Monday, December 14, 2009


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A pair of studies by Duke University neuroscientists shows powerful new evidence of a deep biological link between human music and speech.

The two new studies found that the musical scales most commonly used over the centuries are those that come closest to mimicking the physics of the human voice, and that we understand emotions expressed through music because the music mimics the way emotions are expressed in speech. Composers have long exploited the perception of minor chord music as sad and major chord music as happy, now the Duke team thinks they know why.

In a paper appearing in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (JASA), the Duke team, led by Dale Purves, a professor of neurobiology, found that sad or happy speech can be categorized in major and minor intervals, just as music can. So your mother was right: It's not only the words you say, but how you say them.

In a second paper appearing Dec. 3 in the online journal PLOS One, Kamraan Gill, another member of the team, found the most commonly used musical scales are also based on the physics of the vocal tones humans produce.

"There is a strong biological basis to the aesthetics of sound," Purves said. "Humans prefer tone combinations that are similar to those found in speech."

This evidence suggests the main biological reason we appreciate music is because it mimics speech, which has been critical to our evolutionary success, said Purves, who is also director of Duke's Neuroscience and Behavioral Disorders Program and executive director of the A*STaR Neuroscience Research Partnership at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore.

To study the emotional content of music, the Duke team collected a database of major and minor melodies from about 1,000 classical music compositions and more that 6,000 folk songs and then analyzed their tonal qualities.

They also had 10 people speak a series of single words with 10 different vowel sounds in either excited or subdued voices, as well as short monologues.

The team then compared the tones that distinguished the major and minor melodies with the tones of speech uttered in the different emotional states. They found the sound spectra of the speech tones could be sorted the same way as the music, with excited speech exhibiting more major musical intervals and subdued speech more minor ones.

The tones in speech are a series of harmonic frequencies, whose relative power distinguishes the different vowels. Vowels are produced by the physics of air moving through the vocal cords; consonants are produced by other parts of the vocal tract.

In the PLOS One paper, the researchers argue the harmonic structure of vowel tones forms the basis of the musical scales we find most appealing. They show the popularity of musical scales can be predicted based on how well they match up with the series of harmonics characteristic of vowels in speech.

Although there are literally millions of scales that could be used to divide the octave, most human music is based on scales comprised of only five to seven tones. The researchers argue the preference for these particular tone collections is based on how closely they approximate the harmonic series of tones produced by humans.

Though they only worked with western music and spoken English, there is reason to believe these findings are more widely applicable. Most of the frequency ratios of the chromatic musical scale can be found in the speech of a variety of languages. Their analysis included speakers of Mandarin Chinese, said Duke neuroscience graduate student Daniel Bowling, who is the first author on the JASA paper, and this showed similar results.

"Our appreciation of music is a happy byproduct of the biological advantages of speech and our need to understand its emotional content," Purves said.

It would be hard to say whether singing or speech came first, but graduate student Dan Bowling supposes "emotional communication in both speech and music is rooted in earlier non-lingual vocalizations that expressed emotion."

Duke University


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An extraordinarily bright, extraordinarily long-lasting supernova named SN 2007bi, snagged in a search by a robotic telescope, turns out to be the first example of the kind of stars that first populated the Universe. The superbright supernova occurred in a nearby dwarf galaxy, a kind of galaxy that’s common but has been little studied until now, and the unusual supernova could be the first of many such events soon to be discovered.

SN 2007bi was found early in 2007 by the international Nearby Supernova Factory (SNfactory) based at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The supernova’s spectrum was unusual, and astronomers at the University of California at Berkeley subsequently obtained a more detailed spectrum. Over the next year and a half the Berkeley scientists participated in a collaboration led by Avishay Gal-Yam of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science to collect and analyze much more data as the supernova slowly faded away.

The analysis indicated that the supernova’s precursor star could only have been a giant weighing at least 200 times the mass of our Sun and initially containing few elements besides hydrogen and helium – a star like the very first stars in the early Universe.

