You might remember the famous salmon study by Bennett et al. (2009) (pdf), the classic demonstration of why corrections for multiple comparisons are vital in fMRI research. Yes, the one where the researchers found significant activation in parts of a salmon’s brain. Dead salmon’s brain to be exact.
The BBC ran a story today on the Human Connectome Project. The story features a set of colorful pictures, which represent some of the first results of the massively ambitious, $40M endeavor to map the human connectome. The BBC article has the pretty pictures, while a recent advertorial* in Science has a bit more of the technical detail.
The Connectome Project attempts to map the neural connections in the human brain; the connectome (cf. genome) is unique for everyone, a result of genetic and environmental factors, as well as what we’ve learned and experienced in life.
From The Met to Mardi Gras, Glastonbury to Concertgebouw, music syncs groups of people together. Getting people moving together and feeling e.g. joy, sublimity or nostalgia together is one of many virtues of music (of course, you can also see it as a vice if you look at how music is used in preparation for battle or as a propaganda tool).
In studying music and entrainment, the focus is often in the musicians, who need to time their notes at a millisecond level. This is of course partly due to convenience, as it is easier to get a quartet into the lab than the 1000 people in their audience. In studying such phenomena, music researchers often borrow methods from natural sciences. Physics and especially the field of nonlinear dynamics have been very helpful in these studies, as musicians or dancers performing rhythmic movements can pretty well be modelled as oscillators. The interactions and entrainment of these oscillators can then be studied, e.g. producing simulations such as this one on how a group of metronomes entrain together or not, depending on small changes in the parameters.
Physics have also been applied to studying the audience, as Neda et al. showed in their paper on how a concert audience intermittently self-organises and claps in unison, to lose the synchrony again a bit later. They noticed that simple parameters drive this process: the rate of clapping (how fast or slow you clap) and how loud the clapping sounds like. To increase the loudness of the clapping (to communicate their appreciation to the performers) audience members are first locally (either subconsciously or on purpose) synchronising their claps with their neighbours, often in a slower tempo than what they’d normally clap at. This increases the loudness of the subgroup as the sound energies generated by their claps are now more effectively summed together. This brings in more people, again both through intentional synchronisation processes as well as via automatic entrainment (a similar process by which we start to tap our feet to a groovy piece of music without thinking about it).
Now, the whole audience is clapping together and typically starts to speed up, to increase the loudness even more, at which point the synchrony breaks down as the rate gets too fast to maintain. So, to be louder you can clap in sync and clap faster, but there is a trade-off: you can clap faster when you don’t need to sync your clapping with others, so there is a tradeoff between the two, and an equilibrium can be found only at a narrow range of these parameters. The audience constantly changes these parameters in search for the optimal combination and as a result keeps falling in and out of sync.
That study looked at an audience in a classical music concert. People there are generally sitting down still and only making themselves seen or heard after the music has stopped. A study came out this week that looked at a different kind of an audience: the mosh pit of a heavy metal concert.
Now, while the audience in the classical music concert could be modelled as an orderly set of metronomes, the mosh pit is a different beast, and so Jesse Silverberg and colleagues from Cornell looked at the moshers as molecules in a gas! They are bouncing about and to each other in a confined space, forming vortices and eddies in the pit. They analysed video data from mosh pits around the world, and also simulated them as MASHers (mobile, active, simulated humanoids).
In their modelling approach, they only needed a few parameters, just as has been done in looking at various kinds of “flocking behaviour“, people moving together in large crowds, or birds flocking, fish schooling etc. Fascinatingly, the model predicted the “birth” of local vortices in the pit, as the crowd “phase separates” so that those moving more flock together; the same phenomenon was observed in the videos, the so-called “circle pit”, where a subgroup of the moshers start moving together in a circle, usually rotating counter-clockwise. The modelled MASHers had a 50-50 chance of rotating clockwise or counter-clockwise, but the actual moshers rotate counter-clockwise about 95% of the time. This, the authors suspect, is because the real life moshers have dominant hands and feet, whereas such a parameter was not programmed into the MASHers.
