Welcome to the Altmetric High Five for June! On a monthly basis, my High Five posts examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric has seen attention for that month.
Our theme this month is, well, humans.
Paper #1. Lighting up the Dark
Our first High Five paper is “The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness,” an open access research article published in Science Advances in June 2016. As described in the paper, an international group of researchers developed a world atlas of artificial sky luminance, or night sky brightness, based on satellite data and sky brightness measurements.
“This atlas shows that more than 80% of the world and more than 99% of the U.S. and European populations live under light-polluted skies. The Milky Way is hidden from more than one-third of humanity, including 60% of Europeans and nearly 80% of North Americans.” – Falchi et al. 2016
Nearly 300 news outlets covered the study. Newsweek headlined, “Thanks to light pollution, one-third of the world – and 80 percent of Americans, can no longer see the milky way.”
“Since lightbulbs began lighting up streets and homes at the start of the 20th century, stars in the night sky has been an increasingly rare sight in cities and suburbs. Now, after over a century of artificial luminescence, researchers say that one-third of the human population can no longer see the Milky Way, with most of the industrialized world living under a dome of light population.” – Seung Lee, Newsweek
Brad Plumer wrote for Vox, “As scientists have piled up evidence of the dangers of too much light pollution — from energy waste to sleep disruption — more cities are finding ways to cut down the glare. […] [M]any US parks are taking new measures to preserve what remaining dark skies we have.”
“I hope that this atlas will finally open the eyes of people to light pollution.” – Fabio Falchi, study author
The Washington Post and several other media outlets featured in their stories about the study a striking animation of light pollution across the globe using data from the newly released world atlas of artificial night-sky brightness.
“More than a decade ago, some of the same researchers created the first world atlas of artificial night-sky brightness. But the updated version published Friday employs more sophisticated tools, such as imaging data from a high-resolution satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The result is a detailed global map of light pollution, which scientists consider to be the level of brightness at which artificial light substantially obscures astronomical observations.” – Brady Dennis, The Washington Post
- A third of the population can’t see the Milky Way at night, by Thomas Sumner, Science News
Paper #2. Uncovering the mysterious history of “the hobbits”
Our second High Five paper is “Homo floresiensis-like fossils from the early Middle Pleistocene of Flores,” published in Nature in June. The paper describes the discovery of fossils that belonged to ancestors of Homo floresiensis, or an oddly small hominin species in western Flores, Indonesia known in familiar terms as “the hobbits.” Some controversy has surrounded the origin of these “hobbits” – some researchers have even questioned whether they were merely sickly H. erectus, or modern humans who were small in stature due to some congenital disease. But the discovery of new fossils suggests otherwise.
The fossils of the ancestor species, a mandible and several teeth, are also very small, but share features with Homo erectus, suggesting that the hobbits descended from H. erectus but went through process of “island dwarfism,” shrinking in size relatively rapidly perhaps due limited resources on the islands on which they were found.
The study authors write, “[o]ur findings suggest that hominins on Flores had acquired extremely small body size and other morphological traits specific to H. floresiensis at an unexpectedly early time.”
Over 200 news outlets covered the study. Ars Technica headlined, “The ‘hobbit’ was tiny already by 700,000 years ago.”
“One of the unresolved questions is the frankly alarming speed of shrinkage the remains seem to suggest. […] Island dwarfism is a well-known phenomenon, but we don’t have any primate examples of the process that could help to establish how fast it can occur.” – Cathleen O’Grady, Ars Technica
George Dvorsky wrote for Gizmodo, “Bones and teeth belonging to the ancestors of the short-statured human lineage known as ‘the Hobbits’ have been discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores. The fossils, which date back 700,000 years, are offering fresh insights into the origin of this mysterious species.”
Most news stories focused on the alternative hypotheses for how the “hobbit” hominins came to be, and how the new fossils shed light on their history and evolution. In the end, many stories emphasized that more fossils are needed to fully understand the history of “the hobbit” Homo floresiensis.
- Tiny jaw reveals dawn of the hobbit, by Elizabeth Culotta, Science
- New Fossils Strengthen Case for ‘Hobbit’ Species, by Carl Zimmer, New York Times
- There’s Now More Evidence That A Tiny Hobbit-Like Species Of Humans Really Existed, by Tom Chivers, Buzzfeed
Paper #3. A driverless car is about to crash. Should it save the passenger(s) or the pedestrians?