“Because the core alone was some 100 solar masses, the long-hypothesized phenomenon called pair instability must have occurred,” says astrophysicist Peter Nugent. A member of the SNfactory, Nugent is the co-leader of the Computational Cosmology Center (C3), a collaboration between Berkeley Lab’s Physics Division and Computational Research Division (CRD), where Nugent is a staff scientist. “In the extreme heat of the star’s interior, energetic gamma rays created pairs of electrons and positrons, which bled off the pressure that sustained the core against collapse.”

“SN 2007bi was the explosion of an exceedingly massive star,” says Alex Filippenko, a professor in the Astronomy Department at UC Berkeley whose team helped obtain, analyze, and interpret the data. “But instead of turning into a black hole like many other heavyweight stars, its core went through a nuclear runaway that blew it to shreds. This type of behavior was predicted several decades ago by theorists, but never convincingly observed until now.”

SN 2007bi is the first confirmed observation of a pair-instability supernova. The researchers describe their results in the 3 December 2009 issue of Nature.

SN 2007bi was recorded on images taken as part of the Palomar-QUEST Survey, an automated search with the wide-field Oschin Telescope at the California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory, and was quickly detected and categorized as an unusual supernova by the SNfactory. The SNfactory has so far discovered nearly a thousand supernovae of all types and amassed thousands of spectra, but has focused on those designated Type Ia, the “standard candles” used to study the expansion history of the Universe. SN 2007bi, however, turned out not to be a Type Ia. For one thing, it was at least ten times as bright.

“The thermonuclear runaway experienced by the core of SN 2007bi is reminiscent of that seen in the explosions of white dwarfs as Type Ia supernovae,” says Filippenko, “but on a much larger scale and with a far greater amount of power.”

“The discovery is a great example of how we can get all the science, in addition to cosmology, out of the SNfactory search,” says Greg Aldering, SNfactory project leader, who was not an author of the Nature paper. “Berkeley Lab and Caltech’s Astronomy Department agreed that we would split the work, the Lab handling the Type Ia’s and Caltech all the other types.”

Nugent contacted Gal-Yam, then a Caltech postdoctoral fellow, the lead investigator for the all-other category. “I asked, are you interested? He said, sure!” Nugent then contacted Filippenko, who was about to conduct a night of observation with the 10-meter Keck I telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Filippenko immediately set out to obtain an optical spectrum of the unusual supernova.

Caltech researchers subsequently acquired additional spectra with the Keck telescope, as did Paolo Mazzali’s team from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.

Says Mazzali, “The Keck and VLT spectra clearly indicated that an extremely large amount of material was ejected by the explosion, including a record amount of radioactive nickel, which caused the expanding gases to glow very brightly.”

Rollin Thomas of CRD, a member of C3 and the SNfactory, aided the early analysis, using the Franklin supercomputer at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) to run a code he developed to generate numerous synthetic spectra for comparison with the real spectrum.

“The code uses hundreds of cores to systematically test a large number of simplified model supernovae, searching through the candidates by adjusting parameters until it finds a good fit,” says Thomas. “This kind of data-driven approach is key to helping us understand new types of transients for which no reliable theoretical predictions yet exist.” The model fit was unambiguous: SN 2007bi was a pair-instability supernova.

“The central part of the huge star had fused to oxygen near the end of its life, and was very hot,” Filippenko explains. “Then the most energetic photons of light turned into electron-positron pairs, robbing the core of pressure and causing it to collapse. This led to a nuclear runaway explosion that created a large amount of radioactive nickel, whose decay energized the ejected gas and kept the supernova visible for a long time.”

Gal-Yam organized a team of collaborators from many institutions to continue to observe SN 2007bi and obtain data as it slowly faded over a span of 555 days. Says Gal-Yam, “As our follow-up observations started to roll in, I immediately realized this must be something new. And indeed it turned out to be a fantastic example of how we are finding new types of stellar explosions.”

Because it had no hydrogen or helium lines, the usual classification scheme would have labeled the supernova a Type Ic. But it was so much brighter than an ordinary Type Ic that it reminded Nugent of only one prior event, a supernova designated SN 1999as, found by the international Supernova Cosmology Project but unfortunately three weeks after its peak brightness.

