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‘Invisible’ words reveal common structure among famous stories

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Aug. 7 (UPI) — Storytelling requires a narrative arc, but the trajectory of a dramatic arc isn’t always obvious.

By tracing the abundance of “invisible” words — pronouns, articles and other short words — researchers were able to identify patterns shared by a diversity of stories, from Shakespeare to Spielberg, according to a study published Friday in Science Advances.

“Over the years, these ‘invisible’ words have been found to be related to a whole mess of psychological processes — how people use small words like articles and pronouns tell us about a person’s mental health, thinking style, their social status, and even how well they get along with other people,” study lead author Ryan Boyd told UPI.

“In many ways, it was a natural progression to look at what these words can tell us how the nature of stories,” said Boyd, a lecturer in behavioral analytics at the University of Leeds.

For the study, Boyd and his colleagues used a range of statistical techniques to analyze the abundance and distribution of invisible words in 40,000 fictional texts, including short stories, novels and movie scripts.

The analysis revealed a common structure — a so-called narrative curve — featuring three distinct phases.

During the “staging” phase, authors use prepositions and articles in greater abundance, peppering their prose with “a” and “the.” These words are more useful at the beginning, when authors must set the scene and provide the audience with basic information.

The middle phase is defined by plot progression, which is revealed by a greater abundance of auxiliary verbs, adverbs and pronouns — or interactional language. During this phase, “the house” from the staging phase becomes “her home” or “it.”

During the third phase, cognitive tension is ramped up as the narrative arc reaches a climax. As the author guides the reader or viewer through the process of conflict resolution, cognitive-processing words like “think,” “believe,” “understand” and “cause” begin to crop up in greater numbers.

Researchers found this three-phase narrative shape remained consistent, regardless of a stories length.

“A 25,000 word story has the same shape as a 250 word story,” said Boyd, lead author of the new study. “It seems, then, that we are able to do a good job of structuring our stories in an optimal way regardless of how much space we have to do it in.”

The researchers set up a website showing the shapes of staging, plot progression and cognitive tension in eight texts at The Arc of Narrative website.

The patterns left by invisible words proved both good and bad stories — tales spun by amateurs, as well as professionals — utilize similar structures.

“Our results confirm what people have long believed about stories,” Boyd said. “Like DNA, we knew about it long before we could actually see it and measure it. With these new methods, we are able to see and measure the ‘DNA’ of stories and understand them in more objective, scientific ways.”

According to Boyd, studying the patterns of stories can offer insights into cognitive processes unique to humans.

“What these story shapes seem to tell us is that we have, to some degree, evolved to process information in certain ways,” he said. “We need to understand the ‘who’ and ‘what’ in order to understand the ‘why’ of our everyday lives and the lives of others.”

The authors of the latest story are already mining text for other language patterns that might help researchers determine whether a story-teller is telling the truth, or perhaps reveal the secrets to a “good” story.



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Rising atmospheric dust across the Great Plains recalls lead up to the Dust Bowl

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Oct. 13 (UPI) — Atmospheric dust levels are rising 5 percent per year across the Great Plains, according to a new survey by scientists at the University of Utah.

The research, published this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, increased cropland conversion and expanded growing seasons are exposing more and more soil and wind erosion.

Authors of the new study suggest the phenomenon, if combined with drier climate conditions as a result of climate change, could yield conditions comparable to the Dust Bowl, the series of droughts and dust storms that devastated the Midwest during the 1930s.

“We can’t make changes to the earth surface without some kind of consequence just as we can’t burn fossil fuels without consequences,” lead study author Andy Lambert said in a news release.

“So while the agriculture industry is absolutely important, we need to think more carefully about where and how we plant,” said Lambert, a recent graduate of the University of Utah.

In the 1920s, farmers across the Great Plains converted massive amounts of grassland to farm tracts. When drought hit in the 1930s, extensive crop failures left newly plowed fields exposed to the wind, yielding waves of dust storms.

“These dust storms removed nutrients from the soil, making it more difficult for crops to grow and more likely for wind erosion to occur,” Lambert said.

Soaking rains eventually brought an end to the Dust Bowl, but much of the damage caused by erosion was permanent. Soils in some parts of the Great Plains have never recovered.

Three-quarters of a century later, around 2000, as demand for biofuels increased, farmers started clearing additional grassland to biofuel feedstocks.

Between 2006 and 2011, nearly 2,050 square miles of grassland across five Midwestern states was converted to farmland. Meanwhile, droughts have become longer and more across the Great Plains.

To gauge the risk of dust storms in the region, researchers amassed data from a variety of instruments designed to measure atmospheric haziness from both the ground up and space down. The data, from NASA satellites and two federally managed ground monitoring systems, showed the amount of dust in the atmosphere above the Great Plains has steadily increased over the last 20 years.

“The amount of increase is really the story here,” said study co-author Gannet Hallar, associate professor of atmospheric sciences. “That 5 percent a year over two decades, of course, is a hundred percent increase in dust loading. This is not a small signal to find.”

Scientists were also able to link rises in dust levels with crop expansion. Across Iowa, atmospheric dust increased predominantly in June and October, the planting and harvesting months for soybeans, the dominant crop. Across the southern Great Plains, where corn is more popular, the dust increases appeared in March and October.

“I think it’s fair to say that what’s happening with dust trends in the Midwest and the Great Plains is an indicator that the threat is real if crop land expansion continues to occur at this rate and drought risk does increase because of climate change,” Lambert says. “Those would be the ingredients for another Dust Bowl.”

Authors of the new study said their findings should serve as a warning to farmers and policy makers across the Midwest that proactive measures are needed to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.



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NASA’s Kate Rubins, 2 cosmonauts dock with International Space Station

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Tracy Caldwell Dyson pauses for a portrait in her spacesuit before going underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on July 8, 2019. Photo by Bill Ingalls/UPI



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Layered hybrid fibers could be used to build anti-viral masks, researchers say

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Oct. 14 (UPI) — Hybrid polymer fibers, featuring layers with different qualities, can be used for an array of biomedical applications, according to a new study in the journal Applied Physics Reviews.

Instead of searching for a single material that meets all the requirements of biomedical processes like tissue scaffolding, drug delivery and cardiac patching, authors of the new study suggest medical researchers utilize core-sheath polymer fibers — hybrid fibers featuring a strong core surrounded by a biologically applicable sheath layer.

“You want strength, but you also want bioactivity,” study co-author Mohan Edirisinghe said in a news release.

“So, if you align them in a core-sheath polymer, you have the strength of the core material, but the functionality comes from a bioactive polymer or ingredient that is in the sheath. That is a big advantage,” said Edirisinghe, a material scientist at University College London.

Because researchers can select from an array of materials to create the core-sheath fibers, the layered fibers could be used to meet a variety of biomedical applications, including the creation of antiviral mask materials.

“If you want to make a fibrous mask from a textile, you really need to have the strength, because you’re going to wash it and use it,” Edirisinghe said. “But on the other hand, you need an active material.”

Researchers suggest virus-fighting drugs or proteins could even be embedded in the fiber’s sheath layer during the manufacturing process.

Scientists have already augmented several fiber fabrication processes to create prototype core-sheath fibers.

One of the most promising methods involves embedding a vessel with a reservoir of the core material inside another vessel with a reservoir of sheath material. The reservoirs are released simultaneously through the vessel orifices, creating a bi-layered core-sheath fiber.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg, because this is just two reservoirs with two materials, which become the sheath and core layers of the fibers, but you can extend this to three or four,” Edirisinghe said. “In each layer, you can have a different drug that satisfies a different purpose.”



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