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Why English is a Better World Language than Chinese (and How that Might Change)
No prizes for guessing that English is the world's lingua franca. But how good are the world's other languages at spreading information?
No prizes for guessing that English is the world's lingua franca. But how good are the world's other languages at spreading information? As these maps show, size isn't the only thing that matters.
Spanish, for example, is more influential than Mandarin. Although it has less than half the number of speakers, it is better at 'co-expression' with other languages, via translations and multilingual speakers. That degree of interconnectedness is more telling of a language's global importance than the number or the GDP of its speakers, both of which are often very limited geographically.
The structure of those co-expressions is captured by three maps, each describing a different global language network (GLN). The maps illustrate a recently published paper  on the role of multilingualism in the worldwide transmission of information and ideas. Multilingual people are the Chinese whisperers of knowledge: they pass on memes from their native language to other ones they're fluent in (and back again).
The first map shows the links in a GLN based on 2.2 million book translations in more than 1,000 languages . If a book is translated from, say, French to English and Russian, the map will show lines linking the French dot to the English and Russian ones. The more translations between a language-pair, the thicker the line connecting the dots.
The second map is based on 550 million tweets, fired off by 17 million users in a total of 73 different languages. If a user tweeted in two (or more) languates, the relevant dots will be connected.
The third map shows the connections between languages in Wikipedia, based on 382 million edits in 238 languages by 2.5 million unique editors. If a user edited articles in more than one language, the lines on the map will reflect that link between them.
On all three maps, English is the central hub of the network, not so much because of its size  as due to the number of transmissions to and from other languages – more than any others, including the bigger ones. The same phenomenon occurs on the intermediate level: there may be languages more widely spoken than German, French or Russian, but no nodes in that size category are busier transmitting information to others than they are.
This “halo of intermediate hubs” is in stark contrast to some of the larger languages that are nonetheless more isolated, notably Hindi, Arabic and Mandarin. The difference between both is the degree to which the speakers of languages in either category are themselves 'connected', by a combination of multilingualism and participation in global online communication.
In their paper, the researchers point out an interesting rule of thumb: if the number of famous people born into a certain language is high, it will be relatively better connected than others. Or, put another way: “[I]t will be easier for an English speaker than for a Nepali speaker to become globally famous”.
An interesting revelation is the way interconnectedness between consecutive languages can facilitate a chain of knowledge transfer. In its review  of the paper, Science cites the example of Malay as the intermediate facilitator for contact between the Korean and Filipino languages. In most cases, though, it will be English that fulfils the role of mediator between languages that don't communicate directly.
The relative importance of languages (rather than their absolute size) determines more than just transmission of objective facts; it also reflects how more subjective and intangible assets like influence, bias and rumour spread - for example the reporting on conflicts in the Ukraine, in Syria, etc.
Policy makers can draw two main lessons from the role of language in knowledge dissemination, says Shahar Ronen, co-author of the paper: “If you want your language to be more prominent, invest in translating more documents, encourage more people to tweet in the national language. If you want your ideas to spread, pick a second language that's very well connected”.
For English speakers, the research suggests that a smaller but better-connected language like Spanish is more advantageous than Chinese - bigger, but more isolated. At least as far as spreading ideas through book translation, Twitter and Wikipedia is concerned. The most obvious choice for everybody else is... English.
And yet, the internet is becoming less anglophone. By some estimates, the amount of online content written in English has fallen from about 80% in 1996 to less than 40% in 2013 .
As the authors of the paper on GLNs conclude: “Future assessments of GLNs can identify whether English is gaining or losing influence with respect to the languages of rising powers such as India or China. Such changes may help predict a language’s likelihood of global importance, marginalization, and, perhaps in the long term, extinction”.
Many thanks to François Arnould for sending in the link to the article in Science. Images reproduced with kind permission of the authors. For more information, see their Global Language Network website.
Strange Maps #693
 Links that speak: The global language network and its association with global fame, by Shahar Ronen (MIT), Bruno Gonçalves (Northeastern University, Aix-Marseille Université, Université de Toulon), Kevin Z. Hua (MIT), Alessandro Vespignani (Northeastern University), Steven Pinker (Harvard) and César A. Hidalgo (MIT). Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 11 December 2014.
 Compiled by the Index Translationum project at UNESCO.
 According to a 2010 update of the Nationalencyklopedin, Sweden's national encyclopedia, there are 360 million native speakers of English (5.4% of the world's population), putting it in third place behind Mandarin (955 million, 14.4%) and Spanish (405 million, 6.1%). The other large native-speaker languages are Hindi (310 million, 4.7%), Bengali (300 million, 4.6%), Arabic (295 million, 4.4%), Portuguese (215 million, 3.3%), Russian (155 million, 2.3%), Japanese (125 million, 1.9%) and Punjabi (102 million, 1.4%).
 Want to influence the world? Map reveals the best languages to speak (Science, 15 December 2014).
 English is no longer the language of the web (Quartz, 20 June 2013)
Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal.
So you're a vulture, riding the thermals that rise up over Iberia. Your way of life is ancient, ruled by needs and instincts that are way older than the human civilization that has overtaken the peninsula below, and the entire planet.
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy<p>Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a <a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the_expanse" target="_blank">Rotten Tomato</a> average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.</p><p>Best.</p><p>Show.</p><p>Ever. </p>
Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.
As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.