Our third High Five paper is “The social dilemma of autonomous vehicles,” a report in Science magazine published in June 2016.
“When it becomes possible to program decision-making based on moral principles into machines, will self-interest or the public good predominate? In a series of surveys, Bonnefon et al. found that even though participants approve of autonomous vehicles that might sacrifice passengers to save others, respondents would prefer not to ride in such vehicles.” – Science
The report garnered hundreds of news stories and blog posts. The New York Times headlined, “Should Your Driverless Car Hit a Pedestrian to Save Your Life?”
“In this week’s Science magazine, a group of computer scientists and psychologists explain how they conducted six online surveys of United States residents last year between June and November that asked people how they believed autonomous vehicles should behave. The researchers found that respondents generally thought self-driving cars should be programmed to make decisions for the greatest good.
Sort of. Through a series of quizzes that present unpalatable options that amount to saving or sacrificing yourself — and the lives of fellow passengers who may be family members — to spare others, the researchers, not surprisingly, found that people would rather stay alive.” – John Markoff, New York Times
Nidhi Subbaraman writes for Buzzfeed, “[e]ventually, this could lead car makers to advertise and manufacture cars that chose the safety of passengers over pedestrians.”
Harvard psychologist Joshua D. Greene writes in a perspective on the study published in Science, “[b]efore we can put our values into machines, we have to figure out how to make our values clear and consistent.”
Paper #4. The Bigger the Glass…
Our next High Five paper is “Does wine glass size influence sales for on-site consumption? A multiple treatment reversal design,” published in BMC Public Health. The study indicates that wine sales went up when wine was sold in larger compared to standard-sized glasses in a bar and restaurant in England.
“The size of glasses in which wine is sold, keeping the portion size constant, can affect consumption, with larger glasses increasing consumption. The hypothesised mechanisms for these differential effects need to be tested in a replication study. If replicated, policy implications could include considering glass size amongst alcohol licensing requirements.” – Pechey et al. 2016
Over 150 news outlets covered the study. Many included a message that if audiences wanted to cut down on their wine consumption, they could start with a smaller glass. However, the study findings were inconclusive as to whether wine consumption goes down when wine is sold in smaller than standard-size glasses.
NewScientist headlined, “How the size and shape of your glass affects how much you drink.”
This probably happened because larger glasses make a regular serving appear smaller, encouraging people to opt for larger servings or to come back for the next round sooner. It could also be that people enjoy the feeling of drinking from oversized glasses more, prompting them to drink more.” – Simon Oxenham, NewScientist
Paper #5. Fish can recognize human faces!
Our final High Five paper is my personal favorite. “Discrimination of human faces by archerfish (Toxotes chatareus)” was published in Nature Scientific Reports in June 2016. The study sheds light on facial recognition… by fish.
“Fish do not appear to possess neocortex-like cells, and given their lack of direct exposure to humans, are unlikely to have evolved any specialized capabilities for human facial recognition. Using a two-alternative forced-choice procedure, we show that archerfish (Toxotes chatareus) can learn to discriminate a large number of human face images […] This study not only demonstrates that archerfish have impressive pattern discrimination abilities, but also provides evidence that a vertebrate lacking a neocortex and without an evolutionary prerogative to discriminate human faces, can nonetheless do so to a high degree of accuracy.” – Newport et al. 2016
Wait – fish can recognize human faces?
Brad Plumer writes for Vox, “In the study, led by Cait Newport of Oxford University, the researchers trained four archerfish to spit water at an image of a particular human face in order to receive a food prize.”
“A fascinating new paper in Scientific Reports offers evidence that archerfish — a tropical fish that spits jets of water to stun prey — can be trained to recognize human faces with surprising accuracy, even though they lack the same complex brain structures.” – Brad Plumer, Vox
Watch a video of the spitting, human face-recognizing fish in action!
“Lead author Cait Newport said that the motivation of the work was to better understand how humans recognise faces. She explained that there are two theories on how human facial recognition works: One suggests that this skill relies on complex and specialised brain circuitry such as that in the human neocortex; the other suggests that it’s a learned skill that doesn’t necessarily need this brain structure.” – Victoria Turk, “Oh My God, Fish Can Recognise Human Faces,” Motherboard
- Fish can recognize human faces (and we know because they keep spitting at us, by Rachel Feltman, The Washington Post