Using virtual reality to make experiments more realistic

Avatars are all around us: they represent real people online and colonize new worlds in the movies. In science, their role has been more limited. But avatars can be extremely useful in linguistics, new research shows. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics use virtual avatars to investigate how real people behave in interaction. The method makes it possible to study with great precision how people adjust to each other in conversation.

An exciting question in psycholinguistics is how people adapt their speech to each other in conversation. The research method of choice has long been the “confederate”: a conversational partner who, without the other participant knowing, has been instructed to speak in certain ways. However, some aspects of speaking cannot be studied in this way, for instance minute changes in speech rate or intonation. Evelien Heyselaar, Peter Hagoort and Katrien Segaert have exchanged the human confederate for a virtual reality avatar, opening up exciting new possibilities for studying the dynamics of dialogue.

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A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
—  Max Planck

Scientists in Germany just turned on a fusion reaction that could be the future of energy

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute have created a device that mimics the sun’s process of making energy and German Chancellor (and physicist) Angela Merkel just turned it on.

The Wendelstein 7-X is a nuclear fusion reactor that’s currently testing a method for sustainably generating hydrogen plasma, which at certain temperatures can be used as an energy source, according to the Max Planck Institute. The experiment that Merkel just activated will last until the middle of March. 

Germany has been ahead of the curve for a while now when it comes to renewable energy — but this is a whole other level.

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DNA evidence uncovers major upheaval in Europe near end of last Ice Age

DNA evidence lifted from the ancient bones and teeth of people who lived in Europe from the Late Pleistocene to the early Holocene—spanning almost 30,000 years of European prehistory—has offered some surprises, according to researchers who report their findings in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on Feb. 4, 2016. Perhaps most notably, the evidence shows a major shift in the population around 14,500 years ago, during a period of severe climatic instability.

“We uncovered a completely unknown chapter of human history: a major population turnover in Europe at the end of the last Ice Age,” says leading author Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. 

The researchers pieced this missing history together by reconstructing the mitochondrial genomes of 35 hunter-gatherer individuals who lived in Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, and Romania from 35,000 to 7,000 years ago. Read more.

I went to a couple of summer camps when I was a kid, but they’re different outside of America.

There was this tanned, bear-of-a-man looking counselor with a huge beer gut that I hung out with, he read books by the pound. Pretty sure I saw him carrying “Being & Time” by Heidegger, I still haven’t read that. So one night during a campfire by this slimy placid lake, I was talking to some kid and I couldn’t think of a word, the counselor laughed and started barking about the origins of the world.

Apparently language was just grunts and thuds then it developed into something with a better ability to handle abstract concepts and propositions to construct the world. There were millions of languages and worlds and they merged and some died and definitions by the language died with it but not the concepts. The worlds moved with languages and anything outside of it wasn’t talked about so it didn’t exist.  

Each language would hug the world in its own way, whispering new little things but unable to describe something else that was there, or used to be, or was somewhere else in another tongue. Language is also like a guardian angel, concepts can exist in the language that a follower won’t know about them and they won’t exist, but nudge you somewhere close to it.
When we reflect on something unable to be expressed by our language, apparently the world outside of ours laughs.

I was thinking of the word “nostalgia” 

Kinda thought of that story since we’re reading Wittgenstein.

Turn-taking in communication may be more ancient than language

The central use of language is in conversation, where we take short turns in rapid alternation, a pattern found across unrelated cultures and languages. In the December issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Stephen Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics reviews new research on turn-taking, focusing on its implications for how languages are structured and for how language and communication evolved.            

When we speak, we take turns responding to each other. The speed of response (about 200 milliseconds on average, about the same time as it takes to blink) is astonishing when we appreciate the slow nature of language encoding: it takes 600ms or more to prepare a word for delivery. This implies a substantial overlap between listening to the current speaker and preparing our own response. Levinson reviews research focused on this overlap of comprehension and production, and points out that this double-tasking may have systematic effects on language structure: it may motivate the compact clause found in all languages and the inferential reasoning that allows much to be meant by a few words.

In human infants, turn-taking is found in the ‘proto-conversations’ with caretakers, appearing around six months of age, long before infants know much about language. These infant-caretaker interactions are initially adult-like in terms of how fast infants can respond. But as they develop into more sophisticated communicators, infants’ turn-taking abilities slow down, likely due to both learning more and more complex linguistic structures, and having to find a way to squeeze these into short turns. Turn-taking is also exhibited in all the major branches of the primate family—partly innate and partly learned in some monkeys, just as with human infants. Even our nearest cousins the great apes take alternating turns in gestural communication, despite having a less complex vocal channel.

All of this suggests that humans may have inherited a primate turn-taking system. This may have started out as a gestural form of communication, as with the other great apes, then later (about 1 million years ago) became one primarily expressed through the vocal channel. If language complexity developed within a pre-existing turn-taking system, it might explain why so much complexity is crammed in such short turns with such short gaps between them, and also why infants struggle with responding with complex structures at adult-like speeds.
Scientists in Germany Take a Major Step Towards Nuclear Fusion
Physicists in Germany have used an experimental nuclear fusion device to produce hydrogen plasma in a process similar to what happens on the Sun. The test marks an important milestone on the road towards this super-futuristic source of cheap and clean nuclear energy.
By George Dvorsky

Earlier today in an event attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel (herself a PhD physicist), researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Greifswald turned on the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, an experimental nuclear fusion reactor. (Actually, the researchers let Merkel do the honors.) This €400 million ($435 million) stellarator is being used by physicists to test the technical viability of a future fusion reactor.

Unlike nuclear fission, in which the nucleus of an atom is split into smaller parts, nuclear fusion creates a single heavy nucleus from two lighter nuclei. The resulting change in mass produces a massive amount of energy that physicists believe can be harnessed into a viable source of clean energy.

It’ll likely be decades (if not longer) before true nuclear fusion energy is available, but advocates of the technology say it could replace fossil fuels and conventional nuclear fission reactors. Unlike conventional fission reactors, which produce large amounts of radioactive waste, the by-products from nuclear fusion are deemed safe.

How the Brain Completes Sentences

Even if we just hear part of what someone has said, when we are familiar with the context, we automatically add the missing information ourselves. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt and the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig have now succeeded in demonstrating how we do this.

The research is in Brain Mapping. (full access paywall)

Nuclear fusion device’s 1st test with hydrogen declared a success

Scientists in Germany flipped the switch Wednesday on an experiment they hope will advance the quest for nuclear fusion, considered a clean and safe form of nuclear power.

Following nine years of construction and testing, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald injected a tiny amount of hydrogen into a doughnut-shaped device — then zapped it with the equivalent of 6,000 microwave ovens.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, personally pressed the button at Wednesday’s launch of an experiment they hope will advance the quest for nuclear fusion, considered a clean and safe form of nuclear power.

The resulting super-hot gas, known as plasma, lasted just a fraction of a second before cooling down again, long enough for scientists to confidently declare the start of their experiment a success.

“Everything went well today,” said Robert Wolf, a senior scientist involved with the project. “With a system as complex as this you have to make sure everything works perfectly and there’s always a risk.”

Among the difficulties is how to cool the complex arrangement of magnets required to keep the plasma floating inside the device, Wolf said. Scientists looked closely at the hiccups experienced during the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland more than five years ago to avoid similar mistakes, he said.

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