uc berkeley

Mars will lose its largest moon, but gain a ring

Mars’ largest moon, Phobos, is slowly falling toward the planet, but rather than smash into the surface, it likely will be shredded and the pieces strewn about the planet in a ring like the rings encircling Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.

UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Benjamin Black and graduate student Tushar Mittal estimate the cohesiveness of Phobos and conclude that it is insufficient to resist the tidal forces that will pull it apart when it gets closer to Mars.

Mars tugs differently on different parts of Phobos. As Phobos gets closer to the planet, the tugs are enough to actually pull the moon apart, the scientists say. This is because Phobos is highly fractured, with lots of pores and rubble. “Dismembering it is analogous to pulling apart a granola bar”, Black said, “scattering crumbs and chunks everywhere.”

Read more about the fate of Phobos


You say hispanic, I say latino

Most use the words interchangeably these days, but the “hispanic” identity originated from an initiative in the 1970s to give Latin American’s in the United States a more unified voice in politics. UC Berkeley sociologist Cristina Mora talks about the positives and negatives of this distinction in her new book:

You have the person whose great-grandmother came from Argentina, but has never visited Latin America, and does not speak Spanish, lumped into the exact same category as a Guatemalan who just crossed the U.S. border.  One argument the book makes is that in order for all these government, market and political interests to come together, the category had to become broader in order to fit in all these ideas about Hispanics being consumers, or Hispanics being disadvantaged people.

Over time, the Hispanic identity has become based on cultural generalities such as ‘We all love our families. We are all religious and we all have some connection to the Spanish language however far back that may be.’  That’s a weakness and a strength. It was because of that ambiguity that we have the large numbers who identify as Hispanic and who have made advances.  But when you have such a broad and opaque category it’s hard to elicit and sustain passion and commitment.

Read more in her interview here 


Empathy and compassion in the brain

Empathy is a complicated task for the brain.

Reptiles probably can’t do it and it’s going to occur in pretty simple forms for most mammals. But in humans, it really engages the frontal lobes: these newer regions of the brain that are involved in more complex symbolic processes like language, considering alternatives and imagining the future. Empathy requires that you think: there’s someone else out there who has feelings and thoughts that may be different from mine.  That’s a complicated cognitive achievement!

Compassion —the caring instinct— is located down in the center of the brain, near the top of the spinal cord where a lot of our basic instincts are regulated. It’s a very old part of the brain called the periaqueductal gray, which is common to mammals when they take care of their young.

So that’s striking: there’s one kind of thing —empathy— that’s really about understanding people (very complicated!) in the frontal lobes. But caring is is really old in the nervous system.

Learn about the evolutionary roots of compassion & empathy in the video below:

Berkeley police respond to huge Southside riot
Thousands of revelers took to the streets around Channing Way and Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley's Southside...

So basically, last night 10/31/2015 a bunch of white college students, primarily from frats and sororities, threw a collective temper tantrum because their parties were shutdown. They threw rocks and bottles at cops and damaged property but nothing happened to them. Epitome of white privilege or what? #whiteprivilege #ucberkeley

Why are human faces so unique?

What’s in a face? The amazing variety of human faces — far greater than that of most other animals — is the result of evolutionary pressure to make each of us unique and easily recognizable, according to a new study out of UC Berkeley.

Behavioral ecologist Michael J. Sheehan explains that our highly visual social interactions are almost certainly the driver of this evolutionary trend. Many animals use smell or vocalization to identify individuals, making distinctive facial features unimportant, especially for animals that roam after dark, he said. But humans are different.

In the study, Sheehan and coauthor Michael Nachman asked, “Are traits such as distance between the eyes or width of the nose variable just by chance, or has there been evolutionary selection to be more variable than they would be otherwise; more distinctive and more unique?”

As predicted, the researchers found that facial traits are much more variable than other bodily traits, such as the length of the hand, and that facial traits are independent of other facial traits, unlike most body measures. People with longer arms, for example, typically have longer legs, while people with wider noses or widely spaced eyes don’t have longer noses. Both findings suggest that facial variation has been enhanced through evolution.

“Genetic variation tends to be weeded out by natural selection in the case of traits that are essential to survival,” Nachman said. “Here it is the opposite; selection is maintaining variation. All of this is consistent with the idea that there has been selection for variation to facilitate recognition of individuals.”

Human faces are so variable because we evolved to look unique


How to create a (realistic) fictional language

M'athchomaroon. That’s a hello to you, in Dothraki.

Initially, it may be easy to dismiss those words from the fictional language in “Game of Thrones” as a bunch of made up gibberish, but upon closer inspection, you might realize that the speech and word patterns resemble a real language.

And that’s because it is, in fact, a language with its own fully functional grammar and over 4,000 words.

Before you can even begin writing a single word in Dothraki, you have to do a ton of foundational work to make the constructed language (conlang) seem authentic and natural.

“I used the books almost as anthropological text. Paying attention not just to the dialogue in any given chapter, but also the description of what the land was like, and what people were doing, what they were eating, and wearing,” says David Peterson, the creator of the Dothraki dialect and a UC San Diego alum.

All this detailed analysis of the characters’ realities, culture and attitudes informed the words that would exist in that language.

Here’s an example: Since the Dothrakis are nomadic warriors who believe in taking what they want through brute force, there is no word for “thank you.” But there are seven words just for swinging a sword (like “hlizifikh,” which is a wild, but powerful strike.)

And horse riding is so entrenched in their culture, that their very name Dothraki is derived from their verb “to ride”: dothralat.

Just as modern English was developed from its Old English form, Peterson also created an antiquated version of Dothraki and a modern version. Like real languages that have existed, each word has an etymology that reflects how the language evolved over time. 

All this may seem like an insane amount of work and thought for a few lines of dialogue, but for a language enthusiast like Peterson —who speaks eight languages— creating a conlang is a self-indulgent hobby. It’s fun.

“Creating a language is an art form, like any other. I enjoy doing it. I don’t really think about the endpoint… after all, a language is never really finished,” says Peterson, who would continue to conlangle even if he wasn’t getting paid.

For budding conlangers, Peterson recently developed some resources, including a book and YouTube series that teach more about the process of inventing languages and the history of conlang in further detail.

@teded also has this great video all about fictional languages:

GIF: TedEd