Why “Mom” Sounds the Same in Most Major Languages

In almost every language on Earth, no matter how distantly related, the word for mother is more or less a variation of “ma” or “mama”; this is one of the few instances of a word being near-universal across distinct cultures.

It is hypothesized that this is because these are some of the earliest sounds that infants make, and thus every culture associated them with the mother. Russian linguist Roman Jakobson proposed that infants make these sounds nasally while nursing.

Read more about this fascinating phenomenon at The Atlantic

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The End to Malaria

Malaria has been a scourge of humanity for thousands of years, and as recently as a century ago, was a problem in almost every country. The GIF below shows how far we have come towards completely eradicating this debilitating disease:

shrinking-the-malaria-map

Courtesy of Global Health Sciences, University of California, San Francisco

As recently as the 1950s, developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. were still dealing with malaria infections; by the 1970s, most wealthy countries had completely wiped it out. Today, over a hundred nations across both the developed and developing world are free of malaria, with nearly thirty others in the process eliminating it. Continue reading

Global STEM Leaders

STEM — short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — is all the rage these days, as economies across the world become more knowledge-based, and as humanity faces threats like climate change and resource depletion that will require creative, technological solutions.

That’s why so many nations, especially in the developing world, are trying to gain a competitive advantage by investing in STEM education and seeking to attract STEM graduates from abroad. According to Forbes, which cites a report from the World Economic Forum, these are the countries leading the way:

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Unsurprisingly, with their large and youthful populations, India and China have the most graduates overall at 78 million and 77.7 million, respectively. The U.S. is in third place with 67.4 million graduates, although the quality of its degrees may be greater than that of its competitors, whose education infrastructure is younger, less developed, and less prestigious (for now).

Japan’s high ranking is not surprising given that is a well established scientific and economic powerhouse, although its aging population and low rate of immigration likely explains why it doesn’t rank higher despite a population of 126 million. Russia, Iran, and Indonesia are rarely touted as academic leaders, but each is fairly populous — at 147 million, 75 million, and 260 million respectively — and Russia and Iran in particular have a long history of scientific achievement.

However, China may soon close this gap as it continues to improve its institutions and education standards:

Some estimates see the number of Chinese graduates aged between 25 and 34 rising 300 percent up to 2030 compared to just 30 percent in the U.S. and Europe. According to the World Economic Forum, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has become a pretty big deal in China’s flourishing universities. In 2013, 40 percent of Chinese graduates finished a degree in STEM, over twice the share in American third level institutions

In an increasingly globalized world, the ability to draw and retain students and graduates from around the world will likely become a bigger consideration for more countries. For all the complexities of its visa and customs systems, the U.S. has long enjoyed an edge in this regard — for example, all six of its 2016 Nobel Prize winners were foreign-born.

But a wave of nativism and xenophobia may undercut its attractiveness as a research and academic hub, and other countries — including neighboring Canada — have begun to step up as alternative options, dangling such incentives as a path to citizenship upon graduation.

One thing is for certain. The future of a nation’s success and survival will depend on its command of technology and science. How it goes about advancing those intellectual resources is a different matter altogether. But any country’s increasing education is humanity’s gain.

 

 

 

Hans Rosling, Data-Driven Optimist, Passes Away

It is not easy being an optimist, and doing so just got harder with the recent death, at 68, of Swedish physician and statistician Hans Rosling. A tireless advocate for improving the world through compelling yet data rich presentations, Rosling brought a unique and crucial pizzazz  when it came to public advocacy and education.

Foreign Policy, which once named him one of the world’s top 100 thinkers, highlighted  some of the work Rosling did to change people’s perceptions of the world and to bring attention to humanity’s often-understated progress.

After roughly two decades studying hunger in Africa, he became a professor at the Karolinka Institute — a medically focused university in Sweden — and then the founder of data visualization site Gapminder. He was dedicated to bringing people facts in a way that seemed compelling and understandable to them.

In Feb. 2006, for example, he gave a presentation that used data to demonstrate that the concept of the “developing world” was one based on preconceived biases, not borne out of reality.

In 2010, he showed in just four minutes how lifespan and wealth had increased over the past 200 years — and how inequality between and within countries increased with it.

