Infants Can Recognize When Someone is Being a Bully

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Despite their tiny brains being only half the size of an adult’s, babies remain an underestimated intellectual power. Their cognitive functioning improves rapidly, with the cerebellum—the part of the brain responsible for movement—growing by 110 percent in the first three months alone. More than 100 billion neurons are packed into their softball-sized noggins to help facilitate development.

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has illustrated just how potent all that neurological activity can be. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution highlights, in a controlled experiment, infants could distinguish between benevolent leadership and fear-mongering bullies.

In the study, 96 infants aged 21 months were exposed to a series of cartoon sequences that depicted an assertive leader, a bully, and an individual with no apparent influence ordering three characters to go to bed. (The leader was denoted by having the subordinate characters bow; the “bully” smacked them with a stick.) The children watched as the characters either listened to their guardian or disobeyed by remaining awake. The infants appeared more interested and engaged when the leader’s instructions were disobeyed, while they maintained interest in both the bully being respected and ignored. Both outcomes appeared equally plausible to the kids.

An example of how infants were conditioned to observe a study on authority
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

How can researchers really know what infants are processing? By using a technique called the “violation of expectation.” While babies can’t verbally articulate their feelings, researchers can collect insight by studying their eye gaze, which holds when something is capturing their attention. When a baby observes an event that contradicts their expectations, they tend to stare at it for longer periods of time. In this study, when a “leader” was disobeyed, the babies stared because it was an unpredictable event. They anticipated the authority figure would be respected. When the bully’s orders were processed, they stared at both outcomes, suggesting they considered each (obeying the bully to avoid punishment or ignoring the bully because they were now alone) to be plausible.

By anticipating obedience with a leader, disobedience when a bully left the scene, or ignored directions by a third, powerless character, the infants had the ability to recognize different kinds of authority, the study suggests. Because the third character was portrayed as likeable, it didn’t appear that a child’s personal preference for a figure was a factor in their expectations. Even more adorable research will be needed in order to better understand how babies are influenced by supervisors, but it's clear they're noticing a lot more than you might think.

[h/t Atlanta Journal-Constitution]

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

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iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

What Happens to Your Body If You Die in Space?

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iStock.com/1971yes

The coming decades should bring about a number of developments when it comes to blasting people into orbit and beyond. Private space travel continues to progress, with Elon Musk and Richard Branson championing civilian exploration. Professional astronauts continue to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) for scientific research. By the 2040s, human colonists could be making the grueling journey to Mars.

With increased opportunities comes the increased potential for misadventure. Though only 18 people have died since the emergence of intragalactic travel in the 20th century, taking more frequent risks may mean that coroners will have to list "space" as the site of death in the future. But since it's rare to find a working astronaut in compromised health or of an advanced age, how will most potential casualties in space meet their maker?

Popular Science posed this question to Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the ISS. According to Hadfield, spacewalks—a slight misnomer for the gravity-free floating that astronauts engage in outside of spacecraft—might be one potential danger. Tiny meteorites could slice through their protective suits, which provide oxygen and shelter from extreme temperatures. Within 10 seconds, water in their skin and blood would vaporize and their body would fill with air: Dissolved nitrogen near the skin would form bubbles, blowing them up like a dollar-store balloon to twice their normal size. Within 15 seconds, they would lose consciousness. Within 30 seconds, their lungs would collapse and they'd be paralyzed. The good news? Death by asphyxiation or decompression would happen before their body freezes, since heat leaves the body slowly in a vacuum.

This morbid scene would then have to be dealt with by the accompanying crew. According to Popular Science, NASA has no official policy for handling a corpse, but Hadfield said ISS training does touch on the possibility. As he explained it, astronauts would have to handle the the body as a biohazard and figure out their storage options, since there's really no prepared area for that. To cope with both problems, a commander would likely recommend the body be kept inside a pressurized suit and taken someplace cold—like where garbage is stored to minimize the smell.

If that sounds less than regal, NASA agrees. The company has explored the business of space body disposal before, and one proposition involves freeze-drying the stiff with liquid nitrogen (or simply the cold vacuum of space) so it can be broken up into tiny pieces of frozen tissue, which would occupy only a fraction of the real estate that a full-sized body would.

Why not eject a body, like Captain Kirk and his crew were forced to do with the allegedly dead Spock in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Bodies jettisoned into space without a rocket to change their trajectory would likely fall into the wake of the spacecraft. If enough people died on a long trip, it would create a kind of inverted funeral procession.

Even if safely landed on another planet, an astronaut's options don't necessarily improve. On Mars, cremation would likely be necessary to destroy any Earth-borne bacteria that would flourish on a buried body.

Like most everything we take for granted on Earth—eating, moving, and even pooping—it may be a long time before dying in space becomes dignified.

[h/t Popular Science]

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