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The Science of Taylor Swift and Other Improbable Stories

The beginning of April always generates a slew of research papers from scientists who should know better. Here is this year's round up.

Rio de Janeiro, December 8, 2009. Singer Taylor Swift during her show at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - shutterstock 758842915
(Credit: A.PAES/Shutterstock)


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Taylor Swift's songs are well known for their description of various roller coaster relationships. These relationships have evolved during Swift's long career as a pop superstar. But how have the sentiments conveyed in Swift's songs changed in this time, and what light can science throw on this important issue?

Now Megan Mansfield and Darryl Seligman from the University of Chicago have an answer of sorts. "We show, for the first time, how Swift’s lyrical and melodic structure have evolved in their representation of emotions over a timescale of τ ∼ 14 yr," they say.

Their results could be useful for Swift, or indeed anyone, in choosing a partner in the future. "We provide tentative indications that partners with blue eyes and/or bad reputations may lead to overall less positive emotions, while those with green or indigo-colored eyes may produce more positive emotions and stronger relationships," says Mansfield and Seligman.

However, they also include a disclaimer: "We stress that these trends are based on small sample sizes, and more data are necessary to validate them."

You have been warned!

Ref: I Knew You Were Trouble: Emotional Trends in the Repertoire of Taylor Swift: arxiv.org/abs/2103.16737

Work Ethics

How productive are you? And how does your assessment of your work ethic compare with your actual productivity?

These are questions pondered by Kaley Brauer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who has been studying how often she and colleagues hit self-imposed deadlines for 559 tasks over the last nine months.

Brauer summarizes her results in just a few key takeaway points. First, she says that writing and coding take about 1.5 times as long as expected — so plan accordingly. She also says that senior researchers are not much better at hitting deadlines than their more junior colleagues. What's more, people don't get better at hitting deadlines over time.

But hers isn't all bad news. She points out that lots of work actually gets done, even if not always on time. "So yes, we only complete some of our planned tasks every week, but also, wow, we complete some of our planned tasks every week! While caring for ourselves and our loved ones!"

Ref: “I’ll Finish It This Week” And Other Lies: arxiv.org/abs/2103.16574

Feline Fact-Finding

Eve Armstrong is a regular paper publisher each April and the author of the now (in)famous paper "A Neural Networks Approach to Predicting How Things Might Have Turned Out Had I Mustered the Nerve to Ask Barry Cottonfield to the Junior Prom Back in 1997."

This year she investigates the connection between her cat Chester's behavior, the movement of a laser pointer and a red dot on the wall. The question at the heart of her work is: correlation, causation, or SARS-Cov-2 hallucination?

Ref: My cat Chester's dynamical systems analysyyyyy7777777777777777y7is of the laser pointer and the red dot on the wall: Correlation, causation, or SARS-Cov-2 hallucination? : arxiv.org/abs/2103.17058

Joking Aside

For a survey of science-related pranks and practical jokes, look no further than Douglas Scott's review of the role they have played in science, including his own fruitful collaborations with Ali Frolop (last year's contribution is here). Scott's paper is an entertaining romp through the history of science from the point of view of practical jokers. He includes anecdotes about Newton, James Maxwell. George Gamow, Patrick Moore and numerous others. It also covers various famous pranks including the Sokal Affair in which a social sciences journal was tricked into publishing a paper consisting of pure gibberish, and a spoof article on ultrashort laser pulses by the authors "Knox, Knox, Hoose & Zare".

The paper finishes with a conclusions section, the entirety of which is reproduced here. "There are no conclusions."

Ref: Science Spoofs, Physics Pranks and Astronomical Antics : arxiv.org/abs/2103.17057

Further reading from this year's selection of papers published on April 1 include:

Using Artificial Intelligence to Shed Light on the Star of Biscuits: The Jaffa Cake: arxiv.org/abs/2103.16575

Preliminary Analysis of Planetary Characteristics, Dynamics, and Climates from the Systems Alliance Planetary Survey Catalogue: arxiv.org/abs/2104.00175

Detection of Rotational Variability in Floofy Objects at Optical Wavelengths: arxiv.org/abs/2103.16636

And finally...

The Swapland: arxiv.org/abs/2103.17198

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