Indeed, I have twice posted about Rosling’s videos and data (here and here), and considered him a personal hero of mine. He helped inform my optimistic, humanist worldview with his energetic yet substantive presentation of the facts, be it about the rapid decline in child mortality or the growth of leisure through innovation. He was a champion for human development, using his data to both inspire hope and inform future policy and action. His eclectic mix of humor, colorful visualizations, and endearing levels of energy — which formed his shtick as an “edutainer” — has no doubt done much to keep the world moving along towards progress.

Rosling will certainly be missed, but thank goodness for his rich legacy of creative and hope-inspiring talks, all of which you can view here. That’s quite a way to live on.

 

 

 

The Incredible Promise of CRISPR

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats / Cas9, better known as just CRISPR, is a form of genetic modification that utilizes the immune system of bacteria to selectively remove or replace individual genes. As you can imagine, it is a very complex concept — I recommend this great full explainer – but it has vast implications for the future of human health and prosperity, Continue reading

An Effective Ebola Vaccine Has Been Developed

Following a horrific epidemic in West Africa that claimed the lives of over 11,000 people — the deadliest the world had ever seen — we finally have a breakthrough vaccine against Ebola. As Vox.com reported:

Today, the same researchers — who hail from the World Health Organization, Guinea’s Ministry of Health, Public Health England, and other international partners — have unveiled their final results in the Lancet, and they’re just as remarkable. The vaccine was tested in a trial involving nearly 12,000 people in Guinea and Sierra Leone during 2015 and 2016. Among the 5,837 people who got the vaccine, no Ebola cases were recorded. By comparison, there were 23 Ebola cases in the control group that had not gotten the vaccine.

“This trial, confirming the 100 percent efficacy of the rVSV Ebola vaccine, is a simply remarkable outcome”, Dr. Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, said of the research. “We’ve shown that by working collaboratively, across international borders and sectors, we can develop and test vaccines rapidly and use them to help bring epidemics to an end”.

You can read the published study here. It was one of fifteen clinical trials for an Ebola vaccine conducted around the world in a single year, and is a vindication of what collective action and responsibility by the international community — including the U.N., NGOs, and national governments — can accomplish. It is a shame it took so many deaths spanning a nearly three year period to finally come up with a promising form of prevention, although the vaccine is far from ready to hit the market.  Continue reading

An Award Winning Map of the World

As I have discussed here before, most maps of the world are spatially wrong, due to the inherent difficulty of projecting a spherical planet into two dimensional form. Some landmasses end up looking far larger than they are (notably Greenland and Antarctica)  while others appear much smaller (such as Africa and Australia). Continue reading

The Limitations of Human Knowledge — And Why That’s Not So Bad

While I am optimistic of humanity’s capacity to broaden its understanding of the universe — from cures to various diseases to the fundamental laws that underpin time and space — I accept and expect that there may always be limits to how much we can learn or solve. In a new book, What We Cannot Know, British mathematician and Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy explores the limits of our species’ insatiable curiosity, as reviewed by The Economist: Continue reading

The Perils Facing Modern Scientists

At a time when human flourishing — if not survival — hinges on scientific progress, the pursuit of academic research has never been more challenging. British physicist Peter Higgs, the Nobel Prize winner best known as the namesake of the Higgs boson subatomic particle, wrote a piece in The Guardian some years back observing that in today’s academic climate, breakthrough work like his own couldn’t happen “because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers”. Continue reading

The World’s Most Empathetic Societies

Empathy, which is broadly defined as the ability to feel or understand another person’s experience or perspective, is considered by many to be a foundational part of morality and ethics. But putting oneself in another’s position, and relating with their pain, joy, beliefs, and other mental and emotional states, one can better learn how to treat others and what constitutes positive or negative behavior.

It can thus be reasoned that individuals with a high level of empathy will most likely be kinder, more understanding, and more cooperative with others; a society composed of mostly empathetic people should similarly see higher rate of pro-social activities and values, such as more charitable giving or less crime. But only very recently has a study been done to measure which societies have the most empathy, and how or if that translates to greater societal health. Continue reading