Understanding a supernova requires a good record of its rise and fall in brightness, or light curve. Although SN 2007bi was detected more than a week after its peak, Nugent delved into years of data compiled by NERSC from the SNfactory and other surveys. He found that the Catalina Sky Survey had recorded SN 2007bi before its peak brightness and could provide enough data to calculate the duration of the rising curve, an extraordinarily long 70 days – more evidence for the pair-instability identification.

“It’s significant that the first unambiguous example of a pair-instability supernova was found in a dwarf galaxy,” says Nugent. “These are incredibly small, very dim galaxies that contain few elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, so they are models of the early Universe.”

Dwarf galaxies are ubiquitous but so faint and dim – “they take only a few pixels on a camera,” says Nugent, “and until recently, with the development of wide-field projects like the SNfactory, astronomers had wanted to fill the chip with galaxies” – that they’ve rarely been studied. SN 2007bi is expected to focus attention on what Gal-Yam and his collaborators call “fossil laboratories to study the early Universe.”

Says Filippenko, “In the future, we might end up detecting the very first generation of stars, early in the history of the Universe, through explosions such as that of SN 2007bi – long before we have the capability of directly seeing the pre-explosion stars.”

With the advent of the multi-institutional Palomar Transient Factory, a fully automated, wide-field survey to find transients, led by Caltech’s Shri Kulkarni, and with the aid of the Deep Sky Survey established by Nugent at NERSC to compile historical data from Palomar-QUEST, the SNfactory, the Near Earth Asteroid Team, and other surveys, the collaborators expect they will soon find many more ultrabright, ultramassive supernovae, revealing the role of these supernovae in creating the Universe as we know it today.

(Photo: LBNL)

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory


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In spite of their genetic similarity to humans, chimpanzees and great apes have maximum lifespans that rarely exceed 50 years. The difference, explains USC Davis School of Gerontology Professor Caleb Finch, is that as humans evolved genes that enabled them to better adjust to levels of infection and inflammation and to the high cholesterol levels of their meat rich diets.

In the December issue of PNAS Early Edition, Finch reveals that these evolutionary genetic advantages, caused by slight differences in DNA sequencing and improvements in diet, make humans uniquely susceptible to diseases of aging such as cancer, heart disease and dementia when compared to other primates.

Finch, the ARCO & William F. Kieschnick Professor in the Neurobiology of Aging and a distinguished University Professor, argues that a major contributor to longevity for humans is the genes that adapt to higher exposure to inflammation.

"Over time, ingestion of red meat, particularly raw meat infected with parasites in the era before cooking, stimulates chronic inflammation that leads to some of the common diseases of aging," Finch said.

In addition to differences in diets between species of primates, humans evolved unique variants in a cholesterol transporting gene, apolipoprotein E, which also regulates inflammation and many aspects of aging in the brain and arteries.

ApoE3 is unique to humans and may be what Finch calls "a meat-adaptive gene" that has increased the human lifespan.

However, the minor allele, apoE4, when expressed in humans, can impair neuronal development, as well as shorten human lifespan by about four years and increase the risk of heart disease and Alzheimer disease by several-fold. ApoE4 carriers have higher totals of blood cholesterol, more oxidized blood lipids and early onset of coronary heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.

"The chimpanzee apoE functions more like the "good" apoE3, which contributes to low levels of heart disease and Alzheimer's," Finch said. Correspondingly, chimpanzees in captivity have unusually low levels of heart disease and Alzheimer-like changes during aging.

Finch hypothesizes that the expression of ApoE4 could be the result of the antagonistic pleiotropy theory of aging, in which genes selected to fight diseases in early life have adverse affects in later life.

"ApoeE may be a prototype for other genes that enabled the huge changes in human lifespan, as well as brain size, despite our very unape-like meat-rich diets," Finch said. "Drugs being developed to alter activities of apoE4 may also enhance lifespan of apoE4 carriers."

University of Southern California




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