Recent Interesting Science Articles (June ‘2012)

It’s time for our monthly round-up of the coolest, most fascinating science articles of the previous month and June 2012 has been an especially bountiful month in that regard. So here goes:

  •  How exactly does mainstream pop music evolve over time? This article from the Pacific Standard summarizes research demonstrating that on general pop music has been getting sadder and sadder over time. This is reflected not only in increasingly negative lyrics but also in the slower tempo and music with mixed emotional cues.
  • The next article belongs in economics which many dispute is really a science at all, though I tend to disagree. This one is from the Library of Economics and Liberty and talks about how employers in different countries are averse to firing workers in different ways. The survey finds that there are two extremes, reflecting the different values of the countries involved. The Anglo-American business world likes being efficient, even if that means ruthlessness. They are more likely to fire expensive, middle-aged workers with middling performance. The Germans are more sympathetic towards middle-aged workers, preferring to fire a younger worker with comparable performance even if his wages are cheaper.
  • The Economist has an article on a subject that Thomas Kuhn would no doubt heartily approve of: it is dangerous to generalize findings in experimental psychology too widely. This is because a lot of such research uses test subjects that fall into the same demographic category which the authors of the paper being cited have summed up in a media-savvy acronym: WEIRD. This stands for White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. To solve this, the authors have tried to use crowdsourcing to open surveys to a wider group of participants and since there seems to be an infinite supply of people willing to work for next to nothing on services like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, it’s dirt cheap too.
  • Normally the articles I like to select about new scientific discoveries rather than the latest technological gizmos. Gadgets are cool and all, but the years and years of research behind the principles that make them work are the really intellectually interesting part in my opinion. But I make an exception when it’s something that could open up cybernetics in a big way as this article from ExtremeTech explains. It’s an implantable fuel cell that generates electricity from the glucose in the human body. Once installed it can generate electricity indefinitely to power any other cybernetic implants you might have. Heck, there’s no reason why you couldn’t have an external port built into your body to charge your mobile phone or similar device with it. The only cost being that you might feel the need to eat a bit more than usual.
  • The Turing Test is a well known test to determine the quality of an AI by engaging it in conversation. This article, again from the Pacific Standard, can be thought of as a variation of that. Can sophisticated, specially trained music aficionados tell the difference between a composition that is written by a human and one written by a computer program? It turns out that they can’t as a blind survey of musically knowledgeable listeners revealed that they found computer-composed works just as appealing as those written by real humans.
  • Finally just for fun, this article from the Mail Online covers one of the greatest scientific achievements of humanity: the Voyager 1 space probe that was launched in 1977 is now leaving the solar system. Incredibly it is still in contact with NASA, despite a communications delay of 16 hours. We probably shouldn’t expect it to be able to keep that up for long once it enters interstellar space.

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