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October 10, 2011
Volume 89, Number 41
p. 64

The Real Tatooine, Manly Voices Spark Memories

Michael Torrice

Binary Orbit: This animation shows how Kepler-16b orbits two stars (center), which orbit each other.
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Memory Aid: To determine if deep manly voices triggered women to better remember a photo of a microscope, researchers recorded a man saying "microscope" and then adjusted his voice's pitch to either masculinize or feminize it. Which voice do you find more memorable?
David S. Smith

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Early in the first “Star Wars” movie, Luke Skywalker contemplates a future on his home planet of Tatooine while watching two suns set in the sky. Last month, astronomers announced that the film wasn’t too far from reality. For the first time, they observed a real-life Tatooine orbiting two stars.

When astronomers discovered the planet, the iconic double-sunset scene popped into their minds, says Laurance Doyle, an astrophysicist at the SETI Institute. They even nicknamed it Tatooine: “It was easier than saying, ‘KIC 12644769,’ ” its name at the time, he adds.

Double vision: Artist’s depiction of Kepler-16b (bottom) orbiting its two suns.

Doyle and his team spotted the planet—now called Kepler-16b—while analyzing data from the Kepler space telescope, which orbits Earth and snaps pictures of stars in the Milky Way. The telescope has helped astronomers pinpoint systems in which two stars orbit each other. They spot these star pairs by focusing on a point of light in the galaxy and looking for temporary dips in the brightness caused by one star passing in front of the other.

When the researchers looked at data for one particular system that’s about 200 light-years from Earth, they saw additional drops. On the basis of the timing and magnitude of these blips, the astronomers concluded that they were watching a Saturn-sized planet cross in front of the two stars (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1210923).

Life would be complicated on such a planet, Doyle says. Because the two stars constantly change their distances from Kepler-16b, the planet’s surface temperature fluctuates by 30 K every 40 days, the scientists estimate. “And we’re still calculating what the tides would do!” Doyle adds.

Not only is the double-sunset scene from “Star Wars” memorable, but Darth Vader, with his foreboding black suit and rhythmic respirations, is also unforgettable. New research suggests that his deep, manly voice probably makes him especially memorable to women.

Adam Michal Ziaja/Shutterstock
Manly Mate Vader's deep voice makes him memorable.

Kevin Allan, a psychologist at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, and colleagues study how evolution might have shaped the way our memories work today.

One problem early females faced was picking a mate with good genes and with the desire to stick around to help raise children. Although hypermasculine features, such as a chiseled jaw or a deep voice, usually signal healthy genes, they also correlate with unappealing behavioral traits, such as a lack of interest in child rearing, studies have shown.

Allan and his team proposed that women could have evolved to solve this trade-off problem by having heightened memories of men with highly masculine features. Physical cues, such as a deep voice, trigger a woman’s memory to store information about her interactions with a man, including his behavior and status.

To test the hypothesis, Allan’s team showed 45 women a set of pictures of everyday objects one at a time while playing a recording of a person saying the name of the object. The researchers manipulated the recorded voices to either masculinize them by dropping the pitch or feminize them by raising it. Later, when asked to recall those pictures, women correctly remembered the objects accompanied by masculinized male voices significantly more often than those presented with feminized male voices (Mem. Cogn., DOI: 10.3758/s13421-011-0136-6).

But Allan warns that just adopting a deep voice won’t necessarily help a man on the dating scene. “If the woman remembers information that puts him in a bad light, the trick is going to backfire,” he says.

Michael Torrice wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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