Recent Interesting Science Articles (June ’09)

Three science articles for this month, one on how language shapes the way we think, the second one on Nokia’s plans to wirelessly recharge mobile phones and the last one, just for laughs, is a fictional piece on the neurobiology of zombies.

As the first article notes, whether and how much language affects how we think is a subject of much debate that even now is largely unsettled. This field is properly known as linguistic relativity. As someone who’s sympathetic to the views of the evolutionary psychologists, I found myself not quite agreeing with the full scope of this article’s implications, but nevertheless the results are intriguing. The most interesting part is easily the revelation of how language has affected a small Aboriginal community in Pormpuraaw, in northern Australia.

These people, the Kuuk Thaayorre, have a rather unique way of referencing space. Instead of using terms like “left”, “right”, “front” and “behind”, which references space relative to the speaker’s own body, they use the absolute terms “north”, “south”, “east” and “west”. This, of course, means that they must be constantly aware of their orientation and know exactly where they are facing at all times even without looking at a compass, a feat that the article doesn’t get around to explaining how it would be possible.

This even extends to how the locals refer to the parts of their bodies. Instead of saying, say, my right foot or my left ear, they would say my foot that is currently facing northeast, or my ear that is currently facing west. As a test to determine how this use of language affects how they think, the researchers presented them with cards that followed an obvious progression and asked them to arrange them in order. English speakers, since they read from left to right, instinctively arrange these cards in a left to right order. The Kuuk Thaayore, however, always arranged them in an east to west order, which meant that the cards sometimes went right to left, or even back to front, depending on the orientation of their bodies while they were arranging the cards. The rest of the article presents plenty of other examples and makes reading it highly worthwhile even if you don’t quite agree with the conclusions.

The second article appeared on Yahoo! Tech, which means that most people will probably have seen it already. What is coolest about the new plan is that instead of implementing a specialized electromagnetic field to wirelessly recharge a mobile phone’s batteries, Nokia plans to simply harvest energy from all of the electromagnetic waves already zipping about all around us. As the article is careful to state, the energy potential wouldn’t be enough to power an actual conversation, but it might be enough to keep a phone on standby mode indefinitely.

Once this type of phone comes onto the market, I’d expect that it would have some sort of meter to measure the strength of the electromagnetic signals around it, at least on the frequencies that it can harvest energy from. It would be amusing to watch people scramble around in cities to find places with the most electromagnetic noise to recharge their phones.

Finally the last article on zombie neurobiology is distinguished mainly by the fact that it was based on a fake medical journal article written by a Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. Steven C. Schlozman. The good doctor evidently has a healthy sense of humour as his article is even subtitled “A Way Cool Tax Deduction for a Bunch of Cool Books, Action Figures and a Movie”. It cites as evidence references that should be familiar to any zombie fan such as the Romero films, the recently popular fictional history book World War Z and even weighs in on the debate on whether or not the infected in 28 Days Later and its sequel count as zombies.

Nothing in the article is terribly surprising (zombies have an atrophied frontal lobe, so they act mostly based on primal emotions and instincts alone, just like crocodiles), but I’d mark it down even more for failing to reference any zombie games at all. For shame, no mention of the various zombie sub-species as depicted in Left 4 Dead?

Leave a Reply