View outside of an airplane window of the wing, sunset, and clouds

Fasten your seatbelts. New research indicates that climate change may increase turbulence. (Octavian Lazar/iStock)

UChicago research roundup

Accelerating jet streams, language and cognition, and the pace of mammals’ brain development.

Winds of change

Future flights may be faster, but the rides will be bumpier. In a November 2023 Nature Climate Change article, geophysical sciences professor Tiffany Shaw and National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Osamu Miyawaki, PhD’22, investigated the little-studied effect of climate change on the fastest upper-level jet streams. These narrow bands of near-stratospheric air currents influence Earth’s winds, weather patterns, storms, and air temperature—and also affect flight speeds and clear-air turbulence. Using climate models that simulate jet stream activity under climate change, the researchers determined that fast upper-level jet stream winds will speed up 2.5 times faster than the average wind and will accelerate by about 2 percent for every degree Celsius the planet warms. More research and new detailed climate models are needed to provide a better picture of what effect the rising temperatures and faster winds will have on storms and severe weather events.

Words and worldviews

Anyone who has used Google Translate realizes there is more to translation than substituting one word for the same word in a different language. To better understand the challenges of translation and cross-cultural communication, James Evans, Max Palevsky Professor in the Department of Sociology, led researchers in using large language models trained on Wikipedia articles in 35 languages and on English TOEFL essays by 38,500 speakers of those same languages. They found that meanings across languages vary less within the same semantic domain (categories of meaning within a language, such as color, kinship, and emotion) than across domains. In addition, concrete concepts (e.g., foods, body parts) vary less than abstract concepts (e.g., injustice, democracy). The closer languages are in terms of geography, environment, and culture, the more likely they are to have similar meanings. These results, published in December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provided strong evidence for relativism in meaning—the language a person speaks influences how they form ideas and think about things. Recognition of these differences has implications for language education, cross-cultural communication, and translation, particularly when it comes to metaphors, analogies, and figures of speech.

Of mice and primates

In neuroscience, brain development in shorter-lived animals such as mice has long been understood to happen faster than in longer-lived animals such as primates. But a study published in December in Nature Communications challenges that assumption by showing that the brains of primates and mice appear to develop their synapses at the same pace. Researchers from UChicago and Argonne National Laboratory, led by neurobiologist Narayanan “Bobby” Kasthuri, note that this finding will prompt rethinking about aging, development, and past research using comparison models that were not at developmentally similar ages. Further research is needed to determine if these findings hold true in humans, whose behavioral development is much slower than other species’. Understanding how different species’ brains develop could lead to better treatments for neurological disorders in humans.