Wednesday, 26th April 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. How much can you tell about a stranger's personality from his or her initial "hello"?

A. Voices certainly convey information about gender, age, and other traits, but University of Glasgow psychologist Philip McAleer and colleagues wondered how quickly such impressions form, as reported in "PLoS ONE" journal. They recorded 32 men and 32 women reading a passage and extracted the word "hello" from it, then played these sub-half-second snippets for several hundred listeners and had them use a nine-point scale to rate the speakers on ten personality traits: Aggressiveness, Attractiveness, Competence, Confidence, Dominance, Femininity, Likability, Masculinity, Trustworthiness and Warmth. Surprisingly, the ratings proved remarkably consistent, with an average statistical correlation of 0.92 on a scale of 0 (no correlation) to 1 (perfect correlation).

The study further found that Likability and Dominance were most important, in that all other traits could be reliably predicted from these two. Male vocal Attractiveness combined Likability and Dominance, while female vocal Attractiveness was primarily dictated by positive Likability.

As McAleer explains, such snap judgments may provide an evolutionary advantage: "You want to know quickly if you can trust a person so you can approach him or her or run away."

Q. At a bar one night, you think of a couple of rowdies there as "Neanderthals." How far off the mark are you with such a term?

A. "While it's been more than 5 million years since we parted ways with chimps, it's been only 400,000 years since human and Neanderthal lineages split," says Jonathon Keats in "Discover" magazine. That makes you pretty much a Neanderthal yourself, meaning your thinking is hardly off the mark at all. Moreover, if you're Asian or Caucasian, your ancestors interbred with Neanderthals as recently as 37,000 years ago in Europe.

Despite some bad press, Neanderthals had some great ideas: They made spears by hafting sharpened stones to wooden handles, then glued them together. Using those spears, they were able to hunt bison and woolly rhinoceros. And when injured, "they nursed each other back to health, enlisting their greatest concept of all: empathy."

As Keats suggests, to check out your own quantity of Neanderthal DNA, you can swab your cheek and send the swab to the National Geographic Society's Genographic Project.

Q. Baseball fans, are you a sabermetrician? Have you got a taste for the alphabet soup of statistics being served up in baseball these days?

A. Historically, the holy trinity of baseball stats has been AVG (batting average), HR (home runs) and RBI (runs batted in), says Steve Mirsky in "Scientific American" magazine. Now we also have "sabermetrics," a term from legendary stat man Bill James, combining "metrics" with an acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research. The term includes statistical measures such as OBP, OPS, UZR and WAR to help evaluate player and team performance and front office strategy. "Sadly," Mirsky jokes, "sabermetrics does not refer to exactly how far down onto his sword a general manager has to fall if his team underperforms."

The movie "Moneyball" pitched to a large general audience OBP ("on-base percentage"), meaning "hits plus walks divided by plate appearances" because, as the old baseball adage goes, "A walk is as good as a hit." But this cannot be true when the hit is a home run, even though the homer counts only like a single for batting average.

A popular way to measure hitting now is OPS ("on-base plus slugging percentage"), which gives more weight to power and hence to scoring. UZR ("ultimate zone rating") is used to measure defense but has been criticized for its inconsistency.

WAR ("wins above replacement") purports to figure the number of wins a player adds to his team's total over that of his replacement. "What is it good for? Perhaps not absolutely nothing, but less than it may appear," Mirsky quips. More broadly, as another observer put it, "I do not think these baseball stats mean what you think they mean."

Q. Regarding load-bearing locks, who's that surprising new Rapunzel?

A. Very well might be YOU, according to the Library of Congress, says "Mental Floss" magazine. Hair isn't just the stuff of fairy tales. Going by testing, every strand of human hair is strong enough to hold 3.5 ounces. And since the average head has between 100,000 and 150,000 hairs, that computes to a human mane potentially supporting 150,000 times 3.5 (ounces) divided by 16 (ounces per pound) divided by 2000 (pounds per ton). Thus, your final figure is over 16 tons! "But don't start lifting anvils with your French braid just yet--it takes only an ounce of force to pluck a hair from your scalp. So while you could throw down your tresses the next time a dashing prince tries to rescue you, you'd be better off pointing him to a stepladder."

Q. Several hundred billion stars make up our galaxy, though some 70 percent of them - so-called red dwarfs -are much smaller and dimmer than our Sun. Does that also dim our prospects of one day finding extraterrestrial life?

A. Not necessarily, argues Harvard astronomer John A. Johnson in "Physics Today" magazine. Although red dwarfs are cooler than the Sun, with surface temperatures about half as much, surveys indicate that they are quite likely to be surrounded by Earth-sized planets. Furthermore, these planets tend to orbit close-in, warm enough to be inside the "habitable zone" where liquid water can exist. Indeed, calculations by graduate student Courtney Dressing suggest that one Earth-sized habitable-zone planet exists for every two red dwarfs, implying more than a hundred billion life-candidate planets in the Milky Way! And red dwarfs live much, much longer than stars like our Sun.

In many respects, the study of Earth-sized planets orbiting red dwarfs is easier than for Sun-like stars. It is tantalizing that the James Webb Space Telescope (launch planned for 2018) will be able to measure the chemistry of the atmospheres of nearby red-dwarf planets, providing direct evidence for or against the presence of life.

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)


Letters to the Editor


    There must have a huge collective sigh of bewilderment when it was announced by British Prime Minister Teresa May that there would be a general election called for June 8th. Considering the number of elections and referenda that the country has gone through in an already short space of time it is no wonder that people are experiencing election fatigue. And even before this particular election the country will have local elections as well as mayoral elections in eight metro districts.While many people mi …

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