Today we are going to learn about how quickly different languages can transmit information. You will also learn how you can predict the weather by analyzing the pixels of your Facebook photos with some help from Randall Munroe. Creator of the popular geek web comic XKCD let’s satisfy some curiosity.
You know how some languages sound like they’re spoken at very different speeds. Compared to English sometimes it feels like Spanish or Italian. Speed along like a drum roll, while other languages like French or Vietnamese seem to roll off the tongue at a more leisurely pace.
We hear something super interesting, new research published in the journal Science advances, found at one key element is the same across the board when it comes to language. The rate of information transmitted through speech, is the same regardless of how fast the language tends to be spoken and you can probably blame the limitations of our brains.
For this study an international team of scientists measured verbal information in bits. Yes! like a computer bit. The same unit used for information transmitted by a cell phone or CPU. The team looked at written texts that had been translated into 17 different languages.
Including all the languages I mentioned earlier and they found the languages that had more syllables also generally conveyed more bits per syllable.
So for example Japanese only has six hundred forty three syllables and transmits about five bits of information per syllable. Whereas English has more than ten times as many syllables, but it transmits closer to seven bits of information per syllable. Vietnamese was the most densely packed language with eight bits of information per syllable and with all this data scientists recruited and recorded 10 speakers, five men and five women to read 15 written passages in their native tongue and used some pre-existing recordings for a few of the other languages.
Then the team did the math by multiplying the language average speed by the number of bits in each syllable. The findings are remarkably consistent, No matter how quickly words rolled off the speaker’s tongues and despite complicated linguistic systems like veto traits of Vietnamese. Speakers in all 17 languages transmitted information at the same rate. About 39 bits of information per second for comparison back in 1959. The world’s first computer modem transferred 110 bits of information per second.
What about speed variations, like in English at least teenage girls tend to speak faster than average rate. Well the scientists say their findings held true even when accounting for these linguistic differences and the reason why this rate is so consistent, is because of our brains. They can only absorb or produce a certain amount of information at any given time. Two neuroscientists recently determined that our brains could only process up to 9 syllables of English/sec.
So there you go despite our cultural and linguistic differences at the end of the day we are all humans whose brains work the same way. But there’s something interesting here right because the study says that all languages transmit 39 bits of information per second and yet if our brains can only process up to nine syllables of English per second and each syllable transmits seven bits, that’s 63 bits that we are taking in. So that’s why even if you can only talk at a certain rate, you can still like speed up your podcast player to listen to things at 150% and still take in all the information.
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Go to score style calm now enter curiosity in the promo box and get your first month free. Just pay for shipping you can cancel it anytime that’s SK you are a style calm. Have you ever tried to come up with a way to solve a problem that ended up creating a lot more problems and you ended up with a monumentally complicated excessive and even inadvisable way to do something?
Well that’s the entire premise behind a brand new book from Randall Munroe.
Who are the creator of the geeky web comic XKCD and you’re going to hear the first half of our interview with him today.
Ok so full disclosures Cody and I have been big fans of XKCD since college if you’ve never read XKCD then you are missing out. It’s basically the quintessential geek web comic. Randall started XKCD in 2007 after graduating with a physics degree and working on robots at NASA’s Langley Research Center. so he’s definitely no stranger to science and he’s making learning about science even more fun with a new book called how to absurd scientific advice for common real-world problems. Why look at science through this lens? Here is Randall on his unique approach.
Sometimes people will ask me you know why if so why it is why is it interesting to look at these things? Like how you could make a house fly with jet engines or something and that always seemed like just kind of a strange question. Because I feel like these topics are just like self-evidently exciting and so there is a chapter on how to throw a pool party that involves all kinds of techniques you can use including condensing water out of the air to fill your pool and or during the feasibility of if your hose won’t fill your pool you could order like a hundred thousand individual water bottles off of Amazon for overnight delivery. And to try to fill your pool that way and what would be the problems you’d run into and then of course each of each solution creates a whole bunch of new problems of its own like, how do you open all those bottles it turns out you can’t do it one at a time if your party is the next day and so I had to look at weird ways of opening bottles quickly and it’s I don’t know I’m good at coming up with solutions to problems that create a whole bunch of exciting new problems of their own so I’m always creating more research for myself.
I am looking you know you look at the chapter titles there’s things like how to throw things? How to build a lava moat? How to catch a drone how to take a selfie? But then there’s something like how to predict the weather by analyzing the pixels of your Facebook photos?
Is that good or bad advice and does it actually work? You know that’s one of the most surprising things that I learned here was I had always heard that rhyme about red sky at night sailor’s delight red sky morning sailors take warning. And I did not realize that there is actually a basis for that rhyme it’s a really old rhyme it’s been around you know versions that would have been around for thousands of years, but part of why it’s persisted is that in certain areas of the world and certain seasons, that actually works and the reason it works is because the reason the sky is red at night is that when the Sun is setting it gets filtered through a long stretch hundreds of miles of clear air and the air is a little bit bluish it reflects blue light and so only the red light makes it through. And so for clouds to be lit up red there needs to be a lot of clear air in the direction the Sun is setting and since the Sun sets in the west and in the temperate zones weather systems mostly move from west to east.
If there’s a red sky at night it means that there is a lot of clear air to your West and if there’s a lot of clear air to your West it means there’s not a storm system over the horizon about to show up the next day. And so when you take a really nice picture at night and it’s lit with that kind of golden color and with the beautiful sunset behind it, that is not a hundred percent reliable not as good as using a real weather model but still better than I expected from you know a rhyme I learned is a little kid it actually there is a basis to that which I thought is was so cool Wow so the redder this guy is to the west of the better the weather is probably going to be.
Well and the clouds above you turn red you know you will see the sunset it’ll be but like all of the clouds you see turning red are relatively close to you. But there needs to be air west of those clouds so it means there are clouds where you are now but not to your West and that’s what tells you that the clouds are moving away and good weather is moving in probably.
Sometimes it’s not sometimes there’s a hurricane coming from the other direction, but it’s still better than just guessing at random which is neat.
Randall Monroe’s new book is how to absurd scientific advice for common real world problems you can find links to that and XKCD in today’s show notes, and tomorrow you’ll learn about how to power your house by destroying the fabric of space-time.
And now let’s recap what we learned today. We learned that languages around the world transmit information at the same rate because our brains can only handle so much. We also learned that in certain parts of the world at certain times of year a red sky at night means there’s a lot of clear air to the west. Which means there’s a good chance there’s no major storm system on the way no coffee at morning?