Isn’t it fascinating how the behaviour of a group of smart, thinking and feeling people is so alike that of molecules or metronomes?
(for those interested in these topics, I can warmly recommend these books: Strogatz, S. (2004). Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order and McNeill, W. (1997). Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History. Both are very readable and aimed for a general audience.)
Picture by wetwebwork @Flickr.
Néda, Z., Ravasz, E., Brechet, Y., Vicsek, T., & Barabási, A. (2000). The sound of many hands clapping Nature, 403 (6772), 849-850 DOI: 10.1038/35002660
Jesse L. Silverberg, Matthew Bierbaum, James P. Sethna, & Itai Cohen (2013). Collective Motion of Moshers at Heavy Metal Concerts Physics and Society arXiv: 1302.1886v1
OK, here’s the year in numbers re Synchronised Minds. Thank you all for visiting. Shouldn’t be too hard to beat these stats next year…
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,700 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 6 years to get that many views.
Wow, that was a fast month…
So, my academic writing month started a bit late, and it also ended a week early, as I got the chance to attend a one-week MEG training session by Elekta. This was an intensive full-time course with lots of lectures and hands-on sessions, which basically meant that I had no time nor energy to write anything after the approximately 9 hours of training per day.
This probably sounds like I’m building an excuse to not have met my AcWriMo goals?
Last week, I protested the decision made by BBC Eastern to axe the Naked Scientists radio show. Today, I got a reply from the BBC to my email.
Dear Mr Himberg
Thank you for your contact to the Head of Regional and Local Programmes for the East region, who has forwarded your concerns to Audience Services to respond to about the future of the ‘Naked Scientists’ programme.
The show is a specialist science programme that succeeds in communicating challenging and difficult scientific ideas in an accessible and engaging way. This is a key commitment the BBC needs to continue to maintain. But no single show can be the sole way to measure whether that commitment is discharged. The BBC is very committed to providing high quality science content on all platforms. This content reaches more than 40 million people in the UK a year. The BBC works with the world’s most influential scientists to produce high quality science series that engage the audience while tackling everything from thermodynamics to information theory, artificial intelligence and the origins of life.
Over the past few weeks BBC Four has dedicated an entire season of programmes to some of the most complicated science subjects on television with Seven Ages of Starlight, the Science of Chance, and Order and Disorder with Jim Al-Khalili. The BBC has long-standing science strands like Horizon on TV and radio programmes like the Infinite Monkey Cage. And the BBC now has a Science Editor for the first time to try to ensure the most important developments in science are reported across BBC news and factual programmes.
So why has the east region chosen to end the Naked Scientists programme? The decision is editorial; the show doesn’t fit the local radio brief. Local radio’s editorial role is to report local stories, local events and reflect local communities. The Naked Scientists, while excellent in reporting science, isn’t really a local radio programme at all as it doesn’t fit that core local editorial function. That’s not to say local radio shouldn’t report science-it should but its primary responsibility is to report local science. Our aim is to ensure that we do even better in reporting science in our mainstream output especially on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire with its obvious connections to science at the University, research institutes and scientific industries. We’re speaking to the Naked Scientists team about how they can help us in this ambition. We’re also speaking to other parts of the BBC to explore how the Naked Scientists team can have a role in creating science content.
We will be developing and strengthening our science reporting capacity across our mainstream output to reflect the significance of science in the area. Listeners will hear more science stories in the parts of the schedule with the biggest audiences.
We’re sorry you’re losing a show you value highly but we hope you find other parts of the BBC’s extensive science output just as valuable.
I’d also like to assure you I’ve registered your complaint on our audience log. This is an internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily and is available for viewing by all our staff. This includes all station controllers and commissioning executives, along with our senior management. It ensures that your points, along with all other comments we receive, are considered across the BBC.
Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.
NB This is sent from an outgoing account only which is not monitored. You cannot reply to this email address but if necessary please contact us via our webform quoting any case number we provided.
