantify celebrity “fierceness” over time as well.