Science Shorts: Weather, and a Little Bit of the Human Mind

Lots of interesting science news has been making the rounds this week and I just couldn’t choose only one new study to focus on. So, I did what any normal over-achiever does (you all know what I’m talking about) and chose two of them (hm, just two? Maybe I’m not an overachiever). Now, let’s go from weather trends to the workings of the human mind.

First, the New York Times posted an interesting infographic last week. As it turns out, and as you all could have guessed, this has been an unseasonably warm January. The NYT shows us exactly how much warmer it is than the average for the 20th century.  Spoiler alert: it is 5.5 degrees on average, to be precise, but with areas in the upper Midwest and South showing much greater departures from the norm.

Now, yes, this is a pretty big deviation from normal, and yes, a month-long snapshot of the weather is starting to move into the realm of climate; however, I’d be wary of saying, “Ah! Climate change!” based on this one chart. Now, in general, I’m not wary of saying, “Ah! Climate change!” but that’s because the scientific community is in agreement that our climate is changing and we’re the ones changing it. This snapshot of January’s average temperature is at best one piece of data that may analyzed and discussed and put in context and rigorously tested to see if it is a random fluctuation or part of a bigger trend – it is data, not proof.

Second, in a new study published in The New Journal of Physics, researchers in Finland and Hungary studied time-stamped mobile phone communications and looked at our patterns of communication. They included both phone calls and text messages from 5.2 million users making 322 million calls over 119 days. (Fun fact: they chose to exclude New Year’s Day “due to its rather unusual pattern of human communication,” which sounds like a very nice way of putting it.)

One might expect that our communication patterns would be affected by things like “being asleep” or “having a weekly schedule driven by a job,” but using statistical methods, the researchers took into account natural circadian rhythms and weekly patterns and found that even when controlling for those factors, certain patterns remained.

From their research, it looks like humans have a natural “burstiness” when it comes to communicating with one another both via text and through phone conversation. This means that people tend to communicate in bursts, that we share a lot of information all at once and then go for a while without any communication at all. Why exactly we communicate and process information like this is not entirely clear, but it’s cool to know that there is some evidence for a distinct pattern in the way humans manage tasks and information.

8 thoughts on “Science Shorts: Weather, and a Little Bit of the Human Mind”

  1. ” [A] month-long snapshot of the weather is starting to move into the realm of climate”

    The IPCC considers climate change to be changes in global temperature means over many years, to decades.  http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/mains1.html

    You are right, the data being collected about this winter (unseasonably warm here in Norway, as well) is good data I would be very careful about defining a month of weather as climate and then connect it to climate change considering the definition, however tenuous that connection may be.  That being said, the more data we can collect, and the more information we have to confirm climate change, the better.  I despair we’ll get policy makers in the US to pay attention.

      1. Yes, I realized that you were pointing to data that could help the overall data collection regarding climate change.  What killed me last year (or was it the year before?) when Sean Hannity & Co. scoffed over a very cold winter like, “Heheh, it’s cold, therefore global warming is baloney!” I appreciate reading good articles that actually have facts and balance! It is a good article, and I agree with your major points!  Plus, I gotta monitor when I’m texting like mad… :D

        1. Oh yeah I LOVE (read: HATE) that – one cold day, one cold week, one cold month, one cold year does not make decades and centuries of data, from direct temperature measurements to ice core sampling to all those cool studies on isotope ratios in fish ear bones and shells, meaningless.

          And trust – vigilance here is always appreciated.

          1. Teehee. :D

            The science at this point is damn convincing, in my opinion.  The question for now is discussion on adaptation of species, influence of Earth system on self-correction and all sorts of things we just don’t know.   The nay-sayers just make me want to *facepalm*.

  2. The second study is fascinating! I love that something like data about texting is being used to understand the way humans manage information and communicate. I like the idea that there is a distinct pattern visible in the way that we interact! So cool. Seriously in love with that. I have a Human Ecology obsession. :)

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