Again, the strange notion of “local”. Yes, they do interview researchers also from other universities but Cambridge. How about the recent episode on vitamin D? Yeah, not local as such, they interviewed Elina Hyppönen from UCL (a Finn, yay!) and other experts, all from outside the region, but given that approximately 90% of Brits have a deficiency of vitamin D, and that the deficiency might have dire consequences (e.g. diabetes and MS are linked to low levels of vitamin D), I’d think that this would have been necessary and relevant information for people in the Eastern UK? This is just one example, but this whole case demonstrates how the actual problem is either the brief or the people who decide to interpret in this inane way. Too bad that the world does not unproblematically fit BBC’s box diagram of briefs and responsibilities. I sure hope they will also enforce this with the same rigor in their other programming, including the music they play. There’s a lot of great music coming from the Eastern region, it is great that they now have a radio channel that is committed to exclusively policing that they will not let music from outside the region to pollute their airwaves. (Yeah right.)
I’ve just heard that my favourite science podcast, The Naked Scientists is being axed from their radio slot at BBC East. I’m no longer a resident of that region and not a BBC fee payer, so my views might not count as much, but I wrote to BBC Radio 4 Feedback anyway. Below is my letter.
Dear BBC Feedback,
Please do not axe the Naked Scientists radio programme from BBC East. As a Cambridge University alumnus and a researcher, I have been a fan of the programme for a few years now, and would personally be very sad to see the programme go. However, I wanted to write to you as I see that much more than my personal education and entertainment is at stake here.
First, more and more of science is done in multidisciplinary groups, and it is getting vital to understand not only one’s own field deeply, but also have a good overall understanding of what is going on in other fields of science. To this end, I find the high quality science programming of the Naked Scientists extraordinarily suitable. I have just recently shifted to a new path in my own scientific career, and without access to such resources, I do not think this would be possible.
Second, popularising science is something that the scientific community needs to do more, and I think the public broadcasters should help in this effort, given how vital it is to inform the public about scientific advances. However, not many of us researchers are good in talking or writing about our own research, and we do not have the audiences to make these efforts worth while. Thus, we are not only in a dire need of people like the Naked Scientists who are actually good in both science and communication, but also in need of broadcasters that share the mission of serving the public not just for short term profit but for a better future.
Naked Scientist have managed to painstakingly build their own audience and the capabilities to serve as a bridge between scientists and the general public. It would be sad to see all that fall apart. Most of the academic research done in the universities is paid for by the tax payers, and a there is a lot of pressure to give back to the society. This is one of the key arguments for making scientific publications open access. Unfortunately, scientific papers need to be technical and complicated, as we write them for other scientists. Without high quality scientific journalism there is no way even educated non-specialists can find, let alone understand what the current trends and developments in science are, and how they might affect their lives. Science journalism in most news outlets suffers from lack of expertise in the actual scientific content, making the outlets and their audiences vulnerable to the biases in press releases and abstracts, and the resulting skewed and shallow view of research. None of this has ever been a problem for the Naked Scientists, and I think they serve as a model that should be adopted elsewhere, as well.
As I want to become a better communicator of my own research, I listen to a lot of science programming and read a lot of popular science books from around the world. So far nothing compares to the Naked Scientists. I use their programmes in teaching and am constantly impressed by their approach, which makes extremely difficult and cutting edge scientific questions understandable and relevant. You can hear and admire the large amount of work they put into their programmes, and their love for science as well as their enthusiasm is contagious.
I’ve heard that one of the arguments why the show would be axed is that it is not local enough for the regional manager Mick Rawsthorne. I find this argument weak, as the content of the show is produced by people in the “local” university, the University of Cambridge. Of course, science is global, and Cambridge is a global leader in science, but shouldn’t that just strengthen the case for broadcasting that global insight for the people in the region? Either Mr Rawsthorne has a very “League of Gentlemen” -like concept of what “local” means, or he is not disclosing the real reasons behind his decision. Whichever the case, I truly hope that this exceptional and exemplary programme could live on to enlighten locally, regionally, and globally.
soon-hopefully-PhD-from the Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge
Brain Research Unit | O.V. Lounasmaa Laboratory | Aalto University