Is it a Mug or Cup? Recent Progress in Fuzziness Studies

February 23rd, 2017

Where does a cup end and a mug start? And vice versa? Help towards answering this consistently vexing question can be found in an essay by Brett Laybutt entitled A Corpus Study of ‘Cup of [Tea]’ and ‘Mug of [Tea]’ In which he cites the work of scholars who have tried, over the years, to crack its complexities – e.g. the work of Professor William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania.

“One of the first, and most influential, was Labov‟s (2004) original 1975 experiment in which subjects were shown pictures of varying indeterminacy and asked to label them.”

“From this, Labov was able to come up with a mathematical definition of ‘cup’. ”


Further reading : Labov, W. (2004). “The Boundaries of Words and their Meanings”. In B. Aarts, D. Denison, E. Keizer, & G. Popova (Eds.), Fuzzy Grammar: A Reader. Currently available at £185 from Oxford University Press.

Coming soon : How much water is in a cup of tea?

Sighing: Neurobiologists hasten to catch up with psychologists

February 21st, 2017

Psychologists, having been decorated (see below) for pursuing insights about why people sigh, now see neurobiologists tailing after them.

A press release earlier this year from UCLA announces: “UCLA and Stanford researchers pinpoint origin of sighing reflex in the brain“. The press release also contains a body of text, which contains this explanation: “Sighing appears to be regulated by the fewest number of neurons we have seen linked to a fundamental human behavior,” explained Jack Feldman, a professor of neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute. “One of the holy grails in neuroscience is figuring out how the brain controls behavior. Our finding gives us insights into mechanisms that may underlie much more complex behaviors.” Details are in a study published in the journal Nature, called “The peptidergic control circuit for sighing”, by Peng Li, Wiktor A. Janczewski, Kevin Yackle, Kaiwen Kam, Silvia Pagliardini, Mark A. Krasnow and Jack L. Feldman.

karlteThe 2011 Ig Nobel Prize for psychology was awarded to Karl Halvor Teigen [pictured here] of the University of Oslo, for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh. (Teigen published details in the paper “Is a Sigh ‘Just a Sigh’? — Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task,” Karl Halvor Teigen, Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, vol. 49, no. 1, 2008, pp. 49–57.)

Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer

February 20th, 2017

“The dirt ground into the margins of medieval manuscripts is one of their interpretable features, which can help us to understand the desires, fears, and reading habits of the past.”

– explains researcher Dr Kathryn M. Rudy who is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Art History, of the University of St Andrews, Scotland. She points out, however, that :-

“Cleaning or trimming the dirt from them is tantamount to discarding a provocative cultural witness.“

Dr Rudy proposes instead the use of a densitometer – a machine that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface and which can reveal which texts a reader favoured, but without damaging the dirt.

See: Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art. Volume 2, Issue 1-2 (Summer 2010).

He smells

February 19th, 2017

One of NASA’s best noses got a good writeup in 2003, in an official bulletin called “NASA’s Nose: Avoiding smelly situations in space“:

galdrichThanks to George Aldrich and his team of NASA sniffers, astronauts can breathe a little bit easier. Aldrich is a chemical specialist or “chief sniffer” at the White Sands Test Facility’s Molecular Desorption and Analysis Laboratory in New Mexico. His job is to smell items before they can be flown in the space shuttle.

Aldrich explained that smells change in space and that once astronauts are up there, they’re stuck with whatever smells are onboard with them. In space, astronauts aren’t able to open the window for extra ventilation, Aldrich said.

The Know I Know web site, too, recently took a look at the smelling situation.

(Thanks to Scott Langill for bringing this to our attention.)

Many women have men in the brain

February 18th, 2017

The old saying that a woman has “men on the brain” can be accurately supplanted by saying that many women have men IN the brain. This study explains the biological facts:

guthrieMale microchimerism in the human female brain,” William F.N. Chan, Cecile Gurnot, Thomas J. Montine, Joshua A. Sonnen, Katherine A. Guthrie [pictured here], and J. Lee Nelson, PLoS One, vol. 7, no. 9, 2012, e45592. the authors, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, and at the University of Washington, report:

“In this study, we quantified male DNA in the human female brain as a marker for microchimerism of fetal origin (i.e. acquisition of male DNA by a woman while bearing a male fetus)…. We report that 63% of the females (37 of 59) tested harbored male microchimerism in the brain. Male microchimerism was present in multiple brain regions…. In conclusion, male microchimerism is frequent and widely distributed in the human female brain.”

BONUS: The 2005 study “Male microchimerism in women without sons: quantitative assessment and correlation with pregnancy history,” which says: “Male microchimerism was not infrequent in women without sons.”

BONUS [only distantly related]: One of the studies honored by the 2015 Ig Nobel Medicine Prize reports how male DNA, obtained via a lengthy, intimate kiss, can sometimes be found in the saliva of the female who engaged in that kiss. That study is “Prevalence and Persistence of Male DNA Identified in Mixed Saliva Samples After Intense Kissing.”